Protesters and supporters filled a meeting room Thursday where a California commission was considering a vast expansion to the tanks that SeaWorld uses to hold killer whales in San Diego.
The commission that regulates land and water use along the California coast took up the issue of the $100 million expansion, which animal rights activists fear would pave the way for breeding more of the animals in captivity — something they say is cruel no matter the size of the tanks.
The 500 people who packed the meeting room included SeaWorld supporters wearing blue and white shirts and holding signs saying, "Educate, Inspire, Conserve," and critics waving signs saying "Vote no on SeaWorld Tanks" and "SeaWorld hurts Orcas."
Some groaned or snickered as staff testimony began.
Outside, hundreds of people who couldn't get into the meeting room stood behind rope lines and watched the session on oversized screens.
SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly told commission members they would hear numerous inaccurate statements from critics but asserted the project would provide a better living environment for the whales and open new windows for researchers.
No one is more passionate about caring for killer whales than SeaWorld, he said.
Matt Bruce of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the renovations would do nothing to improve conditions for the killer whales.
"We feel these newer tanks will just be more prisons for these orcas," Bruce said. "These orcas are robbed of everything that is natural to them."
The staff of the commission has recommended approving the expansion under nine conditions that include forbidding SeaWorld from housing recently captured orcas in San Diego.
SeaWorld says it has not collected any orcas in the wild in more than three decades, its animals are well treated and park shows help generate support for conservation.
Under the proposal, SeaWorld would demolish portions of a 1995 facility that included a 1.7-million gallon pool and replace it with a 5.2-million gallon tank and 450,000-gallon pool.
The Orlando, Florida-based company has said the orca population at the San Diego facility — which currently numbers 11 — would not significantly increase due to the "Blue World" project it wants to open in 2018, even though the capacity of the tanks would jump.
The panel said it had received some 200,000 emails and 50,000 postcards weighing in on the project.
Attendance at the California park has declined since the release of the population documentary "Blackfish" in 2013, which suggests SeaWorld's treatment of captive orcas provokes violent behavior. The company's stock price also has dropped over the past two years.
The testimony from each side depicted sharply different conditions for the whales — one caring and nurturing, the other harsh and heartless.
John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer in California and Texas who has written a book about his experiences and appeared in the "Blackfish" film, said whales are heavily medicated and family structures that define life in the wild are broken.
The whales gnaw the edges of their pools, breaking or wearing teeth, and inbreeding has created "hybrid orcas who have no true social identity," he said.
But SeaWorld veterinarian Hendrik Nollens disputed what he called "outlandish accusations" from critics of the park. The whales are enriched and stimulated, he said, not stressed or depressed.
"We care for these animals as if they were family," Nollens told the panel. "We have nothing but the whales' best interest at heart."