SeaWorld in US tries to reverse falling audiences after film showing effects of captivity

‘A bigger prison is still a prison’: orcas’ home extension opposed

Los Angeles

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Suffering negative publicity and poor attendance in the wake of the critical 2013 documentary Blackfish, the SeaWorld park in San Diego announced today that it intends to upgrade and expand its orca habitat to double its current size.

The new Blue World Project will cover a surface area of 1.5 acres with water 50 feet deep, a total of 10 million gallons for the California park’s 10 orcas. The plan features a “fast water current” for the whales to swim against as exercise.

Officials said the attraction, due to open in 2018, would offer the world’s largest vantage point to view the whales beneath the waterline.

“The new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales,” SeaWorld chief executive Jim Atchison said in a press release. “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 announcement did little to appease animal rights campaigners. Calling for the whales to be released into seaside sanctuaries, Jared Goodman, director of animal law for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a 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... A bigger prison is still a prison.”

The company did not reveal the costs of the project, thought to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The SeaWorld parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, are expected to undertake similar upgrades once the San Diego facility is complete.

SeaWorld also announced it would contribute a further $10m (£6m) to killer whale research, and create an independent advisory committee of wildlife scientists devoted to boosting the “health and well-being” of its orcas. The announcement comes on the heels of the firm’s first acknowledgement that the critically acclaimed Blackfish, made by British film-maker Gabriela Cowperthwaite, has hurt its bottom line.

SeaWorld’s disappointing second-quarter earnings led to a share drop of more than 30 per cent this week, with the company conceding that attendance had been dented by bad publicity from the documentary. Between April and June the 11 SeaWorld theme parks welcomed 6.6 million visitors: almost flat compared to the same period last year.

Blackfish, which SeaWorld officials have described as propaganda, explores the effect of captivity on killer whales such as Tilikum, a 32-year-old, 12,000lb bull orca at the company’s park in Orlando.

Tilikum has killed three people including his trainer, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, who died when he dragged her into the water after a live show at the Florida resort in February 2010. Dozens of tourists witnessed the incident. Ms Cowperthwaite’s film was seen by more than 20 million people in the US when it was broadcast on CNN last year. Following Ms Brancheau’s death, the company stopped allowing trainers to join the whales in the tank during performances.

Campaigners are keen to see the shows cease altogether. The orca show is by far the biggest draw at SeaWorld San Diego, which celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year. California Assemblyman Richard Bloom recently submitted a Bill that would ban the park from using orcas for entertainment; the legislation is currently stalled.

On Wednesday, as SeaWorld posted its poor earnings, credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) lowered the company’s credit rating to BB-. In a statement, S&P identified “negative media reports that have specifically targeted the company’s use of orca whales for entertainment purposes” as a key factor.

Earlier this month, Southwest Airlines broke off its 26-year promotional partnership with SeaWorld, citing “shifting priorities”. Though both companies insisted the split was mutual, activists suggested the budget carrier was concerned by the backlash following Blackfish.

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