SeaWorld's Larger Killer Whale Habitats Fail to Appease Animal Rights Advocates

'A bigger prison is still a prison'

It may end up being a drop in the ocean, but SeaWorld is countering the rising tide of bad publicity, plunging investor confidence and the loss of a key sponsor.

How? By building new swimming pools for its captive killer whales.

The 10-million gallon enclosures will roughly double the size of the current tanks and feature a fast-moving current the whales can swim against. Dubbed "orca environments," the tanks are scheduled to start opening in 2018 in San Diego and, later, at the theme park's Orlando and San Antonio locations.

But if SeaWorld hopes that repositioning itself as a conservation-minded brand (and not an oceanic circus where killer whales perform acrobatics in tight quarters), it's headed for disappointment. Animal rights groups have taken aim at the new whale habitat anyway.

David Perle, spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had a "Free Willy" take on SeaWorld's announcement last week: "A bigger prison is still a prison," he said in a statement. PETA is pushing for seaside sanctuaries for the whales so the whales can "feel and experience the ocean again, hear their families and one day be reunited with them."

SeaWorld's big-dollar counter punch is based on a conservation brand message that downplays the circus-like atmosphere of whale shows.

The public will able to "walk alongside the whales as if they were at the beach, watch them interact at ocean depths or from a birds-eye viewing gallery nearly four stories high," according to SeaWorld Entertainment president and CEO Jim Atchison. He told Travel Weekly: "Our vision for our new killer whale homes and research initiatives is to advance global understanding of these animals, to educate and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild."

As part of its Blue World Project, the company also is sinking $10 million dollars into research and conservation projects involving the gregarious mammals, which are top ocean predators that roam the open seas in social groups.

In the early 1990s, the public was captivated by the story of Keiko, the killer whale that starred in the Free Willy movie franchise. Keiko became the focus of an international effort to re-integrate the captive orca into the wild.

But that feel-good story took a dark turn with last year's highly critical documentary, Blackfish, which follows the life of captured killer whale Tilikum, who performed at SeaWorld Orlando. The whale was involved in the deaths of three trainers, and the documentary points a finger at the conditions of its captivity.

SeaWorld has denied its killer whales are mistreated, and a former orca trainer at the theme park labeled the film "a crusade against SeaWorld and zoological care in general...engineered by a perfect marriage between sensational animal rights organizations and disgruntled ex-SeaWorld employees."

Nevertheless, the California legislature has waded into the turbulent waters and is considering passing a bill that would ban using killer whales as entertainment in the state.

Complicating SeaWorld's current affairs is the loss of Southwest Airlines, which is ending its 26-year partnership with the parks. Southwest once proudly promoted the theme park with its Shamu jets, painted with orca patterns and named for SeaWorld's first star.

SeaWorld's orca expansion plans also haven't soothed investors, who hammered the stock last week, sending shares plummeting by more than 30 percent after an announcement that park attendance is down. After-hours trading saw a slight uptick in the stock to around $19 per share.

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