SeaWorld has accused Virgin Holidays of "caving in to pressure from animal activists" after the firm announced it will stop selling tickets to captive whale and dolphin experiences.
Virgin Holidays’ managing director Joe Thompson said they will instead offer customers “more natural, at-distance encounters”, ending a long-term partnership with SeaWorld.
But the US theme park maintained “no company does more to protect marine animals” and said it is activists who “mislead and manipulate marine mammal science to advance their own agendas”.
In its statement, SeaWorld said: "It is disappointing to see Virgin Holidays succumb to pressure from animal activists who mislead and manipulate marine mammal science to advance their agendas.
"Virgin’s own corporate mission is having a measurable purpose that positively impacts communities and the environment. SeaWorld is the epitome of that mission."
The theme park says it has made 35,000 animal rescues and put in "decades" of meaningful scientific contributions to provide care to all of its marine mammals.
"No company does more to protect marine mammals and advance cetacean research, rescue and conservation than SeaWorld," it added.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits SeaWorld, said it is "very disappointed" with Richard Branson and said the quality of care provided by its member facilities is affirmed "through [a] rigorous accreditation process."
Virgin Holidays will end sales to five destinations:
SeaWorld San Diego
Atlantis the Palm
Atlantis Paradise Island
Virgin said its decision follows steps adopted in 2014 to work only with facilities that do not take animals from the wild, as part of the ‘Virgin Pledge’.
Mr Thompson said: “Following further developments, we have now decided the time is right to discontinue offering attractions featuring close encounters with captive whales and dolphins.
“We will instead focus our efforts on encouraging customers to see these creatures in the wild. We will also continue our efforts to support the development of sanctuaries for whales and dolphins currently in captivity.
“The decision to stop the sale and promotion of captive whale and dolphin attractions is something Virgin Holidays strongly believes in, and we know UK consumers feel the same.”
In a recent survey, 92% of UK holidaymakers said they prefer to see animals in their natural habitat, the firm claims.
“We want to actively support this direction by encouraging more responsible wild watching, which puts animal welfare at the heart of things, meaning our customers get to experience these amazing animals with peace of mind and future generations can enjoy these wonderful experiences too,” Mr Thompson added.