NEW YORK — After more than a year of public criticism of its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld Entertainment said Friday that it will build new, larger environments at its theme parks and will pay for additional research on the animals along with programs to protect ocean health and whales in the wild.
The Orlando, Fla.-based company said the renovations have been in the works and are not a response to the documentary “Blackfish” or the criticism of the company that followed the release of the film.
The company’s shares, which are trading near their lowest point since SeaWorld listed its stock on public markets last year, rose Friday. But it remains to be seen how much the renovations will ease concerns about keeping large marine mammals in captivity.
The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” suggested that captivity and SeaWorld’s treatment of the killer whales — also called orcas — provoke violent behavior, which in turn has led to the death of trainers.
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Since the release of the film, some entertainers have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks. SeaWorld also recently said its longtime corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines is ending.
SeaWorld said it will expand the killer-whale habitats at its theme parks, starting in San Diego. The company will build a tank with 10 million gallons of water at the San Diego park, almost twice the size of the current tank, with a depth of up to 50 feet.
SeaWorld said the new environment, called the Blue World Project, will be more stimulating for the killer whales, with features such as a “fast-water current” that will allow the whales to swim against moving water.
The new pool will allow visitors to see the orcas from a vantage point below the water line, SeaWorld officials said.
SeaWorld San Diego has 10 orcas.
The facility will open to the public in 2018, and after that SeaWorld will make similar changes at its Orlando and San Antonio locations.
The company said the project will cost hundreds of millions of dollars but would not specify the exact budget.
SeaWorld is also pledging $10 million in matching funds to support research focused on threats to killer whales in the wild. And it announced a $1.5 million commitment to a partnership focused on ocean health.
Former SeaWorld trainer Mark Simmons praised the moves, saying the new environments will provide mental stimulation that will help keep the whales healthy.
“I think it’s an enhancement, an obvious evolution of SeaWorld’s mission,” said Simmons, who worked at SeaWorld Orlando from 1986 to 1996.
“Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite said the changes won’t please the public or improve the whales’ lives. She said that in captivity, the whales are forcibly bred, separated from their families and fight constantly for dominance.
She added that the larger tanks may not mean the whales will have more room, as SeaWorld plans to expand to other countries and could use the additional space to breed the whales more often.
“None of this would change in a bigger pool,” she said. “What people are upset about is that whales are not suitable to captivity.”
Cowperthwaite said SeaWorld should instead create oceanic sanctuaries that will let the whales live out their lives in more natural environments.
SeaWorld reported net income and revenue Wednesday that fell short of Wall Street expectations. Its revenue in the second quarter was about $40 million less than analysts had expected, and the company said “Blackfish” hurt attendance.
“Blackfish” explores the death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled off a platform and killed by a whale named Tilikum in 2010. The film argues that the whales become more aggressive toward humans and each other when they are kept in captivity.
Several entertainers, including country singers Trisha Yearwood and Willie Nelson and rock band Barenaked Ladies, have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks since the film’s release.
In July, Southwest Airlines and SeaWorld said they were ending a 25-year marketing partnership at the end of this year.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.