A petition calling on British Airways to stop selling trips to see captive whales and dolphins at SeaWorld has attracted more than 85,000 signatures.

The petition is calling on the airline, which sells holiday packages that include tickets to resorts such as SeaWorld, to end their links with attractions that include captive marine mammals.

The increasing number of signatures on the petition comes as two new beluga whales are delivered to SeaWorld San Diego. Atla and Klondike, a four-year-old female and an 11-year-old male, join others of the species already on display at the park. The park’s website says belugas are “one of our most sociable animals”.

Beluga whales average three to five metres in length and weigh up to 1,600kg. In the wild, where they are found in arctic and sub-arctic waters, they swim hundreds of miles up rivers in summer months to reach calving grounds.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a charity that works to protect cetaceans, is backing the petition as part of a wider campaign to stop tour operators, including British Airways, Virgin Holidays and Thomas Cook, from offering trips to see captive whales and dolphins.

British Airways responded to the petition on change.org by saying that it was up to consumers whether or not they opted to book trips to SeaWorld. A spokesperson said: “In common with many airlines and travel companies in the UK, we offer services intended to make the booking of holiday experiences more convenient for members of the public who wish to visit SeaWorld attractions.

We offer similar arrangements in regard to theme parks and other places of interest at many destinations on our global network. Whether members of the public choose to make use of these arrangements is entirely up to them.” It added that animal welfare at SeaWorld parks was a matter for the relevant US authorities but that it had no reason not to have confidence in the expertise of those bodies.

On its website, British Airways is currently selling three-day passes to SeaWorld Orlando from £77 per person. It claims to offer customers the chance to “get up close to marine animals and ride exhilarating rides” and “interact with dolphins.” For the San Diego park, it promises the opportunity to see “playful dolphins, magnificent white beluga whales and friendly penguins.”

Danny Grove, a spokesperson for WDC, said: “It is cruel and for BA to somehow claim that by selling these trips it is not part of the problem is bizarre. They are an active part of the whole process, and make money from it, not an innocent bystander. Virgin Holidays is listening to our requests and we feel BA can, and should do better.”

Telegraph Travel reported earlier this year on Virgin’s response to the WDC campaign, in which the holiday company said it was beginning an “engagement process” to investigate the debate around captive cetaceans as it expects its industry partners to meet required welfare standards.

Since then, Virgin has had discussions with WDC regarding the campaign. Danny added: “WDC launched its campaign in April asking [holiday companies] not to sell these trips and we were then pleased to be asked by Virgin to engage in recent face-to-face discussions about the issue. British Airway’s response however, is very disappointing.”

This month, STA Travel, the student travel company, stopped selling trips to SeaWorld, citing low demand from customers. It also dropped elephant rides because of welfare concerns .

A SeaWorld spokesperson said: “For SeaWorld there is no higher priority than the health and well-being of our animals and any claims to the contrary made by these extremists are simply wrong. As we have said many times, SeaWorld, not extreme animal rights groups, is a true animal welfare organisation with the highest standards of care, state-of-the-art animal habitats, and a commitment to animal welfare, education and conservation that spans five decades.”

“SeaWorld Parks operate under U.S. Governmental animal welfare law, including the Animal Welfare Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and are fully accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums. We set the highest standards in the zoological community for the care and interpretation of marine mammals. ” The spokesperson added that anyone wishing to read about SeaWorld’s animal care can consult its website.

A poll conducted earlier this year by responsibletravel.com, an online travel agent for responsible holidays, and the Born Free Foundation, found that 86 per cent of people would not wish to visit a marine park to see whales and dolphins as part of an overseas holiday.

Photo Credit: Tillikum, a killer whale at SeaWorld amusement park, performs during the show "Believe" in Orlando, in this September 3, 2009 file photo. Mathieu Belanger / Reuters