SeaWorld Holds First Public Meeting on Expansion

SeaWorld’s multi-million dollar expansion plan to build a larger killer whale environment got its first public hearing today.

The City of San Diego Park and Recreation Board’s Mission Bay Park Committee heard about the Blue World Shamu Expansion during an advisory committee meeting in a purely informational meeting.

SeaWorld plans to spend upward of hundreds of millions of dollars to build an expanded killer whale environment and programs to protect the creatures in the wild in 2015.

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, as well as a home for the 11 orcas at the park.

"Much deeper, wider and longer, so it'll be a much improved home for our killer whales," said Michael Scarpuzzi, SeaWorld's vice president of zoological operations.

The plan comes amid a turbulent year for the company. In December, The CEO of the parent company of SeaWorld Jim Atchison San Diego stepped down as head of the company and named his chairman as interim leader amid falling park attendance. A day after the CEO stepped down, the company eliminated more than 300 jobs in an effort to save $50 million annually.

Additionally, the company has been battling negative publicity following the documentary "Blackfish" that suggested its treatment of the animals may have led to the death of trainers. SeaWorld says the plans are not in response to the documentary and revenue struggles.

SDSU Business Lecturer and attorney Wendy Patrick said this may be seen by many as a step in the right direction, but it won't be enough to sway people who believe confining orcas is cruel.

"SeaWorld, of course, argues the opposite. They are treated humanly and they are kept happy and healthy. So, you've really got two polarized camps and building bigger tanks is not going to bridge that divide all at once, but perhaps it brings them closer to the center," Patrick said.

She said this isn't just about the animals.

"So, what we're going to be seeing is: let's see if that increases revenue, let's see if that quells at least some of the criticism that has been drawn that they keep these whales in tanks to begin with," Patrick said.

Although the meeting was purely informational, it did allow public comment. PETA protesters rallied outside the Santa Clara Recreation Center, where the meeting was held, to call on SeaWorld to move the animals to coastal sanctuaries rather than funneling greater resources to keep them in captivity.

PETA campaigner Matt Bruce said short of a sanctuary, no expansion is big enough.

"It's a last minute, desperate move to try and gain back some public appeal at a time when people are learning about the suffering that happens to these orcas in captivity," he said.

In a statement, PETA Foundation Director Jared Goodman said, "the lush new look and feel of SeaWorld's proposed 'Blue World Project' is for visitors, not for the orcas who will still swim in endless circles in a barren tank that's still tiny and full of chemically treated water."

SeaWorld lead veterinarian Dr. Christopher Dold said wehn the plan was announced that the park invited a number of experts to be part of an advisory panel to help design the project. Plans will include a fast-water current.

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 multimillion 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.

If the California Coastal Commission gives its OK, SeaWorld hopes to start construction later this year and complete it by 2018.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that public comment was not permitted at the meeting. In fact, public comment was accepted and heard. The post has been updated to reflect this.

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