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SeaWorld To Expand Killer Whale Habitat

Photo caption:

Photo credit: SeaWorld

An artist rendering of the planned expansion of SeaWorld's killer whale habitat.

With attendance falling and stock plunging in the wake of the documentary "Blackfish," SeaWorld announced Friday that it will be implementing a massive expansion to its killer whale habitat in San Diego.

The company reports that the expansion, dubbed the Blue World Project, will double the size of its existing facility in San Diego. The new facility will be 50 feet deep, 350 feet long, have a surface area of nearly 1.5 acres and a total water volume of 10 million gallons, according to a news release.

SeaWorld didn’t confirm the cost of the new habitat, although the Wall Street Journal reported that it would be “several hundred million dollars.” Along with the habitat expansion, SeaWorld will also donate $10 million in matching funds to killer whale research.

“Our new killer whale homes and research initiatives have just as bold a vision: to advance global understanding of these animals, to educate, and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild,” said SeaWorld Entertainment CEO and President Jim Atchison in a statement.

Photo credit: SeaWorld

Artist rendering of the underwater view for the planned expansion of SeaWorld's killer whale habitat.

San Diego State University marketing professor Miro Copic said the announcement comes at a convenient time.

"All the issues at hand are forcing them to rethink how the animals should be kept in captivity, and so this is probably in response to that,” he said.

While cynics might say the decision is all about polishing a tarnished corporate image, the company said the expansion was long planned. Copic said the announcement can also be seen as SeaWorld listening to its critics and taking action.

"I’m sure this has been in the works for quite some time, and at least it shows that they’re serious about the issue at hand,” he said.

The new facility 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,'' Atchison said. "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.''

Photo credit: SeaWorld

The site plan for the expansion of SeaWorld San Diego's killer whale habitat.

The new habitat is expected to be complete by 2018. It will be followed by similar such expansions at SeaWorld parks in San Antonio and Orlando.

In response to SeaWorld's announcement, PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law, Jared Goodman, released the following statement:

"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."

This comes after SeaWorld released its dismal second-quarter earnings report Wednesday, which sent its stock into a freefall, plunging by 33 percent in one day. It fell another four percent Thursday, sitting at $18 a share Friday morning. Attendance between April 1 and June 30 was 6.6 million, nearly flat compared to the same period in 2013.

Shamu the killer whale has undoubtedly been the biggest draw at SeaWorld. In an ironic twist, Shamu is also the reason the theme park's attendance is flat and revenue dropped.

Some are pointing to the "Blackfish" effect. The controversial 2013 documentary blasted SeaWorld for its treatment of orcas and viewers started a movement, pressuring the park to release the killer whales.

SeaWorld executives have adamantly denied animal abuse allegations, along with allegations that they do not do enough to protect the trainers who work with killer whales.

The earnings report said the company does not expect things to turn around this year. They are forecasting 2014's revenue to be down by as much as 16 percent.

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.


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