The California Coastal Commission is expected Thursday to consider a $100 million proposal to greatly expand the tanks SeaWorld San Diego uses to hold killer whales.
Under the proposal, SeaWorld would demolish portions of a 1995 facility that included a 1.7-million gallon pool and replace it with a 5.2-million gallon tank and 450,000-gallon pool.
Images: Changes Coming for SeaWorld San Diego's Orca Exhibit
The staff of the commission that regulates land and water use along the California coast has recommended approving the expansion under nine conditions that include forbidding SeaWorld from housing recently captured orcas in San Diego.
SeaWorld says it has not collected any orcas in the wild in more than three decades, its animals are well treated and park shows help generate support for conservation.
“We care for these animals as if they were family,” Dr. Hendrik Nollens, SeaWorld Senior Staff Veterinarian told the panel at the hearing Thursday. “We have nothing but the whales’ best interest at heart.”
Opponent Ingrid N. Visser, Ph.D. of New Zealand has studied orcas in the wild since 1992 and has visited SeaWorld San Diego and other parks with orcas in captivity.
Visser told the panel a wild orca can dive up to 500 times each day to a depth of 656 feet regularly or four times the height of the Statue of Liberty.
“They have evolved in the wild. They have not evolved to live in tiny little concrete boxes,” Visser said.
However, animal rights activists fear the proposed tank expansion would pave the way for breeding the animals in captivity -- something they say is cruel no matter the size of the tanks.
“Captivity is still captivity no matter how gentle the jailer or size of the cell,” said John Hargrove, author of 'Beneath The Surface' and former orca trainer with SeaWorld of California among other parks.
He asked the commission to vote against the proposed tank expansion.
Hargrove and Visser are among the thousands who have sent emails against the project.
Opponents claim "Blue World" is a marketing ploy to boost plummeting park attendance.
Attendance at the California park has declined since the release of the population documentary "Blackfish" in 2013, which suggests SeaWorld's treatment of captive orcas provokes violent behavior. The company's stock price also has dropped over the past two years.
SeaWorld says negative media attention is partly to blame and there is also increased competition among Florida theme parks and other factors.
Animal rights activists fear SeaWorld will use the expanded tanks to breed orcas and send them to other marine theme parks. They say captivity has cut the life spans of the highly intelligent animals that should be transferred to ocean sanctuaries on the coast.
SeaWorld says its animals have normal breeding interactions in the healthy environment provided by the park, and not allowing its killer whales to breed would be inhumane.
SeaWorld helps the plight of orcas, which were hated and feared before SeaWorld began opening its parks, spokesman David Koontz said in an email to The Associated Press.
"Nearly a half-billion guests to all our SeaWorld parks, and other marine parks around the world, have gotten the chance to experience killer whales firsthand, learn about them and come to appreciate them for the wonderful animals they truly are," Koontz said.
The orca population at the San Diego facility -- which currently numbers 11 -- would not significantly increase due to the "Blue World" project it wants to open in 2018, even though the capacity of the tanks would jump, SeaWorld officials have said.