I’ve been meaning to write this post since SeaWorld announced they were ending their captive breeding programme back in March last year. Shortly after I published my photos from the Empty The Tanks protest I received a comment from a reader asking, very politely, what I wanted to see if “they were to empty the tanks”; what answers did I have and more importantly, what solutions. It was a more than reasonable question that I could answer on the spot and did, but ever since I have meant to make it official and now is the time. After the tragic loss of Tilikum last week I write this post as a tribute to him and his legacy.
By ‘empty the tanks’ we anti-captivity campaigners mean exactly that – release captive whales and dolphins from zoos and aquariums. We know we ask a lot and it’s not something we take lightly. It’s an incredibly complex issue that has all sorts of ethical, political and economic consequences and is nothing short of a logistical nightmare, but the most important thing is we believe it’s worth it. It is what we dream to see in our lifetime.
It is first important to recognise that this isn’t a ‘Blackfish’ idea. Remember Free Willy? After the film’s release there was a huge wave of public support for releasing Keiko, the orca that played ‘Willy’ and it happened. Both a happy and a sad story depending on how you look at it and laced with controversy, it divided supporters and ultimately tainted the idea of releasing captives until now, until Blackfish.
Keiko was captured in Iceland in 1979. At just three years old he was separated from his family and sold to an Icelandic aquarium. Three years later he was sold to Marineland in Ontario in Canada where he first started performing for the public. He was then sold to an amusement park in Mexico City in 1985 and became the star of Free Willy in 1993. The publicity from the movie stirred up support for his welfare and the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation was established in 1995. $7 million dollars in donations were given to the Oregon Coast Aquarium to care for him and ultimately prepare him for return to the wild. By this time Keiko had been in captivity almost 20 years. The operation was ridden with controversy. Many felt that the years of captivity from such a young age meant that surviving in the wild was impossible; others argued that with the correct preparation adaptation was possible. The fact is that nobody really knew and all sides were nothing more than informed opinion. Keiko was flown to Iceland in 1998 where he underwent exercises to prepare him for his eventual release. He finally left Icelandic waters in 2002 and then showed up in Norway several weeks later appearing to seek contact with human beings. He was monitored for the next 15 months where he was witnessed switching from different groups of wild orca, always keeping his distance. It became clear that Keiko failed to integrate with the wild pods, which would not be surprise us now in our awareness of the complexity of orca social structure and interaction. Various opinions on the outcome of his release concluded in both success and failure and continue to stir up debate. Keiko died in 2003 at about 27 years of age. Pneumonia was determined as the probable cause of death.
I think the truth is that Keiko’s release was neither a success nor a failure. There were aspects of both. What it turned out to be was an experiment, unknown to us at the time but now case study that will lead us to making more informed decisions if we ever have the opportunity to indeed ‘empty the tanks’.
We learned from orca sociology and Keiko’s difficulties in integrating with wild orca pods and what seemed to be his need for human interaction, that orcas who have spent a considerable percentage of their life in captivity may struggle to adapt to life in the wild. But this does not mean that their only alternative is to see out the rest of their existence in a concrete tank forced to perform tricks. Where release is not possible there is an opportunity to ‘retire’ our captive orcas. Away from the crowds and the chlorine and into the ocean. A sort of halfway house.
The development of sea pens or ‘sanctuaries’ has been fast-growing and is now almost inevitable with the establishment of the Whale Sanctuary Project. The Project was the outcome of a meeting at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 2015 in which 25 attendees consisting of marine mammal scientists, veterinarians and trainers, engineers and architects, marketing, PR and fundraising specialists and relevant NGO’s shared the vision to see an end to cetacean captivity and fight for a future for the captives still suffering. Their mission:
“To establish a model seaside sanctuary where cetaceans can live in an environment that maximises well-being and autonomy and is as close as possible to their natural habitat.”
The sanctuaries will be enclosed, but will be as close to a natural habitat as they can be, making the site selection one of the most critical aspects. The WSP are beginning with a survey of coves, bays and inlets on the coasts of Washington State and British Columbia on the west coast, and Maine, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia on the east coast. There are thousands of possible sites in these regions, but they must all be critically assessed to ensure they meet the neccesary criteria. The first phase of site selection is planned for early this year.
The cost is currently estimated at $20 million, but will depend on the specific location and the infrastructure required. Munchkin Inc (a global baby product company) have launched their own “Orcas Live in Oceans” campaign in support of the cause. They have already donated $200,000 to WSP and have pledged at least $1 million to toward the completion of the first sanctuary. Following the death of Tilikum last week, they also donated 100% of their proceeds from weekend sales. They are a huge driving force behind making this a reality.
There will then be the long-term ongoing costs, where the animals will need care and monitoring, particularly in the early stages. WSP hope to generate income from fundraising and donations, as well as an education programme. Visitors will be permitted at the sanctuary, but limitations will be defined in relation to what is best for the whales and dolphins; who will always be priority and their welfare paramount.
There is reasonable fear that any release or retirement will prove too much for our long term captives and will ultimately result in a shortened life, but our experience and understanding is great and the dedication of individuals from all areas of expertise and support from the public puts us in a great position, now more than ever, to do this.
Saved until last and controversial in itself is my personal opinion, which is this: I would rather see any captive orca live to see only one more day with the taste of the open sea, one more breach in open water, one last dive to the ocean floor than a lifetime in a crumbling, chlorinated tank; hungry, alone and exploited.
Please show supporfor The Whale Sanctuary Project.