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These Activists Are Building A Sanctuary For SeaWorld’s Remaining Orcas

An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ELAINE THOMPSON
An endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ELAINE THOMPSON

When the documentary Blackfish shed light on the tragic lives of SeaWorld’s orcas, the public opinion quickly turned against whale captivity as activists capitalized on the opportunity and successfully pushed SeaWorld to reform. But in the wake of SeaWorld’s pledge to stop breeding orcas and featuring them in some shows, questions remain as to how to care for the animals still left.

SeaWorld has said it plans to keep the 29 orcas it has until they die, but a new nonprofit says it’s creating an alternative seaside sanctuary where rescued or retired cetaceans can live while enjoying an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible. The Whale Sanctuary Project said it wants to concentrate on orca and beluga whales because these species seem to do worse in captivity in terms of mortality and abnormal behavior.

“Our mission is not to put any existing facilities under pressure, we really just want to change the landscape of what it looks like to have a relationship with these animals,” said Lori Marino, president of The Whale Sanctuary Project, in an interview with ThinkProgress.

The nonprofit is using an initial donation of $200,000 from Munchkin, Inc. — better known for making sippy cups and other baby products and toys — out of a pledge of a million, to fund a team of 35 experts. This team includes experts in marine mammal science and behavior, veterinary medicine, husbandry, engineering, and law. They are now laying the groundwork for a sanctuary that would ideally have a budget in the tens of millions. “It’s not going to be cheap, but when you think about it, it is certainly doable,” Marino said.

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The Whale Sanctuary Project is evaluating private and publicly owned sites in the northern waters of the United States and Canada, since those are climates suited for orcas and belugas. “As much as possible we want to recreate their natural state, everything that was taken away from them or never given to them in the first place,” said Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and cognition formerly on the faculty of Emory University. Surveying sites include studying the unique geographic, oceanographic and anthropogenic conditions of the coast, and creating a plan for transport and care for retired or rescued animals. The sanctuary would be open to the public and the group wants to have conservation and education programs there, aside from reintroduction programs on a case-by-case basis.

Yet the idea is that the animals that aren’t fit to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild will be free to be away from people. “There will be times when we won’t be able to see the animals. And everyone that runs a sanctuary wants that to be the case,” she said. Moreover, whales will have deep coast to dive, a feature they lack in captivity.

A beluga whale from the Georgia Aquarium. CREDIT: Flickr/Money
A beluga whale from the Georgia Aquarium. CREDIT: Flickr/Money

Though seaside sanctuaries are projects that PETA and conservationists like Jean-Michel Cousteau advocated as recently as last month, there are scientists who doubt the effort and say a sanctuary could harm the whales and the environment. In an interview with Science magazine, Shawn Noren, a physiologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said placing an orca that has spent its entire life in a sterile, concrete tank, into an ocean filled with conditions it has never experienced may affect the animal and the formerly whale free-ecosystem.

SeaWorld has doubts about seaside sanctuaries, too. In a statement to ThinkProgress, the company said it has “serious concerns about putting the animals in sea cages, where they would be exposed to disease, pollution and other man-made and natural disasters.” SeaWorld also said “given the ages of our whales, the length of time they’ve spent in human care and the social relationships they’ve formed with other whales, [seaside sanctuaries] would do them more harm than good.”

But Marino counters that any plan would come only after full environmental and biological assessments are made. “We would also take into account local populations of whales and other species,” said Marino, adding that whales born into concrete tanks live in a “very small volume of water with other whales all of the time, where disease agents and pollutants may be more concentrated than in an ocean environment that has regular flushing from the tides.”

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A whale sanctuary like the one Marino and her team envision to have in as little as three years would be unprecedented only because it would be permanent. Temporary sanctuaries have been employed in the past, most famously to rehabilitate Keiko, the orca from the Free Willy movie that was rescued from a Mexican theme park before it became a star and, eventually, rehabilitated in an Iceland bay and returned to the wild with lukewarm results as it never really integrated with other whales.

Creating a permanent sanctuary for whales is a necessity, said Marino, that really changes the relationship humans have had with orcas and others for decades. “Is our relationship going to be one where we see them as objects to make money, to be entertained by,” she said, “or are we really going to sort of back up and say, hey, we did wrong and we are going to try to restore what we have taken from you.”