SAN DIEGO — Under pressure to end its killer whale shows, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. instead announced Friday plans to nearly double the size of the orca environments at its parks in San Diego, Florida and Texas.
Park officials said the so-called “Blue World Project” will include constructing a 10-million-gallon orca environment, which is set to open to the public at SeaWorld San Diego in 2018. Similar environments at the park’s in Orlando and San Antonio are also on the works.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights group that opposes keeping orcas in captivity, immediately criticized the announcement:
“This is a desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the hands of time at a time when people understand the suffering of captive orcas, and it will not save the company. What could save it would be the recognition that it needs not to make larger tanks but to turn the orcas out in seaside sanctuaries so that they can feel and experience the ocean again, hear their families, and one day be reunited with them. A bigger prison is still a prison.”
The 50-foot-deep exhibit with a 1.5-acre surface area is expected to give park guests more access to viewing killer whales underwater, and would allow the animals increased engagement with park experts. Plans for the tanks also include a “fast water current,” which would allow the orcas to swim against moving water, officials said.
“Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales,” SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. President and CEO Jim Atchison said in a statement. “Our guests will be able to walk alongside the whales as if they were at the shore, watch them interact at the depths found in the ocean, or a birds-eye view from above.”
The company has also pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research and planned a “multi-million dollar partnership” to focus on ocean health, officials said. The research efforts include projects to understand killer whales’ hearing ranges and provide information into their nutritional status and reproduction.
“For 50 years, SeaWorld has transformed how the world views marine life. The unprecedented access to marine mammals that our parks provide has increased our knowledge of the ocean and inspired generations,” Atchison said. “Our new killer whale homes and research initiatives have just as bold a vision: to advance the global understanding of these animals, to educate, and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild.”
The park’s announcement comes two days after SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. stock dropped 33 percent, the result of declining attendance due in part to “demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California.”
In March, a controversial bill designed to ban orca shows in California was introduced, but an Assembly committee later referred it for further study, which could take about a year. Legislation aimed at updating federal rules on captive orcas was also attached to the agriculture appropriations bill under consideration.
Concern about the condition of orcas in captivity was raised by the controversial documentary “Blackfish,” which focused on the death of a SeaWorld Orlando trainer drowned by a killer whale.
SeaWorld contends that its marine mammals are not mistreated.