At the Miami Seaquarium in Florida resides "the world's loneliest orca." Officially known as Lolita, this 21-foot-long killer whale has spent the last 44 years in the theme park's "Whale Bowl," a tank that is a mere 80 feet by 35 feet by 20 feet deep. It's the smallest orca tank in North America — an existence akin to "living in a bathtub," as some activists have likened it.
Lolita has become so dependent on her relationship with humans that she'll likely never know true freedom. There is, however, another option: a giant sea pen off the coast that would not only give her room to exercise and thrive, but also to interact with other whales, dolphins and ocean species. These sanctuaries — not unlike the sprawling versions for elephants, tigers and other threatened animals — would also help rehabilitate injured or abused marine species, with many eventually transitioning back to the wild.
Ever since the movie "Blackfish" helped raise awareness on the plight of captive orcas, sea pens have become a buzzword, a means to offering some kind of hope for the cetaceans stuck in concrete bowls. Last week, that promise took a big step forward with the formation of the Whale Sanctuary Project, a new nonprofit aimed at creating the world's first seaside sanctuary for whales and dolphins. The project is still in its infancy, but it's the most serious effort yet for a viable exit strategy for captive cetaceans. Here's what we know:
An all-star team
The Whale Sanctuary Project features a vast array of marine specialists, from lawyers to engineers and biologists, with decades of experience in helping cetaceans. (Photo: The Whale Sanctuary Project)
Browsing through the team members of the Whale Sanctuary Project is like flipping through a who's who of rock stars in the world of marine biology. There are more than 45 scientists, zoologists, biologists, engineers, veterinarians, former SeaWorld trainers, and lawyers experienced in marine issues. The team is lead by Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence who firmly believes that animals should be recognized as persons — and that science firmly backs that up.
"Person doesn't mean human," she told National Geographic in 2014. "Human is the biological term that describes us as a species. Person, though, is about the kind of beings we are: sentient and conscious. That applies to most animals too. They are persons or should be legally."
The sanctuary site will be located in North America
The team is currently searching for a cold water site on the East Coast or along the Washington or British Columbia waterfront. "It would have to be a safe cove or quiet bay or inlet that we can cordon off, that has access to utilities because there will be the need for feeding the animals and staff and so forth,” Marino told Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB.com).
The site would primarily serve cold-water loving orcas, belugas and dolphins retired from entertainment facilities, as well as injured or ill animals rescued from the ocean. Those that could be rehabilitated would eventually be released back into the wild. Those remaining would be given a comfortable home to live out the rest of their lives.
"It will never be ideal, but it will be enormously different than a theme park,” she told Science.
While the group has plans to make the facility open to the public on a regularly scheduled basis, the main focus will be rehabilitation, conservation and education programs.
What would it look like?
Until a site is chosen, the exact scale of the project won't be revealed. We do, however, have an idea of what a permanent coastal sanctuary might look like. During last year's SuperPod conference, an annual gathering that seeks an end to cetacean captivity, Dr. Ingrid Visser presented her vision for a coastal sanctuary built around an island. Visser, a member of The Whale Sanctuary Project and founder of the Orca Research Trust, showed renderings that included sea pens, educational facilities and even an underwater viewing tunnel for the public.
Lessons learned from Keiko
Keiko, the killer whale made famous by the film "Free Willy," was freed from captivity and placed in a sea pen off the coast of Iceland. Under the care of marine biologists, the male orca thrived in his natural environment. Sadly, Keiko died about a year and a half after being released in open waters, but his legacy will help inform how the new coastal sanctuary will operate.
"I think it is safe to say that our team represents the accumulated knowledge of how to build and operate seaside sanctuaries from not only the Keiko project but also all of the other efforts they have been involved in throughout their professional lives," Marino told MNN. "Many of the members of our team have been personally involved in the Keiko project or have been involved in successfully rehabilitating and housing dolphins and whales in sea pens. Others have extensive training and husbandry experience. We’ll bring that all together and build upon what we know."
A big friend in Munchkin
Baby product company Munchkin, Inc. made waves last fall when founder and CEO Steve Dunn pledged $1 million to the creation of an orca ocean sanctuary. “Munchkin will work closely with the top orca marine biologists and conservation groups to ensure the coastal sanctuary can also serve as a rescue sanctuary for beached or hurt whales with the hope of returning them to the ocean," Dunn said at the time.
The company has kicked off that pledge with a donation of $200,000 to fund The Whale Sanctuary Project's expansive site search.
“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," Dunn said in a statement.
SeaWorld has no intention of participating
SeaWorld's response to news of the world's first whale sanctuary moving one step closer to reality was, well, typical SeaWorld. The company continues to maintain that its 23 captive orcas (and one yet unborn) are perfectly happy right where they are.
"We have very 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 spokesman Travis Claytor told OPB.com. “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, it would do them more harm than good.”
When could it open and how can I help?
Marino tells MNN that she estimates the sea pen could be up and running within three to five years. In terms of costs "we can build a sanctuary and have it ready for its first occupants for about $20 million," she said.
As for public donations to help fund the project, the organization will soon offer such an opportunity through its website. "As fundraising is part of our strategic planning, we will have a better idea of what we will do in a few months once we complete the plan."