SeaWorld’s New Killer Whale Plan: Bigger Tanks but the Shows Go On

The company unveils details of a more natural environment for its captive orcas, but the marine mammals will continue to perform for audiences.

(Illustration: Courtesy SeaWorld)

Jan 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

SeaWorld, pummeled by a plummeting stock price and declining attendance, is pushing hard to get moving on a new tank plan for its San Diego park that would change the way we see, and the way it treats, killer whales.

More details came out in a recent U-T San Diego article that outlined SeaWorld’s $300 million tank expansion project announced last August. It looks like most of the work is aimed at keeping park attendees from realizing they’re looking at captive animals.

The pool expansion—a near doubling in size to a 10-million-gallon tank up to 50 feet deep—was big news in August. But new details have emerged about how the water space, called the “Blue World” initiative, will be used.

The old tank was designed as a stage to showcase orcas performing tricks for SeaWorld audiences. Blue World will be “an insider’s look at how the whales live and play and interact,” according to U-T San Diego.

Construction on the expanded 1.5-acre attraction is expected to start next year and will incorporate a three-tier experience for attendees.

(Illustration courtesy SeaWorld)

The Shore Level

Replacing the concrete walls and plastic-lined sides, the tank’s surroundings will include 350 feet of shoreline, with synthetic rocks and plants to create a natural setting. Additional shallow areas—around four-feet deep—will give orcas a chance to rub their bellies and slide along the bottom, which the marine mammals do in the wild.

But the old show will go on—killer whales will continue to perform for audiences in the old tank.

The Shelf

Running along the side of the tank will be the longest piece of the enclosure, giving a “feet to fin” view of the whales at around a 14-foot depth.

The Bottom

Descending more than 40 feet—by elevator or escalator—visitors will get to view orcas in the deepest part of the tank. The current tank design has an underwater viewing area that is only 10-feet deep. With the expanded area, orcas should be able to reach higher swimming speeds and also reportedly experience “ocean-like currents,” with the planned construction of a large pump that will simulate swimming in the open sea.

The natural landscape, additional water area, and deeper depths all add up to a more true-to-nature experience for the orcas, said Brian Morrow, senior director of development and design for SeaWorld Entertainment.

“It reflects this concept we’ve talked a lot about, this idea of dynamic enrichment where the whales will have various surfaces and depths,” he told U-T San Diego.

Animal rights activists called the expansion a smoke screen. It is “fluff for visitors and does nothing for the orcas who are still confined to small, barren concrete tanks that they have to swim in in circles with chemically treated water,” Matt Bruce, campaigner for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told Mission Valley News. “Doubling the size of the tanks—even if you make the prison bigger it’s still a prison.”

Still, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a plan that doesn’t involve killer whales doing tricks is a major shift for a company that made its name on backflipping orcas.

SeaWorld has been on the defensive since the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which depicted the mistreatment and stress captive killer whales endure. The film triggered a backlash against aquatic entertainment venues, including all three SeaWorld parks.

Since then the company’s stock has plummeted, legislation has been introduced in California to ban orca captivity for entertainment purposes, and SeaWorld chief Jim Atchison has resigned (the search for a replacement continues).

“Blue World is not a reaction to animal extremists,” Mike Scarpuzzi, vice president of zoological operations for SeaWorld San Diego, told U-T San Diego. “Blue World is the fourth expansion of our killer whale environment at the park and is a demonstration of our ongoing commitment to their health and well-being.”

But is it enough to change public opinion about keeping orcas in captivity? So far, animal rights activists see the expansion as an example of how far out of touch SeaWorld is with public sentiment.

"I do appreciate the fact that SeaWorld is willing to admit that something is wrong, for the first time," Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite told Bloomberg in August. "But the problem is, instead of changing their business model, they're doubling down."

The solution, opponents argue, should not be to expand tanks but to remove orcas from them entirely—retiring current captive killer whales to sea pens in the ocean—and banning the practice of whale captivity.