SeaWorld to expand size of killer whale habitat

SeaWorld announced Friday a major expansion for the park's killer whale exhibits in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

Officials said the new killer whale environment will be a first-of-its-kind project.

The company said it will also pledge $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. in a news release. "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."

The first project will be built in 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.

"Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales," said Atchison said. "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 San Diego environment is expected to open in 2018 with new killer whale homes to follow at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio. 

SeaWorld began receiving backlash in 2013 stemming from the documentary "Blackfish," which depicts the treatment of killer whales by former employees and experts.

Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was not satisfied by SeaWorld's announcement, pushing instead for the whales' release to sanctuaries.

"A bigger prison is still a prison," the group said in a statement.

All of this comes after SeaWorld released its dismal second-quarter earnings report Wednesday, which sent its stock into a freefall, plunging by 33 percent in one day. It fell another four percent Thursday, sitting at $18 a share Friday morning.  Attendance between April 1 and June 30 was 6.6 million, nearly flat compared to the same period in 2013.

Shamu the killer whale has undoubtedly been the biggest draw at SeaWorld. In an ironic twist, Shamu is also the reason the theme park's attendance is flat and revenue dropped.

Some are pointing to the "Blackfish" effect. The controversial 2013 documentary blasted SeaWorld for its treatment of orcas and viewers started a movement, pressuring the park to release the killer whales.

SeaWorld executives have adamantly denied animal abuse allegations, along with allegations that they do not do enough to protect the trainers who work with killer whales.

The earnings report said the company does not expect things to turn around this year. They are forecasting 2014's revenue to be down by as much as 16 percent.

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