SeaWorld Won’t Free Its Whales, but It’s Building Them Bigger Tanks

The move comes two days after the company’s stock plunged amid declining attendance at its water parks.

(Illustration: SeaWorld)

Aug 15, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Just two days after SeaWorld’s stock price plummeted 35 percent, the company on Friday announced it will double the size of its killer whale tanks. The move comes after SeaWorld attributed a drop in attendance at its water parks in part to opposition to its treatment of marine mammals.

“This new, first-of-its-kind killer whale environment will create stunning new ways for visitors to experience killer whales, even more opportunities for the animals to play, socialize and be stimulated physically and mentally, and provide unprecedented access to study and care for these incredible animals,” Jim Atchison, SeaWorld’s chief executive, wrote in an email to supporters.

The pool expansion will begin at SeaWorld San Diego next year, followed by upgrades at its Orlando and San Antonio parks, according to Reuters. The new 10-million-gallon San Diego pool will be almost twice its current size, with a depth of 50 feet. There will also be 40-foot-high underwater viewing windows.

Christopher Dold, SeaWorld’s vice president of veterinarian services, said in a video statement that the company will appoint an advisory board of scientists, veterinarians, animal-welfare advocates, and other experts to help design and implement the tank expansion.

SeaWorld will also install a “whale treadmill”—a stream of moving water that simulates swimming in the open ocean.

The company said it will dedicate $10 million for research and conservation of wild orca habitats.

SeaWorld spokesperson Fred Jacobs did not answer a query seeking more information on the expert advisory panel and the $10 million pledge to help wild whales.

Animal activists said the pool expansion does little to solve the problems associated with killer whale captivity. Wild orcas swim up to 100 miles a day, they note. At SeaWorld, they are lucky if they can get in 100 laps.

Larger pools will do nothing to address the separation of orca families, collapsed dorsal fins, broken teeth from chomping on metal gate bars, and a higher annual mortality rate than for wild whales.

“It is not possible to provide a concrete enclosure that even remotely re-creates a cetacean’s natural habitat,” said Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “SeaWorld is just not getting it. They need to close the tanks, not invest in bigger ones.”

Heather Murphy, a volunteer for Change for Animals Foundation, called the bigger killer whale tanks “a glorified excuse to amp up the breeding program in order to supply future parks overseas.”

SeaWorld also received praise for its decision.

“I have high expectations for SeaWorld in light of today’s announcement that major investments will improve the experience and outcomes for whales both in their parks and in the wild,” said California Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego.

Atkins could play a critical role in deciding the fate of proposed legislation to ban orca captivity in California.

Atchison announced the pool expansion this morning on The Today Show. He denied that the controversy over killer whale captivity motivated the company to expand the tanks.

“You know, people are going to say that, but that’s not going to deter us from the work we’ve been doing. We're not doing it one bit because of any of that,” said Atchison. “We make no apologies for what we do and how we do it.”

What SeaWorld should do, opponents argue, is not enlarge the tanks but retire its orcas to netted-off ocean sanctuaries.

“A bigger prison,” said Jared Goodman, director of animal law for the PETA Foundation, “is still a prison.”