Where will she go when her job is done?
Where will she go when her job is done? spDuchamp/CC BY 2.0

When the documentary Blackfish was released in 2013, it showed the shocking reality of what life is like for captive performing orcas. The animals, which can grow to over 20 feet long, lived in concrete enclosures that only allow for around 35 feet of dive depth. The unnatural stress of this confined life, which can lead to the animals acting out and have deadly consequences to the trainers, prompted many viewers to call on aquatic performance venues to change their treatment of the animals or eliminate their orca programs entirely.

But while aquatic entertainment giant SeaWorld has since halted its orca breeding program and vows to phase out its killer whale shows altogether, one question remains: where will all the current star orcas go to retire?

One non-profit organization thinks it has the answer. The Whale Sanctuary Project is a conservation effort aimed at establishing the world’s first sanctuary for orcas, beluga whales, and other large cetaceans. Provided they can find the right spot, they intend to create a safe, comfortable space where former performing whales can live out their twilight years with the proper care and room to roam. Were the issue not so intrinsically tragic, you could almost think of the sanctuary like an old folks home for vaudeville whales.

The Whale Sanctuary Project began in earnest in early 2016 as a result of conversations between a group of marine mammal scientists who’d had enough of the uncertain future faced by display whales. “Even if we wanted to phase out keeping orcas and some of these other cetaceans in concrete tanks, there’s nowhere for them to go, because they can’t simply be dumped in the ocean,” says Lori Marino, Executive Director and co-founder of the Project, who also appeared in Blackfish. “They don’t have the skills to survive. We got tired of complaining about this, so we decided, let’s just do it.”

Not the largest tank.
Not the largest tank. tiffany terry/CC BY 2.0

As Marino explains, orcas, beluga whales, and bottlenose dolphins who have either been bred in captivity, or captured from the wild and trained to be performing animals face a number of challenges when released into the wild. You can’t just free Willy.

Since whales are such highly intelligent and social animals, many of their skills are learned from other members of their species, rather than through interaction with their environment. Everything from hunting for food to avoiding danger, and basic parenting are among the essential skills many orcas learn during their lengthy juvenile period. During a life in captivity, the animals risk having their skills atrophy or never even learning them in the first place. “I think that there’s a fallacy that animals are so instinctual that once you put them in their habitat, they’ll know exactly what to do,” says Marino.  

Unfortunately, keeping orcas in concrete tanks until the end of their lives—which are shorter in captivity—isn’t an acceptable option either. For most aquatic performing animals, once they start a life in a captive environment, whether because they were born there or adopted from the wild, they are destined to die in that system. Sometimes, if a performing animal gets old or becomes less responsive, they will be sold off to a different attraction or facility, but they will never experience anything resembling a natural existence again.

In addition, since orcas in particular are such naturally social animals, a life in captivity has never agreed with them. “What the science shows is this: orcas and belugas do exceptionally poorly in the display industry. They just cannot make it,” says Marino. “The mortality rate is through the roof, they die at very young ages as well. By no means do any cetaceans thrive in these kinds of places. I always talk about it as a square peg in a round hole.” 

A vision of an orca sanctuary?
A vision of an orca sanctuary? Mike Charest/CC BY 2.0

There have been cases of orcas being reintroduced to the wild, most famously in the case of Keiko, the whale from Free Willy. But such reintroduction is not only astronomically costly—only select individuals who show the right skills would even be eligible. “99.9 percent of them die in concrete tanks,” says Marino.

To provide a more humane option for retiring whales, Marino and the Whale Sanctuary Project are working towards creating the world’s first whale preserve. While there are areas in our oceans that act as sanctuaries, such as the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, where all forms of whaling are outlawed, the Sanctuary Project aims to create a space where specific animals care receive individual attention and care as needed. All it takes is the right open waters and some nets. “Dolphins and whales have some kind of a thing where they don’t like to cross over nets,” says Marino. “They don’t jump over nets readily. You’d think you need some huge wall or something, but no.”

The Project would like to find an area of coastal ocean where they could run lengths of nets to portion off their sanctuary from the rest of the sea. Marino says that they would need at least around 65 acres of space that reaches a depth of at least 15 meters (49 feet), to portion off a space large enough to accommodate around five to eight animals at a time. An ideal space might be a bay or large cove where they could net off the mouth, or even a space between an island and the mainland where the nets could be anchored on either end.

But raw space is hardly the only environmental concern. “We have a whole list of criteria. Some of the items on it are pretty boring,” says Marino. “Things like the right salinity, and the right temperature range, water flow through, and stuff like that.” The sanctuary space also needs to be clear of boat traffic and commercial fishing spaces. They are currently scouting locations in Nova Scotia, Maine, British Columbia, and Washington state, hoping to have a shortlist by mid-2017.

Living wild and free.
Living wild and free. Rennett Stowe/CC BY 2.0

While there is still a way to go before the planned sanctuary can start inviting its first residents in, Marino hopes that it can become a model for a permanent facility that other sanctuaries across the globe can take inspiration from. “What we really hope is that this becomes proof of concept. That it becomes a model that is copied and replicated elsewhere,” says Marino. “Because there are many many dolphins and whales who need this.” Should the supply of former performing animals ever dry up, the sanctuary could then focus on assisting injured and other at-risk cetaceans.

Marino admits that in a way, even a large sanctuary like they are planning, is not the ideal solution. “We’re giving them back as much as we can of what they need to thrive,” she says. “It’s not ideal. They should be out there in the wild living their lives. But we’re going to try and get as close as possible, and that’s about the best we can do at this point.”

SeaWorld and other performance aquariums around the world have yet to formally agree to use the sanctuary once it is open, Marino thinks that they can see the tide changing, and as their orca programs ramp down, the sanctuary will become a much more attractive prospect.In the meantime, the Sanctuary Project continues to move forward towards Marino’s final goal: going out of business. “If you’ve ever talked to anyone who’s built a sanctuary, what they hope for is to go out of business eventually. We hope for a day when we don’t need to put animals in sanctuaries because they’d just be living their lives out in their natural habitat.”

Corrections 11/29/2016: The article previously stated that Marino appeared in Blackfish on behalf of the Nonhuman Rights Project, which was incorrect. While she has worked with the organization, she appeared there as an independent scholar. / In the third paragraph, the Whale Sanctuary Project was previously referred to as a “research group,” this has been amended to “non-profit organization.” / A reference to the sanctuary’s open space as a cage was amended to better reflect the intent of one of Marino’s quotes.