SAN DIEGO - With attendance falling and stock plunging in the wake of the documentary Blackfish, SeaWorld announced Friday that it will be implementing a massive expansion to its killer whale habitat in San Diego.
The company reports that the expansion, dubbed the Blue World Project, will double the size of its existing facility in San Diego. The new facility will be 50 feet deep, 350 feet long, have a surface area of nearly 1.5 acres and a total water volume of 10 million gallons, according to a news release. Artist renditions of the habitat were also released.
SeaWorld didn’t confirm the cost of the new habitat, although the Wall Street Journal reported that it would be “several hundred million dollars.” Along with the habitat expansion, SeaWorld will also donate $10 million in matching funds to killer whale research.
"Our new killer whale homes and research initiatives have just as bold a vision: to advance global understanding of these animals, to educate, and to inspire conservation efforts to protect killer whales in the wild," said SeaWorld Entertainment CEO and President Jim Atchison in a statement.
Christopher Dold, SeaWorld's vice president of Veterinary Services, said, "It's going to be incredible, it's going to be a very, very exciting experience both for the whales but also for us and all the
folks who work with these animals."
The new habitat is expected to be complete by 2018. It will be followed by similar such expansions at SeaWorld parks in San Antonio and Orlando.
Dold said the exhibit will have "plenty of room for play for the young whales to experiment in this environment; it's going to be fantastic."
This comes after SeaWorld released its dismal second-quarter earnings report Wednesday, which sent its stock into a freefall, plunging by 33 percent in one day. It fell another four percent Thursday, sitting at $18 a share Friday morning. Attendance between April 1 and June 30 was 6.6 million, nearly flat compared to the same period in 2013.
Shamu the killer whale has undoubtedly been the biggest draw at SeaWorld. In an ironic twist, Shamu is also the reason the theme park's attendance is flat and revenue dropped.
Some are pointing to the Blackfish effect. The controversial 2013 documentary blasted SeaWorld for its treatment of orcas and viewers started a movement, pressuring the park to release the killer whales.
SeaWorld executives have adamantly denied animal abuse allegations, along with allegations that they do not do enough to protect the trainers who work with killer whales.
Dold said, "They're terribly misinformed and they are absolutely wrong; our whales are thriving here at SeaWorld."
The earnings report said the company does not expect things to turn around this year. They are forecasting 2014's revenue to be down by as much as 16 percent.
Visitor Adina Bennett said, "I just feel they should be released and let go … it's still not their world."
Erik Bruvold, an economist at National University who studies theme parks, said SeaWorld has taken a PR hit.
"It's unclear to me that the people who were moved by that are going to be moved by this," Bruvold said.
SeaWorld's attendance suffered for other reasons, and Bruvold told 10News, "There's 'Blackfish,' but also the fact that Disney and Universal have both made multi-billion dollar investments in their property over the last five years."
Bruvold said Disney has spent a billion dollars or more to makeover its California Adventure park in Anaheim. Universal Studios in Hollywood is opening its much-anticipated "Harry Potter" property in 2016.
Activist Ellen Ericksen said the expansion is a "last-ditch attempt for SeaWorld to save its image."
She added, "I'm actually appalled that they're going to be spending all this money into making a swimming pool … they should be spending that money to rehabilitate the orcas and release them back into the ocean where they belong or make a sanctuary off of SeaWorld."
PETA released the following statement Friday in response to SeaWorld’s announcement:
“This is a desperate drop-in-the-bucket move to try to turn back the hands of time at a time when people understand the suffering of captive orcas, and 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.”