November 2, 2016
A year after announcing it would phase out its longstanding Shamu show in San Diego, SeaWorld is asking the California Coastal Commission this week for permission to start constructing a stage for its new orca encounter.
If the commission signs off at its meeting on Friday, SeaWorld says it could begin construction in January, with completion expected by April.
To date, the company has described the revamped killer whale attraction in broad terms, explaining that visitors to the park would no longer see the orcas engaging in theatrical, synchronized leaps and dives but instead would be able to witness the marine mammals’ natural behaviors like hunting, eating and communicating.
Those theatrical shows will end this year, and the San Diego park will be the first to debut the new attraction, with the Orlando and San Antonio parks to follow.
In its application submitted to the commission — whose staff is recommending approval — SeaWorld is proposing to dismantle Shamu Stadium’s existing show set, now dominated by four LED screens and a giant depiction of a whale tail. In their place would be a new backdrop behind the show pool designed to mimic an outdoor coastal setting in the Pacific Northwest.
The new scenery will be a pastoral landscape, incorporating a rugged coastal inlet, artificial Douglas fir trees, cliffs, and waterfalls. The set will be framed by a rockwork facade fashioned from fiberglass, with no part of the backdrop higher than 30 feet.
Complementing the scenery will be a large video screen that will feature imagery of killer whales in the wild, along with graphics and other information about the orcas to help educate SeaWorld visitors.
In addition, various stairways within the stadium will be demolished and reconstructed, and there will also be sound and lighting upgrades.
The company emphasizes that the project involves no reconstruction or modification of the pools where the orcas are housed.
That’s a major departure from a $100 million plan, since abandoned, that the Coastal Commission approved last year to double the volume of the orcas’ habitat. While the commission OK’d the plan, it imposed a condition that SeaWorld cease breeding its orcas.
The company protested, but months later, responding to mounting public pressure, announced it would end captive breeding of its killer whales at all three SeaWorld parks. It also said it would no longer move forward with the tank expansion project.
Plans for the new orca encounter drew several letters of support, including some from its former critics like the Humane Society of the United States and state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who two years ago introduced a bill that would have outlawed captive orca breeding and prohibited SeaWorld from using orcas in its shows.
“I applaud SeaWorld’s commitment to end orca breeding and phase out their orca shows and believe that their actions demonstrate a forward-looking, humane and market-responsive approach,” Bloom wrote in a letter to the commission.
Although Bloom favored the changes made by SeaWorld, he still pursued legislation signed into law in September that will outlaw orca breeding and captivity programs. The new legislation also prohibits California parks from featuring killer whales in performances for entertainment purposes. They could, however be used for educational presentations.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has called on SeaWorld to release its killer whales into seaside sanctuaries, was critical of the new orca attraction.
“By decorating its underwater prisons with a backdrop of a fake ocean stretching out behind them, SeaWorld would make a mockery of the animals’ lack of opportunity to swim in the real ocean,” the activist group said in a statement. “This marketing ploy is designed to deceive visitors while doing nothing for the orcas floating listlessly in tiny concrete tanks.”
In recommending approval of SeaWorld’s design for its new orca experience, the commission staff imposed conditions focused more on the construction in order to minimize noise impacts on the orcas and to avoid interfering with public access.
SeaWorld, for instance, said that its construction contractor will work with the orca trainers to address any issues they might observe as they monitor the orcas during the construction period.
To minimize noise impacts, SeaWorld said the construction work will be screened by 8-foot-tall panels and when louder work, such as demolition, occurs, the whales will be moved into the pools farthest away.
SeaWorld San Diego said it has no issues with the staff conditions and “will comply with the conditions outlined in the staff report.”
Source: San Diego Union Tribune.com
Update – New orca stage approved November 3, 2016