SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., SEAS +3.67% suffering from negative publicity and flagging attendance, announced Friday a new expansion of the habitats housing its signature killer whales.

The company plans to upgrade the killer whale tanks at three of its theme parks, beginning with the San Diego location. The new enclosure in San Diego will be almost double the size of the current one, holding about 10 million gallons of water and extending to a depth of 50 feet. The company wouldn’t specify the cost of the upgrades, only saying it would be several hundred million dollars.

The company also said it pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research.

Construction at SeaWorld in San Diego is set to begin next year and completed by 2018, with upgrades to follow at Orlando, Fla., and San Antonio parks. Reuters
SeaWorld Entertainment is locked in a battle with animal-rights activists, who say that training and publicly performing killer whales is an inherently cruel act. The documentary “Blackfish,” which has been screened in cinemas and broadcast multiple times by CNN, raised these criticisms to a higher level of public awareness, and has harmed the company’s financial results.

The San Diego facility will include a “water treadmill” system letting the whales swim against a stream of moving water, allowing them more exercise but also opening the door to new research into how the animals burn energy. 

SeaWorld’s San Diego park currently keeps its killer whales in a habitat containing 5.6 million gallons of seawater, which is filtered and chilled to about 55 degrees Fahrenheit and drops to 35 feet at its deepest point. The new tank will have a total volume of more than 10 million gallons and hit a depth of 50 feet. It will also include a 40-foot high glass viewing wall.

The company acknowledges the fallout of “Blackfish”—which it says is a work of propaganda—is hitting attendance. The company’s critics say the parks’ attendance and overall financial performance show that its business has fallen out of favor with the public.

“You don’t have dancing bears or tigers jumping through hoops anymore,” said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, which advocates against keeping marine mammals like whales and dolphins in captivity. “Zoos have moved away from that model; they try to place animals in a more natural setting. So why do we still have sea animals performing tricks?”

For the full article, click here http://online.wsj.com/articles/seaworld-to-upgrade-killer-whale-habitats-1408089841

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