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California Approves New Orca Exhibit at SeaWorld

SAN DIEGO (CN) — With the green light from the California Coastal Commission to revamp its orca encounter, SeaWorld can begin rebuilding its reputation as a marine mammal educator following years of fallout over keeping the creatures in tanks for entertainment.

The California Coastal Commission on Friday unanimously approved SeaWorld's application to revamp its orca exhibit, which the company promised to do after saying this past March it would stop breeding orcas and make the current generation of orcas its last. While SeaWorld will focus on cosmetic above-ground changes aimed at making its orca experience more educational — including a backdrop depicting the Pacific Northwest — the original plan to expand the orca tanks has been scrapped.

According to plans submitted to the Coastal Commission, the new "Orca Encounter" will focus on how killer whales behave in the wild, including interactive displays about how the whales hunt, navigate and communicate. The new setup will take the place of the current theatrical "Shamu Show," which will be phased out, and will feature a rugged coastal inlet with faux Douglas fir trees, cliffs and waterfalls.

The park's orca trainers will keep a close eye on the whales during construction to ensure they aren't distressed. The whales will also be kept in tanks furthest from construction noise, according to the project proposal approved by commissioners.

Orca Encounter has support from multiple San Diego politicians including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, as well as former SeaWorld critic Humane Society of the United States

SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz said construction on the new Orca Encounter will begin in January 2017, and will open next summer.

SeaWorld San Diego president Marilyn Hannes said Orca Enounter will ensure the company complies with new legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown which requires captive orcas be used for educational rather than entertainment purposes.

"Orca Encounter takes killer whale presentations to a new level of education, allowing us to inform millions of park guests over the next several decades about the natural history, physical abilities and the conservation steps necessary to ensure the future survival of this species in the wild," Hannes said in an emailed statement.

SeaWorld has struggled with attendance numbers following the 2013 release of the documentary "Blackfish." Company leaders including its CEO have since said SeaWorld needed to publicly respond to demands that it stop breeding orcas, which the park says it has done.

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