August 16, 2014 in Nation/World

SeaWorld to enlarge killer whales’ tanks

Marley Jay Associated Press
 

Orca whales swim in a pool backstage with trainers before their performance at Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld in San Diego on Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

Documentary and fallout

The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” explores the death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled off a platform and killed by a whale named Tilikum in 2010. The film argues that the whales become more aggressive toward humans and each other when they are kept in captivity.

Several entertainers, including country singers Trisha Yearwood and Willie Nelson and rock band Barenaked Ladies, have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks since the film’s release.

NEW YORK – After more than a year of public criticism of its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld said Friday that it will build new, larger environments at its theme parks and will fund additional research on the animals along with programs to protect ocean health and whales in the wild.

The Orlando, Florida, company said the renovations have been in the works for some time and that they are not a response to the documentary “Blackfish” or the criticism of the company that followed the release of the film.

The company’s shares, which are trading near their lowest point since SeaWorld listed its stock on public markets last year, rose Friday. But it remains to be seen if the renovations will fully address concerns about keeping large marine mammals in captivity.

The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” suggested that captivity and SeaWorld’s treatment of the whales provoke violent behavior, which in turn has led to the death of trainers. Since the release of the film, a series of entertainers have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks. SeaWorld also recently said its longtime corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines is ending.

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. says it will build a tank with 10 million gallons of water at its San Diego park, almost twice the size of the current tank with a depth of up to 50 feet. The new environment will be called the Blue World Project, and SeaWorld said it will include features that will be more stimulating for the whales. Those include a “fast water current” that will allow the whales to swim against moving water.

The facility will open to the public in 2018, and after that SeaWorld will make similar changes at its Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio locations.

The company said the cost of the project will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars but would not specify the exact budget.

The company is also pledging $10 million in matching funds to support research focused on threats to killer whales, or orcas, in the wild. It also announced a $1.5 million commitment to a partnership focused on ocean health.

“Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite said the changes won’t please the public or improve the lives of its whales. She said that in captivity the whales are forcibly bred, separated from their families and fight constantly for dominance.

“None of this would change in a bigger pool,” she said. “What people are upset about is that whales are not suitable to captivity.”

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