SeaWorld will build new, larger habitats for its whales

Two days after SeaWorld Entertainment conceded that attendance at its theme parks has been hurt by the controversy over its treatment of killer whales, the company announced Friday that it will build substantially larger homes for its whales.

The first habitat, to be built at SeaWorld San Diego, will be twice as large as the existing facility and will include a “fast water current” that allows whales to swim against moving water. The new habitat, expected to open in 2018, will be followed by new killer whale homes at SeaWorld’s parks in Orlando and San Antonio, probably a year or so later.

SeaWorld will also spend $10 million in matching funds on killer whale research and get involved in protecting the health of the ocean.

SeaWorld’s image took a big hit with last year’s release of the documentary Blackfish, which accuses the parks of mistreating its killer whales. The accusation stems from the death of a trainer, Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca named Tilikum at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010. The documentary argues that the stress of living in captivity may have led Tilikum to kill Brancheau.

Since then, SeaWorld has been under fire by animal-rights activists — a campaign that prompted some entertainers to cancel their concerts at the Orlando park this year.

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Wednesday, the company announced its earnings had fallen well below expectations and conceded for the first time that the controversy had hurt attendance at its parks. Attendance has been nearly flat while it has increased at other parks.

In its announcement Friday, SeaWorld called the planned new habitats “transformational.” It said the new San Diego environment will have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility, with depths up to 50 feet and a surface area of nearly 1.5 acres.

The new habitats in Orlando and San Antonio will be similar but custom designed for their sites. Each of those also will approximately double in size, said Jim Atchison, CEO and president of SeaWorld Entertainment.

Each will have a whale “treadmill,” a flume that will allow whales to swim in constantly moving water. The tanks will be built with viewing areas 40 feet below the water’s surface, he said, giving guests an underwater view similar to the Orlando park’s penguin attraction, but on a larger scale.

“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.”

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In addition, the structure will allow trainers to work with the animals underwater. The trainers will not be in the water but on the outside, where they can give hand and vocal signals and possibly give the whales food rewards. After Brancheau’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration banned trainers from being in the water with the whales and required barriers between them.

Atchison said the plans have been in the works for years and were unveiled now not because of the continuing controversy but because “we need to put a shovel in the ground and get going.”

During that process, getting rid of the whales and their habitat was never a consideration, said Fred Jacobs, a company spokesman. “Killer whales have been part of the SeaWorld experience for nearly 50 years and we remain committed to sharing them with our guests in ways that are inspiring and educational,” he said.

PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — said in a statement that SeaWorld should be putting its whales back in the ocean rather than building larger tanks.

“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,” the statement said.

“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.”

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