In March 2016, SeaWorld announced that it was ending its captive-orca breeding program. Conservationists and animal-rights activists were jubilant at the news. Some, however, criticized the company’s decision to keep its 23 remaining U.S. orcas in captivity for the remainder of their lives. However, all of SeaWorld’s whales were either born in captivity or have spent most of their lives in a tank. As such, they rely humans for food. They have lost (or never learned) many of the instincts that they need in order to survive in the wild. Releasing them into the ocean is therefore irresponsible, but is there an alternative? Conservationists hope a potential SeaWorld whale sanctuary could be the answer.
Marine sanctuaries could be a good compromise. These environments would allow the whales some freedom while humans still care for them as necessary. While there are sanctuaries for other large animals, such as elephants, lions and apes, there are currently no such facilities for cetaceans. U.S. based non-profit The Whale Sanctuary Project is hoping to remedy this deficiency. In August a team headed by charity president Dr. Lori Marino traveled to Nova Scotia to assess potential sanctuary sites.
The Whale Sanctuary Project
The Whale Sanctuary Project was born in August 2015. A group of experts, including marine biologists, veterinarians and engineers, met to discuss a possible sanctuary for whales like those that SeaWorld has retired. A year later, the group established the project as a licensed non-profit. Today, executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy Dr. Lori Marino, marine mammal scientist Dr. Naomi Rose; and David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project, spearhead the project.
Earlier this year, baby-product manufacturer Munchkin, Inc. gave the Whale Sanctuary Project $200,000. The company has pledged a total of $1 million toward the sanctuary’s completion. The project will use this initial donation to research a suitable site for the sanctuary, which must fulfill several criteria. The site must be large enough to mimic the natural habitat of the rehabilitated whales and dolphins. It must be possible to separate the sanctuary from open ocean. Finally, adjacent communities must be receptive for the sanctuary’s success.
Why Nova Scotia?
The group selected Nova Scotia as a potential site because of its plentiful coves, bays and inlets. Some of these are too shallow to provide the required space, however. The organization must conduct further investigation before confirming a suitable site. The Whale Sanctuary Project will visit other regions over the coming months, searching for the perfect cove. Contenders include Maine, Washington State and British Columbia. However, according to a company press release, officials in Nova Scotia are excited about the possibility of the sanctuary.
Regardless of the ultimate location, the Whale Sanctuary Project’s vision remains the same. Once completed, the sanctuary will become a safe haven for cold-water cetacean species, including orcas and belugas. The sanctuary will welcome whales, dolphins and porpoises, and the group will try to return successfully rehabilitated individuals to the wild. Captive-bred whales and dolphins may never be fit for release, however, and will instead receive care for the rest of their lives.
Administrators will allow the public to visit the whale sanctuary as long as such visits don’t interfere with or disturb the animals. The sanctuary will focus on conservation and education instead of entertainment, offering the whales a much-deserved retirement from the public eye.