Initial Analysis of Potential Construction Issues with Blue World Project

By Joe Kleiman, The Mid-Cap Chronicles

© 2014 Joseph L. Kleiman.  All rights reserved. Content may not be reproduced, downloaded, disseminated, published, or transferred in any form or by any means, except with the prior written permission of the author.

Although I have relatives who have been employed by the California State Contractor’s Licence Board and the Navy Corps of Engineers, this is an independent assessment.  To the best of my knowledge, it does not represent the beliefs of any state or federal agency, my employer, or my clients.  I do not profess to be either a trained engineer or a construction expert and the following are solely my observations.

I shall not question whether or not the Blue World Project will take place.  For the purposes of this essay, it is assumed that it shall.  Neither shall I question where the funding will come from.  Although irrelevant to this discussion, including the three orca habitats and additional announced improvements at the Texas park, I have low balled the cost at $375 million, with a high ball figure based on potential cost overrides and delays at $600 million.

According to the current plans, all three SeaWorld parks will maintain the existing stadium pools, and ancillary pools for holding orcas and medical examination. The existing stadium grandstands will remain, as will performance-based orca shows.  In San Diego and Orlando, an existing secondary show pool currently used for “Dine with Shamu” presentations will be enlarged into the Blue World Project habitat.  In San Antonio, where such a pool does not exist, the habitat will be all new construction immediately adjacent to the existing Shamu Stadium.  In addition to the orca habitat, San Antonio is also set to begin construction on a new sea lion habitat featuring a new counter service restaurant and a new dolphin habitat.

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Based on an overlay provided by SeaWorld, the San Diego orca habitat will be immediately surrounded by what appears to be a new support building to the south, the existing pools and grandstand to the east, the dolphin habitat to the north, and the park’s new multimillion dollar Explorer’s Reef entrance plaza to the west.  Based on the illustration, the sky bridge bordering the new habitat will be removed, while the eastern entrance to the stadium will now be accessed through the southern portion of the habitat.

Considerations include:

  • Construction noise
  • Dust, dirt, and other debris
  • Potential toxins underground

NOISE AND DEBRIS: It is common practice in zoological parks to relocate animals who reside in close proximity to construction zones to temporary housing farther away.  Three types of animals are directly impacted by the construction of the new orca habitat – the ten orcas currently residing in the park, one of which has recently been confirmed as pregnant, the dolphins residing in the interactive habitat immediately adjacent to the north of the construction zone, and the tide pool animals of Explorer’s Reef.  This may require the construction of temporary housing pools elsewhere in the park or the transfer of some animals to other facilities, be they operated by SeaWorld or others.  Other animals may be impacted by the construction noise as well, particularly if a thick cloud cover is in place over the park, deflecting the sound waves back to land.

The prevailing winds in San Diego flow from the northwest to the southeast.  Any dust and debris picked up from the construction zone will flow directly towards the park’s new entrance and its touch pools.  The construction may require a new temporary park entrance to be put into place during the two to three estimated years of building the new habitat.  At times, the wind shifts, blowing either directly south or to the southwest.  During these times, dust and debris from the construction site may enter the existing orca facility and the Shamu Stadium grandstand.

TOXINS: Approximately 500 feet due east of San Diego’s Penguin Encounter and Wild Arctic exhibits sits South Shores Park.  According to a 2000 article by Jeanette De Wyze in San Diego Reader, three workers excavating the site to build the park in 1988, were exposed to hydrogen sulfide fumes, with one dying shortly after. South Shores Park lies on what was between 1952 and 1959 the city’s landfill.  According to De Wyze, San Diego’s four main military contractors deposited toxic material at the site, including up to a million gallons per year “of chromic, hydrofluoric, nitric, sulfuric, and hydrochloric acids; dichromate; cyanide; and paint and oil wastes.”

A 2003 California Coastal Commission document on Sea World’s request to build it’s Journey to Atlantis facility (which falls outside the historic boundaries of the landfill) states the following:

“. . . one test well had produced an abnormally high reading for hydrogen sulfide during one test. The report itself goes on to state that this was either an anomaly or the result of a deposit of sulfur materials close to the probe, which took the sample from 15 feet underground, not on the ground surface. The report does not conclude that any immediate human health hazard exists at the site of the splash down ride, and monitoring for landfill gases continues at this time as recommended.”

The report goes on to state:

“. . . there is no indication the continued buildout of SeaWorld park in the already developed portion of the leasehold and not the site of the historic landfill, poses any risk to health and safety of the park users.”

As the site for the new orca habitat is on the far end of the property from where the former landfill stood, it’s unlikely, with the exception of toxins potentially having migrated below the water table across Mission Bay’s south shore, that the new facility will be affected by this issue.


