SeaWorld plans renovations to orca tanks in wake of Blackfish criticism
Renovations at marine mammal theme parks follow criticism in Blackfish documentary
After more than a year of public criticism of its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld said it would build new, larger environments at its theme parks and would fund additional research on the animals along with programmes to protect ocean health and whales in the wild.
The company based at Orlando, in the US state of Florida, said the renovations had been in the works for some time and that they were not a response to the documentary Blackfish or the criticism of the company that followed the release of the film.
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 provoked violent behaviour, which in turn had led to the death of trainers. Since the film's, a series of entertainers have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks.
SeaWorld Entertainment says it will build a tank with nearly 38 million litres of water at its San Diego park, almost twice the size of the current tank, with a depth of up to 15 metres.
The new environment will be called the Blue World Project, and SeaWorld said it would include features that were 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 and San Antonio, Texas, locations. The company said the cost of the project would be in the hundreds of millions of US dollars but would not specify the exact budget.
The company is also pledging US$10 million in matching funds to support research focused on threats to killer whales, or orcas, in the wild, and a US$1.5 million commitment to a partnership focused on ocean health.
Former SeaWorld trainer Mark Simmons praised the moves, saying the new environments would provide the whales with mental stimulation that would help keep them healthy.
But Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite said the changes would not please the public or improve the lives of its whales. She said that in captivity the whales were forcibly bred and separated from their families and fought constantly.
"What people are upset about is that whales are not suitable to captivity," she said.