Here's what SeaWorld's expanded killer whale habitats will look like

By Amanda McKenzie, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, August 15, 2014, 5:12 PM EDT
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Major news out of SeaWorld today where the theme park announced a massive expansion for the killer whale habitats.

The theme park confirmed today that the tanks will nearly double in size at its parks.

SeaWorld announced they will create a one-of-a-kind environment for their killer whales that will double the size of their existing facilities. The tanks will have a depth of 50 feet and a surface area of 1.5 acres. They said this new tank will have the largest underwater viewing experience of killer whales.

Not to mention added features like a “fast water current” that will give the whales more exercise.

This announcement also comes at a time when SeaWorld has received a lot of criticism due to the movie “Blackfish.”

“It just shows that SeaWorld is doing what has made them the leader in this field," Mark Simmons, a former SeaWorld trainer said. 

Simmons is a former SeaWorld trainer of 10 years, and is the author of "Killing Keiko." He was interviewed for the movie and said he was misrepresented.

“I think there’s just an enormous amount of disinformation in the movie woven with just enough truth to be convincing," Simmons said. 

"We look at 'Blackfish' as just a commentary by extreme groups and we don't agree with it," Terry Prather, Park President at SeaWorld Orlando said. "We know what we do and we're proud of what we do and we're going to continue to deliver the great product that we do."

Adding to the negative publicity, attendance and earnings for the past few months are down. On Wednesday, the latest earnings report sent SeaWorld stock plummeting by a total of 33 percent.

“The earnings report is nothing we are proud of," Prather said. "It happened. Now we have to move forward.”

And park officials say despite some ebb and flow in their bottom line, they are not going to change their beliefs and will continue to enhance their park for animals and visitors.

The company says the San Diego environment is expected to open in 2018, followed by San Antonio and here in Orlando. 

However, there are no definitive dates.


SeaWorld's announcement


SAN DIEGO (Aug. 15, 2014) – SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. announced today that it plans to build new, first-of-its-kind killer whale environments and that it will fund new programs to protect ocean health and killer whales in the wild. The new projects will build on SeaWorld’s legacy of providing state-of-the-art, innovative homes for its animals, and will offer park guests unique and inspiring killer whale encounters for generations to come.  As part of its vision for the future, the company also pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research and is embarking on a multi-million dollar partnership focused on ocean health, the leading concern for all killer whales and marine mammals.

“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 Jim Atchison, Chief Executive Officer and President of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. “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.”

Transformational New Environments

The first of the new environments will be built at SeaWorld San Diego where the killer whale environment is planned to have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility. 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, providing guests with the world’s largest underwater viewing experience of killer whales.  

Named the Blue World Project because of its size and scope, the new environment will allow for increased engagement with SeaWorld experts through new enriching experiences and other interactive programs. The environment will enhance the educational experience for guests, foster deeper knowledge of killer whales and their ocean environment and inspire them to celebrate and conserve the natural world.

“Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales,” said Atchison. “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.”

Expanding on SeaWorld’s legacy of leading-edge animal environment design, the enlarged environment will provide killer whales with even more dynamic opportunities.  It will support the whales’ broad range of behaviors and provide choices that can challenge the whales both physically and mentally.  Among other things, it is planned to include a “fast water current” that allows whales to swim against moving water, thus functionally increasing speed and diversity. Innovative features focused on husbandry and animal care will offer SeaWorld’s animal health professionals and independent scientists unique access to the whales that can lead to a better understanding and care of the animals both in the parks and in the wild.

The San Diego environment is expected to open to the public in 2018 with new killer whale homes to follow at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio.  

Killer Whale Research

As part of the Blue World Project, SeaWorld has committed $10 million in matching funds focused on threats to killer whales in the wild, especially those identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration related to the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale.  That includes new projects already funded this year: one that will help to understand the hearing ranges of killer whales and the other that will provide insight into nutritional status and reproduction of the Southern Resident Killer Whale.  The matching funds will be in addition to killer whale research conducted by SeaWorld’s scientists, which includes nearly 50 studies to date.  

Recognizing that ocean health is a leading concern for killer whales and all marine mammals in the wild, the company also announced it will be embarking on a major multi-million dollar partnership focused on protecting the ocean.  More details of the partnership will be announced in the coming weeks.

Advisory Panel

SeaWorld will also engage an Independent Advisory Panel to bring new perspectives and ideas to the project. The panel will focus on the creation of an environment that maximizes the health and wellbeing of the animals. Given the particular expertise of current panelists and those expected to join, the panel will further advise on integrated research projects that can be conducted within the new environment and foster partnerships within the science and academic communities working in the wild.  

Current Advisory Panel members include:

·    Dr. Paul Boyle, Senior Vice President for Conservation and Education, Association of Zoos & Aquariums
·    Dr. Heidi Harley, Professor of Psychology, New College of Florida
·    Dr. Dorian Houser, Director of Conservation and Biological Research, National Marine Mammal Foundation
·    Dr. Linda Lowenstein, Professor Emeritus Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
·    Dr. Shawn Noren, Associate Research Scientist, Institute of Marine Science, University of California Santa Cruz
·    Mr. Tom Otten, Chief Executive Officer, Reef Experience
·    Dr. James F.  Peddie, DVM, Distinguished Faculty Chair, Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, Moorpark College
·    Dr. Paul Ponganis, Research Physiologist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
·    Dr. Kwane Stewart, Chief Veterinary Officer and National Director, Film and Television Unit, American Humane Association
·    Dr. Pam Yochem, Senior Research Scientist and Executive Vice President, Research, Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute


PETA's response to announcement

PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman issued the following statement Friday.

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.