Considerations include:

  • Proximity to existing orca pools
  • Noise
  • Sinkhole

PROXIMITY: San Antonio has the most space available for new construction and the greatest spacing between animal attractions of the three parks.  The new orca habitat will likely be directly adjacent to the small tanks of the current orca facility.  As the current stadium (though not the holding pools) is under a dome, it would be possible to close off the main performance tank from the construction zone (unlike the other parks, all six San Antonio orcas can remain in a single tank without conflict).  As with San Diego, proper zoo construction protocol would make it preferable for the orcas to be relocated during the construction.

NOISE: The noise from three major construction projects in a row, which may overlap in places, could prove to be irritable to park staff, guests, and animals.  Although animal venues are farther spaced out than San Diego, as with the California park, cloud cover could carry noise, including beyond park boundaries into surrounding commercial and residential neighborhoods.

SINKHOLE: The San Antonio park is built upon the limestone bedrock of the Edwards Plateau, however it does not appear that construction to sixty feet would have a negative impact on the Edwards Aquifer and its tributaries as the park falls outside of the Aquifer’s “fresh water zone,” according to the 1986 Geological Society of America publication The Balcones Escarpment: Geology, Hydrology, Ecology and Social Development in Central Texas.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), “Sinkholes are common where the rock below the land surface is limestone, carbonate rock, salt beds, or rocks that can naturally be dissolved by groundwater circulating through them. As the rock dissolves, spaces and caverns develop underground. Sinkholes are dramatic because the land usually stays intact for a while until the underground spaces just get too big. If there is not enough support for the land above the spaces then a sudden collapse of the land surface can occur. These collapses can be small . . . or they can be huge and can occur where a house or road is on top.”


Considerations include:

  • Noise and debris
  • Aquifer pollution
  • Sinkhole

NOISE AND DEBRIS: Same considerations as the other two parks.  Spacing between the new orca habitat and other animal venues is similar to the situation in Texas.  The conversion of an existing display into the habitat with its proximity to other existing orca tanks parallels the situation in San Diego with minor variables.

AQUIFER POLLUTION: The Orlando park is built on top of the Floridan Aquifer, from which Orlando and surrounding counties obtain fresh water.  In 2008, Scott Powers reported in the Orlando Sentinel that “Salt water from some of the giant pools and related plumbing at SeaWorld Orlando and neighboring Discovery Cove has been leaking into the aquifer, beneath those theme parks, in some cases for seven years or more, according to state environmental records.”

The contamination appeared to have been restricted to the near surface aquifer, and not the deep water aquifer, from which public water is obtained.  However, as Powers points out, “Government regulations forbid companies from degrading any groundwater, whether deep in the earth or near the surface, to levels below drinking-water standards, because that water could one day be needed for human consumption.”

SeaWorld patched up most of the leaking tanks and filtration equipment.  A swim through salt water reef aquarium at Discovery Cove was closed entirely and the space reopened as a new attraction, Freshwater Oasis.  In January 2014, the main show pool at Shamu Stadium was shutdown in order to perform maintenance on the structure without water being in the pool.  It’s not known if any of this maintenance was related to the earlier leakage into the aquifer and SeaWorld was not consulted in the research and writing of this piece.

SINKHOLE: Florida is as prone to sinkholes, if not more so, than Texas.  When one considers the amount of concrete that must be pored at the base of the structure to prevent leakage, and the fact the water depth in the tank is equivalent to a five story underground parking garage, the excavation could be as deep as sixty feet.

The USGS states this about sinkholes related to the Floridan Aquifer and man made structures: “Collapse sinkholes . . . form suddenly by the collapse of the roof of a large solution cavity Such large cavities commonly form where ground water circulation is vigorous, thus accelerating the dissolution of the limestone. As the cavity expands laterally, its roof gradually flakes off under the effect of gravity. Continued dissolution and spalling of the cavity roof proceed until the roof suddenly collapses under the weight of the overlying material, and a steep-sided, circular sinkhole forms. Collapse sinkholes form either in places where the cavity roof consists entirely of limestone, or where clay forms a bridge over the cavity; they are the type of sinkhole that usually forms in response to human activities. Additional loading of the land surface by construction of surface-water impoundments or buildings . . . or harmonic loads produced by the vibratory action of passing trains or heavy construction equipment have all been known to trigger sinkhole collapse.”

However, if proper engineering is used and salt water leakage is nonexistent, there should be no issue with a sixty foot construct, as it’s still a distance above the Aquifer.  A USGS research well in operation adjacent to SeaWorld is accessing the water at a depth of 239 feet.

But, let’s imagine for the heck of it that a sinkhole suddenly did appear beneath the new orca habitat.  What would it look like? If we imagine the orcas as expensive, rare sports cars, then we could imagine it would look something like this.


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