SeaWorld San Diego is to be the first of three SeaWorld parks to engage in the “Blue World Project,” which calls for the construction of a 10-million-gallon tank environment that is set to open to the public in 2018.
Park officials said the 50-foot-deep exhibit with a 1.5-acre surface area is expected to give park guests more access to viewing killer whales underwater and would allow the animals increased engagement with park experts. Plans for the tanks also include a “fast-water current,” which would allow the orcas to swim against moving water.
“Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales,’” said SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. president/ CEO Jim Atchison in a statement. “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 get a birds-eye view from above.’’
SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. has also pledged $10 million in matching funds for killer-whale research and plans a ”multi-million dollar partnership” to focus on ocean health, officials said. The research includes projects to understand killer whales’ hearing ranges and gain information into their nutritional status and reproduction.
“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,” Atchison said. “Our new killer-whale homes and research initiatives have just as bold a vision: to advance the global understanding of these animals, to educate and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild.”
Not everyone was thrilled by the news of SeaWorld’s orca-tank expansion.
Martha Sullivan, a volunteer community organizer who’s been actively lobbying for the retirement of SeaWorld orcas, said SeaWorld’s decision is all about the marine park’s bottom line — not altruism.
“SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. reported revenues in 2013 of $2.4 billion,” said Sullivan. “The $10 million included in its ‘Blue World’ pitch for supposed ‘research’ to benefit wild orcas is 0.004 percent of their revenue. Big deal. No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea,” said Sullivan, quoting legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.
Sullivan claimed that, of 137 orcas captured in the wild since 1961, 13 remain alive (three in San Diego), with an average lifespan of four years in captivity.
“One of the three survivors here in San Diego, Corky, is the longest-held orca in captivity in the world, at 45 years this Dec. 11,” she wrote. “Kasatka and Ulises, the other two wild-caught orca survivors in San Diego, have been in captivity for 35 years. When do these performing animals get to retire?
“SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. is willing to spend several hundreds of millions of dollars to double the surface area of its orca tank in San Diego and add 15 feet of depth to the new half of it and subject the orca and other animals held nearby to the tremendous disruption of major construction over three years,” Sullivan concluded. “SWE Inc.’s priorities are very clear.”
SeaWorld has taken a number of hits — both financially and in terms of public relations — in recent months. Animal-rights activists continue to regularly picket the park, protesting against orca captivity.
Point Loma activist Alana Coons and others are petitioning the City Council to ask it to direct SeaWorld to only use fireworks alternatives for their nightly summer shows.
In the wording of an online petition drive protesting SeaWorld’s pyrotechnics displays, Coons claims, “SeaWorld is damaging the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of San Diegans who live within a 20-mile radius on a nightly basis every day for three months straight … The fireworks at SeaWorld constitute animal cruelty … We are asking the San Diego City Council to ban the fireworks at SeaWorld and ask them to switch to laser-light shows, which are kinder to animals and the environment and show a courteous and decent neighborly behavior to San Diegans.”
SeaWorld’s stock has also reportedly dropped 33 percent recently because of declining attendance.
In March, a controversial bill designed to ban orca shows in California was introduced, but an Assembly committee delayed action on it to conduct further study.
For more information on the Blue World Project, visit www.seaworld.com/blueworld.