Sanctuary Groups Share Info at Marine Mammal Conference


Concept drawing of a seaside sanctuary for orcas and belugas.

Last week, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Whale Sanctuary Project presented a workshop at the conference of the Society for Marine Mammal Biology.

The society’s conference is held every two years. And what a difference two years makes! At the last conference, in San Francisco, the idea of creating a sanctuary for whales and dolphins who might be retired from captivity at marine parks and aquarium was met with considerable skepticism by many people.

This year, the workshop, entitled “Sanctuaries: The New Seascape for Captive Cetaceans,” was greeted enthusiastically in a packed room. And the three main speakers gave updates on three separate sanctuary projects that are making steady progress.

WSP Workshop Halifax 2017

Naomi Rose introduces Lori Marino, Colleen Weiler and John Racanelli at the workshop.

Lori Marino, President of the Whale Sanctuary Project, explained some of the chief characteristics of a sanctuary:

  • It’s about the wellbeing of the whales and dolphins; not for the entertainment or convenience of humans
  • It’s a place where the residents can thrive
  • It’s a place where we can model change – a change in our relationship with these animals
  • It’s about giving back to them some of what’s been taken from them

Overall, at an authentic sanctuary, she said, there’s no exploitation, no invasive research, and no breeding.

While the Whale Sanctuary Project is exploring cold water locations in the Northwest and Northeast, the National Aquarium is planning to move their bottlenose dolphins to a warm water sanctuary they’re creating in Florida.

“The U.S. public has moved to a majority sentiment against keeping dolphins and whales in captivity.”CEO John Racanelli talked about the need to provide them with “a higher level to thrive than we’re able to afford them in a setting like [what we have] in Baltimore.” That setting is a 1.3-million-gallon tank that was state-of-the-art when it was built in 1990. “However, that era has passed, and we now need to do better.”

While the Aquarium moves forward with its plans, the dolphins are being prepared for their new life. Visitors are surprised to see algae growing on the walls of the tank. (Life in a natural setting, after all, doesn’t take place in sterile, manufactured saltwater!)

Racanelli also described the surveys the Aquarium has done to gauge public attitudes toward keeping dolphins in captivity:

“The U.S. public has moved to a majority sentiment against keeping dolphins and whales in captivity for any reason. Public interest in creating seaside sanctuaries is strong and growing.”

Colleen Weiler of Whale and Dolphin Conservation talked about the sanctuary they’re planning for beluga whales. It’s a joint project between WDC and Merlin Entertainment, one of the world’s largest operators of theme parks. Merlin recently took over a theme park in Shanghai that was displaying three beluga whales, and has partnered with WDC to create a sanctuary for them.

WDC’s preferred location is in Icelandic waters, in Klettsvik Bay on the island of Heimaey in the Westman Islands. This is the same location that was used for the rehabilitation of Keiko almost 20 years ago, as part of his reintroduction to the wild.

During the Q&A that followed the presentations, one of the questions was about what we mean by an “authentic” sanctuary. Dr. Marino talked about the fact that there are wildlife sanctuaries that do not have as their priority the wellbeing of the animals. Also, much of the “education” that’s offered at marine parks is designed to convince people that the animals are happy living in a tank and being trained to perform for audiences. By contrast, she said, we need to be fully transparent about the fact, for example, that whales belong in the ocean and that even a seaside sanctuary is still, however benign, a form of captivity.

At an authentic sanctuary, there’s no exploitation, no invasive research, and no breeding. Another question was about the cost of building and running a sanctuary. Shouldn’t that money be used for conservation instead? The answer is that there is no single “pot of money” that can either be used for a sanctuary or for conservation. People give to both causes, and to many more. More broadly, conservation programs are about protecting populations of animals; sanctuaries are about caring for them as individuals. Each complements the other.

Overall, it was heartening to have all three sanctuary organizations working together and sharing information. And it was clear to anyone who had attended the conference two years ago that there is now a growing movement toward retiring all captive whales and dolphins to seaside sanctuaries.

The next conference of the Society for Marine Mammal Biology will be in two years’ time in Barcelona. And perhaps, by then, the first whales and dolphins to have been retired from marine parks and aquariums will have moved to their new homes.

3 Comments On “Sanctuary Groups Share Info at Marine Mammal Conference”

  1. This is a common sense approach, complementing broader conservation efforts that could inhibit or abolish captive cetacean programs moving forward. Hopefully, someday we won’t have captive whales. I met Naomi at a Lolita event in Seattle in 1996; sad to think it’s been that long. Her bio mentions 4 rehab programs she has been involved with. I don’t feel the general public hears much about the success of these programs; I certainly have not, and I pay fairly close attention to Orca issues due to our resident pods here in the Pacific Northwest. Better publicity for those efforts would garner even stronger public support for this project.

  2. Thanks very much for hosting us! I enjoyed sharing our update and hearing updates on the other Sanctuary Projects. For more information on the WDC/SeaLife Trust Beluga Sanctuary, please visit the Sanctuary page on our website:

  3. The Animal Interfaith Alliance in Britain would like to send our compliments and thanks to you all for the excellent and compassionate work you’re doing to provide captive cetaceans with something as much like their natural lives as practicable.

    We wish you great success in bringing these projects to fruition.

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