"It's cool to see them, but it's not the right thing to do," said 10-year-old Zoey Lambe-Hommel.
Zoey, dressed in a killer whale costume, was one of the hundreds of people who gathered on Thursday to protest SeaWorld’s orca exhibit at a meeting of the California Coastal Commission.
"I want to protect the orcas. They're living animals, they're not pets," she told CNN.
It seems the commission agrees with her.
After listening to hours of speeches by both SeaWorld opponents and supporters, the state agency said that while it approved the company’s $100 million plan to double the size of its killer whale habitat, it was banning the breeding of captive orcas at their California facility.
"I can approve this project but only with conditions," said Dayna Bochno, one of the commissioners, per The Los Angeles Times. Bochno said captivity is harmful to the whales.
SeaWorld San Diego is currently home to 11 orcas, who are star attractions at the facility. Thanks to the no-breeding vote, these animals could be "the last 11 orcas there," PETA lawyer Jared Goodman told the Associated Press after Thursday’s meeting.
"No more orcas will be condemned to a nonlife of loneliness, deprivation and misery," the animal rights group added in a statement.
An estimated 650 SeaWorld supporters and critics gathered at the Coastal Commission hearing in Long Beach, reports CNN.
The company was seeking approval from the agency, which has authority over construction projects along California's coast, to build a "bigger, better home" for their orcas. It says it plans to expand the current orca habitat from a 5.8 million gallon pool to a 9.6 million gallon one for a new exhibit called "The Blue World."
SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly said the issue was "a land use decision." Animal activists, however, urged the panel to consider the negative impact that captivity has on orcas.
"SeaWorld is a sea circus, and the orcas are its abused elephants," said PETA in a statement.
SeaWorld’s treatment of captive orcas has come under enhanced scrutiny since the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which suggested that the stress of captivity can provoke violence in orcas.
SeaWorld insists, however, that its whales are neither stressed or depressed.
"We care for these animals as if they were family," veterinarian Hendrik Nollens told the panel on Thursday, per AP. "We have nothing but the whales' best interest at heart."
But the agency appeared to disagree.
"[Orcas] don't belong in captivity," said Commissioner Bochco.
The Coastal Commission said that SeaWorld San Diego could go ahead with their tank expansion plans, but they cannot populate their pools "with orcas caught in the wild and cannot use genetic material from wild orcas to breed killer wales in captivity," according to CNN.
Activists celebrated the decision, hailing it as the beginning of the end of killer whale captivity at the San Diego ocean park.
SeaWorld, however, lamented the vote.
"We are disappointed with the conditions that the California Coastal Commission placed on their approval of the Blue World Project and will carefully review and consider our options," the company said in a statement, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal’s life, and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane."
According to CNN, there are 56 orcas in captivity worldwide, with 24 of them under SeaWorld's care at its parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando.
Earlier on HuffPost: