SeaWorld to expand killer whale habitats at parks

Theme park under fire since release of 'Blackfish' documentary


ORLANDO, Fla. – SeaWorld will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand its park habitats for killer whales, and the entertainment giant will pledge $10 million for animal research.

[PHOTOS:  SeaWorld shows off renderings of new killer whale habitats]

The makeover will also include new water current systems that will allow whales to get more exercise, SeaWorld said in an announcement Friday.

The expanded pool will give killer whales more room to swim. However, SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison tells Local 6 the larger tank will also provide SeaWorld with even more capacity to breed and house additional killer whales, although he said that is not the primary purpose of the project.

"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," said Atchison. "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."

The first of the new environments will be built at SeaWorld San Diego, where the habitat will be nearly doubled in size to 10 million gallons of water.  With a planned maximum depth of 50 feet, surface area of nearly 1.5 acres and spanning more than 350 feet in length, the new environment will also have views exceeding 40 feet in height, SeaWorld said.

The San Diego project is expected to open in 2018.  New killer whale homes will then be constructed at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio.

The new killer whale pool will be connected to the existing 7 million gallon pool inside Shamu Stadium in Orlando.

"This will not change the way shows are done," said SeaWorld Orlando president Terry Prather.

SeaWorld officials said the new facility has been in the planning stages for years.

SeaWorld has come under heavy fire over keeping whales in captivity after the release of the controversial documentary "Blackfish."  The movie exposed alleged dangers of keeping orca whales in captivity. The film led to proposed legislation in California to ban the holding of killer whales in captivity.

PETA issued a statement shortly after SeaWorld issued a news release about the expanded habitats.

"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," PETA 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."

Several killer whale experts have weighed in on SeaWorld's announcement, espousing very polarized opinions. Mark Simmons, a former SeaWorld trainer who was featured in the movie "Blackfish," believes the habitat expansion is a sign that company continues to lead the way in marine mammal display and education.

"What they're providing is that novel enrichment and stimulation. That's the spice of life. That's what really keeps animals engaged and provides for that mental and physiological health," Simmons said.

But fellow ex-trainer Jeff Ventre, who was also featured in the documentary, told Local 6 SeaWorld's move is a direct response to the "Blackfish" effect -- the increased public awareness of the negative impacts of captivity on orcas.

"This is a public relations gesture. It's not a fix or a solution to the notion of captivity. It doesn't really help the animals from a health perspective," said Ventre.

SeaWorld's stock plummeted 33 percent Wednesday after it reported weak earnings and lackluster attendance for the year, especially in Orlando and San Diego.

As SeaWorld announces the new project, it appears the company may be giving up its ongoing battle with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  In April, a federal appeals court upheld OSHA citations issued in the wake of trainer Dawn Brancheau's death. 

Typically parties seeking a review by the U.S. Supreme Court must file a petition within 90 days of a judgement.  That deadline passed without SeaWorld filing court papers with the U.S. Supreme Court or asking the appeals court to reconsider its ruling.  A SeaWorld spokesman would only say that "nothing has changed" on the company's end.

Watch Local 6 News and stay with ClickOrlando.com for more on this story.