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SeaWorld to upgrade to killer whale environments

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    Beach View: SeaWorld's new whale habitat will twice as large as the current environments. (SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc.)

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    The new environment has a maximum depth of 50 feet with a surface area of nearly 1.5 acres and spanning more than 350 feet in length. (SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc.)

SeaWorld has announced plans to expand killer whale habitats in select parks and will begin funding new programs to support the natural habitats of whales in the wild.

The move comes amid declining attendance rates following the criticism of how the park treats its killer whales and the controversy surrounding the documentary "Blackfish," which resulted in celebrity boycotts.

Called the Blue World project, the first habitat upgrade will be built at SeaWorld’s San Diego park. According to a company press release, the new environment will have a water volume of 10 million gallons, almost double the capacity of the current killer whale facility.

The Blue World Project also details plans to unveil a 40 foot viewing tank that will provide guests with an intimate “underwater viewing experience” of the gigantic sea mammals.

“Through up-close and personal encounters, the new environment will transform how visitors experience killer whales,” said Jim Atchison, CEO and President of SeaWorld Entertainment in a release. “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 birds-eye view from above.”

The Blue World Project will also donate $10 million in matching funds to combat threats killer whales face in the wild, as identified by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  One project studies the hearing ranges of killer whales and another that will track the nutrition and reproduction of the Southern Resident Killer Whale.

SeaWorld will work with environmental experts that includes representatives from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, National Marine Mammal Foundation and the American Humane Association.

This week, the Orlando-based company conceded for the first time that attendance at its theme parks has been hurt by negative publicity surrounding it treatment of the whales, which is its marquee attraction. The company reported 6.6 million visitors at its parks in the April-to-June period, nearly flat compared with the same period in 2013.

The park said that the multi-million dollar environment upgrade will be complete in San Diego in 2018. Updates to the whale habitats at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio are expected to follow.