Feared by whalers who watched them feed off dead whales they were hauling to their ships, orcas were called killer whales. Later, captured, forced to perform tricks, these animals are now revered, as they have always been by indigenous peoples, and sea aquariums are now facing pressure to release them.
“The public viewpoint is shifting, as it did with large animals in zoos, like elephants “ Lori Marino, president of The Whale Sanctuary Project, said.
The Whale Sanctuary team will present their proposal to the public, along with unveiling several site possibilities, two of which are located in the San Juans on Sunday, July 21, at 1:30 p.m. at Brickworks in Friday Harbor.
“We are still in the process of talking to stakeholders. We want to make sure we do due diligence,” Marino said, explaining that the group was not quite ready to give the logistics out.
The concept for a whale sanctuary is to provide an area where cetaceans currently in captivity, like Tokitae, who was taken from the Salish Sea as a four-year-old calf, away from her Southern resident L pod in the ‘70s, can retire in a larger, more natural setting. Captivity has been known to have negative health effects on cetaceans. In the wild, orcas life expectancy is on par with humans. Granny, a matriarch from J-pod lived to be an estimated age of 100-plus years old. In captivity, however, Marino said, on average orcas only live 20 years.
In the wild, cetaceans swim hundreds of miles each day and dive deep beneath the waves. In captivity, the tanks are often so small they can only swim the length of their body before they have to turn around. The tanks are shallow, subjecting them to sunburns, and boredom drives them to chew on the metal grates, breaking and wearing down their teeth. Countless orcas have killed themselves by ramming their heads against the sparse concrete aquarium sides.
In the article “The Harmful Effects of Captivity and Chronic Stress on the Well-being of Orcas,” in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in May of this year, Marino, along with fellow scientists Ingrid Visser, Naomi Rose, Heather Rally, Hope Ferdowsian and Veronica Slootsky wrote, “Observations of orcas reveal that they experience deep emotions and strong social attachments. These observations include reports of long-range contact, calling when separated from others, grieving behaviors, and helping, epigenetic, behaviors.”
The paper described several instances of grief and generosity scientists have witnessed in wild orcas.
One such example was Tahlequah, a Southern resident female whose baby died shortly after birth. Not only did she carry her baby’s body around for 17 days, but her other son was seen helping her carry it, and other members of her pod shared food with her as she did not appear to be hunting during that time.
Frequently, in captivity orcas are kept alone, as Tokitae is in the Miami Seaquarium, giving them no social interactions and furthering their stress. “The Harmful Effects of Captivity” study explained that these chronic stresses in captive orcas cause their immune systems to weaken, thus usually harmless pathogens can make them seriously ill.
Stress also can cause behavior issues making the animal aggressive or neurotic, according to the article.
Tokitae is now over 50 years old, one of the oldest captive orcas. According to Marino, there are reports she is losing her eyesight.
“We have not verified that,” Marino noted, adding that Tokitae has been incredibly resilient.
Should Tokitae become one of the animals able to retire in the sanctuary, they would need to know everything possible about her health so veterinarians could know how to best care for her.
“We would love to have her, to bring her back to her natal waters,” Marino added.
The sanctuary project group has been working with Lummi Nation to see if, at the very least, Tokitae can be brought back to her home. Releasing her back with her pod would not be out of the question either, should she be in good health, however, Marino cautioned, not only is there a lot of work filled with maybes and what ifs before a release, but they would need a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Unlike a net pen, which is a small closed-off sea area, a sanctuary will provide enough space for about half a dozen animals, and be hundreds of times larger than the largest existing aquarium tank, Marino said. Depending on where the final location, there will be a visitors center where the public could watch the orcas remotely, from a video, behaving a bit more the way they would in the wild. Also, depending on the site, Marino would like to have a nature trail around the sanctuary, where the public could walk and view the animals from a distance. Another key feature, Marino said, is that the facility would have a fully staffed and equipped veterinary area, including an isolation area to protect the sick or injured whales, as well prevent the healthy animals from being exposed to pathogens.
Marino, who was involved in the attempts to rehabilitate the ailing orca Scarlett last summer, said one lesson from that incident was the need for a facility near the Southern residents where, should another resident need urgent care, emergency treatment could be provided quickly without hassle. Once rehabilitated, the whale would be reunited with its pod, Marino added.
“The animals in the sanctuary will need full-time veterinary care anyway, so it wouldn’t be a big stretch to have it available for sick or stranded wild animals,” Marino said.
Orcas are the third most common cetacean in captivity, dolphins and belugas being the first two. Captivity has had similarly reported health effects on them as well.
The idea for a sanctuary came to her during a conference on captive cetaceans.
“I just thought we need to do this,” Marino said.
As she began reaching out to others, the program grew to having between 50-60 advisors as well as a full board. Many are experts in marine mammal biology, or the laws pertaining to them.
“Everyone I talked to said yes,” she said with a laugh.
The group includes several renowned researchers and activists, including Paul Spong, founder of OrcaLab in British Columbia; Visser, a scientist and founder of Orca Research Trust; and Jean Michael Cousteau, son of Jacque Cousteau, a filmmaker and ocean advocate.
“In the beginning, I thought how is this ever going to happen,” Marino added. “It happens when you get people together.”
The general public, she continued, has also been very supportive.
“I think people know the animals are not doing well in these parks, and they want an alternative,” Marino said.
SeaWorld and its counterparts have had a wide range of reactions, although no one has agreed to give up one of their animals.
“No one has said you won’t ever get a whale,” Marino said, adding that keeping the lines of communication open is key.
“We want [aquariums] to know we will continue talking to them, and listening to what they have to say,” she said, adding that they feel pressure, and know the sanctuary offers a new way of doing things.
With hundreds of captive animals around the world, this one proposed sanctuary is just the beginning. While the sanctuary project does not have the resources to create sanctuaries everywhere, however, should they be successful, Marino hopes people around the world could use their facility as a model.
“I think this could be a real game changer,” she said.