SeaWorld announced plans on Monday (9 November) to phase out the signature orca whale show at its San Diego park next year, after long-running criticism of its treatment of the captive marine mammals. The move, which follows a vote by the California Coastal Commission last month barring the park from continuing to breed killer whales, or orcas, in captivity, was announced during a webcast company presentation to investors and the media.

In place of its centrepiece orca performances, the park plans to open a whale exhibition in 2017 staged in a "more natural setting" with a more conservation-oriented theme, SeaWorld Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby said during the presentation.

"In 2017, we will launch an all-new orca experience. It's going to be focused more on a natural setting, natural environment and also the natural behaviours of the whale. It will have a strong conservation message. And that means that 2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience called One Ocean. So that, right now, is in San Diego based on customer feedback we're getting there," he said.

SeaWorld has faced heated criticism and declining admissions since the release of the 2013 documentary film Blackfish, which depicted captivity of orcas as inherently cruel and said the practice has persisted because orcas are the primary attraction at the company's highly lucrative theme parks. The film, which SeaWorld has criticised as inaccurate and misleading, also explored the circumstances leading to the 2010 death of a top SeaWorld trainer, who was pulled underwater and drowned by an orca she had worked and performed with in Florida.

Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) called on SeaWorld to go further than just phasing out its show, urging the company to stop breeding orcas and rehouse its existing animals in coastal sanctuaries.

"An end to SeaWorld's tawdry and circus-style performance is inevitable, but it's actually captivity that denies these far-ranging orca the opportunity to engage in behaviours that are natural and important to them," said Peta director Ben Williamson.

"Peta is calling on SeaWorld to do the right thing, to stop breeding orcas and start construction on coastal sanctuaries, which will allow these orcas to engage in behaviours that are naturally important to them," he added.