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SeaWorld's stock dropped 33% after animal rights criticism, so they're giving whales bigger tanks

Tilikum, an orca whale at SeaWorld's Orlando park that has been involved in the deaths of three people.
Tilikum, an orca whale at SeaWorld's Orlando park that has been involved in the deaths of three people.
(Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

Business has not been good at SeaWorld recently.

On Wednesday, a company earnings call revealed that revenues are down five percent this year, causing the company's stock price to drop by 33 percent in a single day.

So it's probably not a coincidence that two days later, the company announced it would spend "hundreds of millions of dollars" to double the size of its orca whale tank and fund research into whales in the wild.

What's the connection? Over the past year, SeaWorld has faced a mounting campaign of criticism of its treatment of orca whales, largely due to the documentary Blackfish.

The film told the story of one orca named Tilikum, a resident of SeaWorld's Orlando park since he was captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983. In the years since, the whale has been involved in the deaths of two trainers and one member of the public.

Blackfish charged that keeping intelligent, sensitive creatures like whales in small tanks and forcing them to do tricks is inherently inhumane, and has caused this sort of unnaturally aggressive behavior. The film also presented data showing that whales in captivity live much shorter lives than those in the wild.

Until now, SeaWorld vehemently denied these claims, calling the documentary "propaganda" and going so far as to step up a "Truth about Blackfish" web page. Company executives blamed earlier decreases in attendance on other factors, like the timing of schools' spring breaks. But continued dwindling attendance and earnings have apparently changed their minds.

On Friday — in addition to admitting the criticism is affecting attendance for the first time — they announced the construction of a new orca tank that's nearly twice as big as the current one for SeaWorld San Diego, to be followed by similar environments at its other parks in Orlando and San Antonio. The company will also provide $10 million to research of whales in the wild, and is establishing a committee of independent scientists to oversee its orca whale programs.

Still, animal rights activists haven't been placated by this announcement. "It will not save the company. 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," PETA's Jared Goodman told NBC News San Diego. "A bigger prison is still a prison."