SeaWorld to revamp killer whale theme parks after 'Blackfish' backlash

Documentary raised concerns about the treatment of killer whales in captivity

SeaWorld has announced plans to upgrade its theme parks after it was hit by a wave of negative publicity over its killer whale shows.

Earlier this week, the American marine theme park operator admitted animal rights protests had damaged the company's financial results following the release of the award-winning documentary "Blackfish".

On Wednesday, shares in SeaWorld plunged more than 30 per cent after the company, which operates 11 theme parks across the United States. missed analysts' estimates when it reported second quarter earnings, admitting that negative publicity is taking a toll on visitor numbers. 

SeaWorld also saw its credit rating slashed to BB- by Standard & Poor's citing "significant challenges regarding reputation risk" and "negative media reports that have specifically targeted the company's use of orca whales for entertainment purposes".

The company now hopes to make amends by upgrading its whale tanks in three locations, including Sea World San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio, and donating $10 million to fund research.

Jared Goodman, director of animal law at PETA Foundation, dismissed the announcement as a desperate move to win back visitors and appease investors, adding that it doesn't address the issue of captivity.

He added: "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."

SeaWorld has been criticised by animal rights groups for exploiting killer whales as tourist attraction and the release of "Blackfirst" has given the issue widespread media attention. The theme park operator has repeatedly dismissed the documentary, which explored the death of whale trainer Dawn Brancheau, as "inaccurate and misleading".

Brancheau died after a 12,000-pound orca known as Tilikum pulled her underwater while terrified spectators looked on at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida in 2010. The film raised concerns about the treatment of killer waves in captivity and argued that Tilikum's violent behaviour was the result of abuse and harassment.

Read more: SeaWorld attracts fewer visitor after 'Blackfish'
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