US theme park operator SeaWorld said Friday it would build new, giant tanks for its killer whales, whose captivity has caused uproar and hit the company's earnings.
SeaWorld also pledged $10 million in funds for killer-whale research and announced a multi-million-dollar ocean health partnership, but animal rights groups were quick to savage the initiatives.
The Orlando, Florida company, whose shares have hit their lowest point since going public in April 2013, has faced rising criticism since last year's release of the documentary "Blackfish." The film probed the impact of captivity on SeaWorld's orcas and the fatal 2010 attack by one of them, Tilikum, on a trainer.
The first of the so-called whale environments, due to open to the public in 2018 at SeaWorld San Diego, will have a total water volume of 10 million gallons, nearly double that of the existing facility.
With a maximum depth of 50 feet (15 meters) and spanning more than 350 feet in length, the so-called Blue World Project will also provide large viewing points for the public.
"Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales," CEO and president Jim Atchinson said in a statement.
"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 bird's eye view from above." But animal rights group PETA ridiculed SeaWorld's announcement as 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." "It will not save the company," PETA added.
"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." New killer whale environments are also planned for SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio.
On Wednesday, SeaWorld announced a drop in quarterly earnings, sending its shares plunging by more than 30 per cent.