A not-for-profit aiming to provide safe haven for retired and rescued whales and dolphins is looking at publicly and privately owned spots along the B.C. coastline for a good home for its killer whale sanctuary.
A project that started as a University of British Columbia discussion group in August, 2015, the Whale Sanctuary Project has quickly developed into a concrete action plan that’s gained financial backing from children’s products manufacturer Munchkin, Inc. The group is seeking out a natural environment such as a cove, inlet or bay netted off from the open ocean to house the animals.
“It’s the dawn of a new era for whales and dolphins retired by entertainment facilities or unlikely to thrive in the wild,” says the group.
Companies offering aquatic-themed entertainment such as SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. have been under mounting pressure to adopt more humane practices and to end their use of killer whales in their shows. SeaWorld recently responded by announcing that it will terminate its orca breeding program, making their current group of 29 killer whales the last ones used in their parks. It also it will no longer have the animals posing, dancing or kissing each other during their shows. Instead, orcas will be featured doing actions they would normally do in nature such as communicating with each other and beaching themselves to hunt for food.
SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby says it’s part of a rebranding effort for the beleaguered company. “Think of Discovery Channel, think of Nat Geo, think of a really good nature documentary that is educational but fascinating.”
SeaWorld spokesperson Travis Claytor says the company has no intention of partnering with the Whale Sanctuary Project, however, arguing that a sea sanctuary would likely have to be some form of cage that would expose the animals to disease, pollution and other man-made problems and that considering the amount of human contact that SeaWorld’s whales have had, they likely would not fare well in a sea sanctuary. “These ideas are simplistic and don’t take into account that the majority of the whales were born in human care, and their plan would cause our whales immense stress and death during transport and release,” says Claytor.
Whale Sanctuary Project president Lori Marino disagrees and still wants to hold the door open for discussions with Sea World. “They are saying they’re not interested, which is understandable,” says Marino, “but we will continue and hope that at some point they will decide to join us. In either case, we are going to build this, because the Sanctuary Project is filling a gap.”
The group estimates the sanctuary will cost up to $20 million and plans to have the sanctuary up and running in three to five years.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Mammalogy found no difference in life expectancy between killer whales born at SeaWorld and wild Pacific Northwest killer whales. The average life expectancy for SeaWorld’s killer whales has been 41.6 years while the life expectancies for Southern and Northern Resident killer whales are 29.0 and 42.3 years respectively.