SeaWorld to Expand Killer Whale Environments

SeaWorld San Diego will be first park for renovations of orca habitats

SeaWorld plans to spend upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars to build an expanded killer whale environment and programs to protect the creatures in the wild, the company announced Friday.

This announcement comes two days after SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. released a report showing a significant drop in revenue for the first half of 2014. The company has also come under fire from animal-rights activists who claim the company was mistreating its killer whales.

In addition to the new habitat, SeaWorld is pledging $10 million in matching funds for killer whale research. The company said it is embarking on a multi-million dollar partnership focused on ocean health, the leading concern for all killer whales and marine mammals. The total investment will be hundreds of millions of dollars, officials told NBC 7.

SeaWorld San Diego will be first park to debut the new killer whale environments, named the Blue World project, with a planned total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly twice as much as the existing facility. The new environment will also provide the world's largest underwater viewing experience for guests.

"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 a birds-eye view from above," Jim Atchison, chief executive officer and president of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., said in Friday's announcement.

PETA Foundation Director of Animal Law Jared Goodman called the announcement "a desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the hands of time."

In a written statement obtained by NBC 7, Goodman said, "It will not save the company. What could save it would be the recognition that it needs not to make larger tanks but to turn the orcas out in seaside sanctuaries so that they can feel and experience the ocean again, hear their families, and one day be reunited with them. A bigger prison is still a prison."

Images: Changes Coming for SeaWorld San Diego's Orca Exhibit

At a special announcement in San Diego, SeaWorld lead veterinarian Dr. Christopher Dold said the park has invited a number of experts to be part of an advisory panel to help design the project.

Plans will include a fast-water current. “A treadmill for killer whales,” Dold said. “The whales can swim through this and be exercised and stimulated.”

Each animal will react differently but they will all explore it and staffers will monitor their reactions, Dold said.

The announcement comes midway through a challenging year for the major theme park. Officials have launched a new publicity campaign to combat the effects of the documentary “Blackfish," which focuses on claims of whale mistreatment. The park also successfully fought a proposed bill in California that would ban using killer whales as performers.

In June, dozens of riders stranded for hours hundreds of feet off the ground in the park’s iconic SkyTower ride. Then, in July, a controversial anti-SeaWorld ad was unveiled in time to greet Comic-Con crowds in San Diego.

City Council President Todd Gloria and other city leaders attended Friday's announcement.

The city has a vested interest in how SeaWorld San Diego conducts business because the 190-acre theme park sits on city-owned property in Mission Bay Park.

The city earns revenue in a number of ways from ticket to alcohol sales - an estimated $14 million a year.

The rapid development of Hurricane Harvey left refiners on Texas' Gulf Coast with less time than they usually have to prepare for a storm.

It's also one of the city's largest employers with a staff of 2,500 to 4,500 depending on the season.

"This new habitat enriches the experiences for our visitors to our region expanding on their appreciation for killer whales and all marine life and our environment as a whole ," Gloria said.  "I think we can all agree that's an important message and one that's worth investing in.

-NBC San Diego's R. Stickney contributed to this report.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that the new environment will cost upwards of $10 million. SeaWorld says the project will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

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