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SeaWorld Hopes Bigger Homes for Killer Whales Will Win Back Crowds

Orcas during a show at the Shamu Up Close attraction at SeaWorld in Orlando

Photograph by Joshua C. Cruey/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

Orcas during a show at the Shamu Up Close attraction at SeaWorld in Orlando

SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) will expand the size of its killer whale habitats at three parks in coming years, hoping to address criticism that has depressed attendance and demolished the company’s stock price.

For almost a year, SeaWorld maintained that its business had not been damaged by the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which details the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer by a whale named Tilikum. The film, by writer and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, questioned the company’s practices in capturing and housing orca whales and prompted a bill in California that would shut down SeaWorld’s killer whale shows.

On Wednesday, however, SeaWorld released disappointing financial results, acknowledging the film’s impact, and its shares lost a third of their value. The stock has declined 36 percent this year, to about $18, putting it below its spring 2013 public offering price of $27. Both investors and corporate partners are running the other way: Last month, Southwest Airlines (LUV) said it will end its 26-year marketing partnership with SeaWorld, although it didn’t tie that decision to the controversy generated by the film.

Although the expanded habitats may help SeaWorld’s image problem, Fred Jacobs, a company spokesman, says they “were conceived before Blackfish and before any of the controversy associated with it.”

SeaWorld will open the first 10 million-gallon orca whale environment in 2018 at its San Diego park, followed by similar upgrades in Orlando and San Antonio. “With a planned maximum depth of 50 feet, surface area of nearly 1.5 acres and spanning more than 350 feet in length, the new environment will also have views exceeding 40 feet in height, providing guests with the world’s largest underwater viewing experience of killer whales,” SeaWorld said in a news release.

The company also said it will spend $10 million on killer whale research and conservation projects. SeaWorld has also been funding a “truth campaign” and other national marketing efforts “to build and protect our brands, as well as to counter the recent media attention.”

Bachman is an associate editor for

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