A still from the film Blackfish.
A still from the film Blackfish.

An organization planning to build a $15-million sanctuary for captive whales is scouting locations in Nova Scotia.

The Whale Sanctuary Project has checked out a dozen sites between Lunenberg and Guysborough that could become a home for between five and eight orcas, belugas and other cold-water cetaceans that spent their lives in the concrete tanks of theme parks and aquariums.

“We’re actually talking about a netted-off area — not a pen or a tank — of at least 65 acres along the coast,” said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and marine mammal expert who heads the non-profit outfit.

“What we’re going to be giving them is so much more space and depth than they’ve ever had in a tank.”

The group is looking at coves, bays, and sites where they could string nets from the mainland to an island to create the sanctuary.

“We’re trying to find somewhere that is as natural as possible, but also doesn’t interfere negatively with industries or even the animals that are in the water in that area.”

The whales would be able to live in a natural setting that the water flows through, Marino said.

“We would have, of course, animal care staff. We would have a visitors’ centre that would do public outreach and public education. People could view the animals from a distance. But the whole idea would be to give the animals back what they really need to thrive. What was taken from them by being in a theme park.”

Most of the captive whales would not make good candidates for being released into the wild, she said.

“They don’t have the life skills they need to hunt and do other things that they need to do to survive, particularly those that were born in captivity,” Marino said.

“In the wild they spend many, many years learning what you need to do as an adult. But in the theme park setting all of that is taken away. It’s messed up. They move animals around. They don’t have the education to really know how to feed themselves. So you don’t want to just dump them back in the ocean and say, ‘Well, have a good life.’ That said, we will take those kinds of decisions on a case-by-case basis. If we see an individual shows promise in being able to feed herself and so forth, we’ll push them as far as we can towards a more natural life. And if we think that they’re ready for some kind of release, then we’ll make that decision. But the goal is not release. It’s to put them somewhere where they’ll have a much better life than in a concrete tank.”

SeaWorld stopped breeding orcas this past spring because the Orlando theme park wasn’t making money on the practice that’s come under fire in recent years from animal rights groups critical of the way whales are treated in captivity.

“The trend is really moving toward that,” said Marino, a former lecturer at Emory University.

“The whole industry is kind of recognizing that the public has very different attitudes about keeping these animals in concrete tanks and in shows than they did years ago. Ticket sales are down. Blackfish, [the documentary film that focused on the plight of Tilikum, a captive orca that killed several people] came out, and I think people realize that they don’t really want to buy into that kind of way of displaying these animals. The writing is kind of on the wall. We hope that in three to five years when we complete this sanctuary that the captivity industry will be at a place where we can work them to move some of the animals from where they are to the sanctuary.”

Project organizers have plans to check three or four more potential sites in Nova Scotia, most of them on the Eastern Shore.

On Friday, Marino is slated to meet with Membertou Chief Terry Paul to discuss the idea.

“We’re talking to him as a representative of some of the Mi’kmaq people here, the First Nations, because we want to make sure that they are supportive of what we want to do. We’ve met with DFO. We’ve met with provincial stakeholders … They were very encouraging.”

The sanctuary will be a draw for tourists, create between 20 and 30 jobs, and Marino’s sure the whales’ appetites will be good for the economy.

“We’re going to need to buy fish to feed them. So it’s a good thing. The fishermen should be happy about that,” she said. “We will be a regular customer for fish because … orcas are never going to stop eating and they eat hundreds of pounds of fish a day.”

While there are orca sightings off Nova Scotia, they don’t happen particularly often.

“We would be taking orcas from captive facilities and flying them here,” Marino said. “It doesn’t require that there be wild orcas in the region. In fact, it would probably be better if there weren’t because then you don’t interfere with the wild orca population by putting a stranger in their midst.”

The organization is also looking at potential sites in British Columbia, Washington State, and Maine.

“We’ve done the most looking in Nova Scotia,” Marino said.

She hopes to have a decision made by this time next year on where to build the sanctuary.

“We have a ways (to go) in terms of making a short list of sites that we then can say ‘It’s going to be one of these,’” Marino said.

Any choice would require an environmental assessment before going ahead, she said.

Lori Marino and Hal Whitehead. Photo: Chris Lambie
Lori Marino and Hal Whitehead. Photo: Chris Lambie

“The only research that will be done (at the sanctuary) will be non-invasive, non-intrusive, observational research. We’re not going to be open for people to come in and study the animals in way that would be like a lab or anything like that. But we’re going to be taking data all the time on the animals’ behaviour, their social lives, their physiology, 24/7. So there will be a lot of helpful data that will come of it. But we’re not going to set up a shingle that says this is a research facility because these animals have been used as entertainers. The last thing we want to do is take them from being used as entertainers to being used as research subjects.”

Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University who focuses on whale research is one of her organization’s expert advisors.

“It is huge effort. There’s no doubt about it. It’s going to take a lot of money, time, people effort, ingenuity, and so on,” Whitehead said. “But there’s no huge technical issue.”

He’s already got students interested in working at the sanctuary if it sets up in Nova Scotia.

“It would provide experiences which will greatly enhance what they’re getting here in the classroom,” Whitehead said.

“If you look at it from a selfish university’s point of view, it would probably increase enrolment. A lot of students come here because it’s a marine place and they want to study marine biology. They’re really interested in the creatures in the ocean.”

Marino said her organization would look at the health of various whales that might make good candidates for the sanctuary and “try to make the best decision about setting the animal up for success.”

There won’t be any breeding at the sanctuary, Marino said.

“You don’t want to breed in a sanctuary and make more animals in captivity,” she said.

“That would be irresponsible.”

There are birth control and behavioural methods to prevent whale pregnancies, Marino said.

“Most of the dolphins and whales born in theme parks today are born by artificial insemination anyway.”

The organization is backed by Munchkin, a California baby product company.

“The CEO, Steven Dunn, just happens to have a soft spot for orcas and other animals in tanks,” Marino said.

That said, the project has to raise another $14 million, she said. “We’re going to be needing to do a lot of fundraising because this is going to be expensive and well beyond what any one donor can provide,” Marino said. “It’s doable.”

The organization still has to develop a fundraising strategy, she said.

“If you know any really rich people who would want to have their name on it,” Marino said with a chuckle, “let me know.”

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  1. I heard about this a few months ago, it made me proud and I truly hope the sanctuary finds a home in Nova Scotia. I will be an active supporter if given the chance!

  2. My spirits have been lifted. This is the first good news story in a long while. As fascinating as it has been from north of the border, the American election has taken over the airwaves for far too long.

    This project sounds like a win win proposal. I look forward to visiting The Whale Sanctuary Project sometime in the future where ever it is located. It is wonderful that there is hope for the imprisoned mammals.

  3. What an amazing and impressive concept. Obviously this is not being designed as an “attraction” but given the world-wide interest in this species, I wouldn’t be surprised if this creates a noticeable increase in tourism.
    These animals have been abused by humans for decades. I remember taking my kids to Marine Land back in the early 90s. Far from being entertained, I think my kids were traumatized by the conditions in which they saw these animals living. I felt bad for subjecting them to it.