Plans for a whale sanctuary ride a wave of support, but face a storm of controversy

May 5, 2016 at 5:33 pm


An effort to create the world’s first sanctuary set aside for rehabilitating whales and dolphins is moving ahead, but now the hard part begins.

Today marked the official launch of the Whale Sanctuary Project, a non-profit organization that aims to identify and build a refuge for whales, porpoises and dolphins that have been retired from entertainment facilities or rescued from injury or sickness in the wild.

Munchkin Inc., a baby-product company headquartered in California, put up an initial $200,000 contribution to begin looking at potential sites for a seaside sanctuary and draw up a strategic plan for the operation’s early phase. Another $1 million was pledged to complete the sanctuary once the site is selected.

“Munchkin has long favored a natural coastal ocean sanctuary as an alternative solution to maintaining orcas in captivity, so we are eager to support The Whale Sanctuary Project’s efforts on behalf of cetaceans retired from the entertainment industry,” Munchkin founder and CEO Steven Dunn said in a statement. “We are dedicated not only to these majestic mammals, but also to helping parents and children understand what they can do to help orcas and others live the rest of their lives happily and safely.”

A decision on the site could be made within six to nine months, according to the project’s outreach coordinator, Michael Mountain. Coastal areas of Washington state and British Columbia are among the locales under consideration, along with Maine and Nova Scotia on the East Coast. Once a site is selected, Mountain said it could take another 18 months or more to prepare the sanctuary for its first resident, depending on funding.

Marine mammals regularly pass through protected waters such as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, but the Whale Sanctuary Project would create dedicated spaces, using nets or “sea pens,” to contain cetaceans that can’t survive in the wild. For more than 20 years, the Washington-based Orca Network has proposed creating such a sanctuary at Eastsound on Orcas Island in the San Juans.

The best-known case of cetacean rehabilitation relates to Keiko, the “Free Willy” orca (a.k.a. killer whale) that was released in the late 1990s and ended up being returned to his home waters off Iceland. He never fully integrated with wild whales, and died of pneumonia in 2003.

Since then, orcas at SeaWorld San Diego have been implicated in three human deaths, adding to the controversy over marine mammals in captivity. Documentaries such as “Blackfish” and “The Cove” energized the opposition. In March, SeaWorld said it would stop breeding orcas and eventually phase out their use in performances.

For now, SeaWorld plans to keep the orcas it has at its facilities. However, the organizers of the Whale Sanctuary Project hope that the animals will eventually find refuge with them.

“There are sanctuaries for other large, highly social and wide-ranging mammals, including elephants and great apes, but there are none anywhere in the world yet for dolphins and whales,” the project’s leader, neuroscientist Lori Marino, said in today’s announcement. “Cetacean sanctuary initiatives are long overdue, and we now have the best possible team of experts to ensure an optimal quality of life and care for individual cetaceans.”

Marino is the executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. During her time as a researcher at Emory University, she published a series of studies suggesting that dolphins and orcas have significant cognitive capacity.

The Munchkin money should provide a boost to the Whale Sanctuary Project, but in a report published today by the journal Science, some experts questioned how successful the project will be. Shawn Noren, a physiologist and orca researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz, was quoted as saying that “mind-boggling” challenges lie ahead.

By some accounts, the cost of creating the sanctuary could eventually amount to tens of millions of dollars, or even hundreds of millions.

“I’d rather see that money spent protecting marine areas and conducting basic science,” Richard Connor, an animal behaviorist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, was quoted as saying.



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