SeaWorld Is One Step Closer to Expanding Its Orca Tanks

Despite opposition from animal rights groups, the amusement park got a boost from California officials.

(Photo: Flickr)

Sep 27, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

The past few years have been pretty tough for SeaWorld, which has seen its stock plummet and a negative public image that even prompted a boy band to encourage its fans to stay away from the marine animal amusement park. But its San Diego location received some good news on Friday.

A report from the California Coastal Commission recommended that SeaWorld receive a permit to build larger tanks for its captive killer whales, The Associated Press reports. The “Blue World Project” would nearly double the habitat for the park’s 11 killer whales, replacing current holding facilities with a 450,000-gallon pool and a 5.2-million-gallon tank. SeaWorld announced plans for the $100 million expansion last year, but the commission—which has the authority to deny or allow construction along the coastline—pushed back the decision amid controversy.

The commission’s report attached nine conditions to SeaWorld’s proposal, including vows not to house any orcas taken from the wild after February 2014 and not to significantly increase the park’s captive population. Activists fear these guidelines are not enough and that SeaWorld could use the larger tanks for breeding—even if it doesn’t keep additional orcas in San Diego.

“This is not limiting them in any way. In fact, this would do the opposite,” Sara Wan, a consultant for the Animal Defense Legal Fund, told the AP. “They could breed all the orcas they want with this facility and ship them all over the world.”

SeaWorld officials say the larger tanks will benefit the killer whales. “This revolutionary project reflects our ongoing commitment to the health and welfare of our killer whales, allows us to enhance educational programs for our guests and students, and provides even greater research opportunities for scientists to help protect whales in the wild,” read a company statement.

Animal rights activists say the project does not address other issues of mistreatment, such as collapsed dorsal fins, family separation, and decreased life span for captive whales compared with those in the wild. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has helped spearhead a campaign against SeaWorld, noting that larger tanks would still not be big enough for orcas, which swim up to 100 miles in the wild each day. PETA has advocated that captive orcas be released into netted-off ocean sanctuaries.

SeaWorld has faced a barrage of criticism and declining attendance since the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which showed that captive orcas are mistreated, depressed, and potentially violent. The commission has received tens of thousands of letters and more than 100,000 emails from the public, mainly in opposition to the project.

A final vote on Oct. 8 will deny or allow SeaWorld to move forward. Commission officials expect so many supporters and opponents to attend the vote that they’ve moved the meeting from city hall in Long Beach to the city’s 400,000-square-foot convention center.