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SeaWorld Doubling Size of Whale Environments After Documentary Ruins Revenue

SeaWorld has announced plans to double the size of its killer whale environments at three parks and will fund new programs to protect ocean health and killer whales in the wild.

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 also will have views exceeding 40 feet in height, providing guests with the world's largest underwater viewing experience of killer whales.

SeaWorld also has pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research and is embarking on a multi-million dollar partnership it says is focused on ocean health, the leading concern for all killer whales and marine mammals.

The company’s CEO, Jim Atchison, recently told reporters the decision was based on a desire to improve whales’ environments and guests’ experience and that it has been planning the investment “for quite some time.” However, it is likely the company is acting in response to lost revenues following the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which questioned the company’s practices in capturing and keeping orcas, and even brought about a bill in California that would outlaw SeaWorld’s killer whale shows. Last week, SeaWorld released frustrating financial results, with shares losing more than a third of their value.

SeaWorld says the new environments will support the killer 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. Other features focused on husbandry and animal care will offer SeaWorld's animal health professionals and independent scientists access to the whales that the company claims can lead to a better understanding and care of the animals both in the parks and in the wild.

But SeaWorld’s chief critic, Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, remains indignant.

“I do appreciate the fact that SeaWorld is willing to admit that something is wrong, for the first time,” she said on Friday. “But the problem is, instead of changing their business model, they’re doubling down.”

One thing is for sure; consumers have told SeaWorld they don’t agree with its treatment of orcas, and if conditions don’t improve then the company will continue to lose customers, and revenue. Just as Claire Sommer said earlier this year:

“SeaWorld has a huge opportunity here to be a world leader for truly responsible oceanic stewardship. It’s up to the company’s leadership to imagine — and create — that reality for its next generation of guests.”

Will SeaWorld’s new initiative be enough to end its PR nightmare? That is yet to be seen.

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