7 min read

People Are Building A Sanctuary Where SeaWorld’s Orcas Could Retire

A team of scientists is planning to build the first permanent sanctuary for whales and dolphins - with or without SeaWorld's consent.

SeaWorld, which has long come under fire for its questionable treatment of animals, announced in March that it would be ending its captive orca breeding program. The decision was a burst of good news for orca fans, but many worried about the existing orcas - who could spend their remaining years, perhaps decades, living in SeaWorld's crowded tanks - and questioned whether the company would retire them to a sea sanctuary.

Shutterstock

SeaWorld was quick to shut those hopes down, arguing that its whales were, ironically, too weak from captivity to be relocated and that they'd be at risk from hurricanes - excuses that marine biologist and orca expert Naomi Rose, of the Animal Welfare Institute, said were false.

Exhausted by SeaWorld's excuses, a team of animal advocates - including Rose, several former SeaWorld trainers, and Lori Marino, a biologist and executive director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy - have, for lack of a better phrase, gone rogue.

On Thursday, the team announced the creation of The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP), a new group that plans to establish a permanent cetacean sanctuary in North America and is in the process of scouting locations.

Shutterstock

"There are sanctuaries for other large, highly social, and wide-ranging mammals, including elephants and great apes, but there are none anywhere in the world yet for dolphins and whales," Marino, an animal behavior expert who was featured in "Blackfish," said in a statement. "Cetacean sanctuary initiatives are long overdue, and we now have the best possible team of experts to ensure an optimal quality of life and care for individual cetaceans."

WSP aims to create a sea sanctuary "where cetaceans - whales, dolphins, and porpoises - can live permanently in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible and with full support for their well-being," the group said in a press release.

While the sanctuary didn't expressly mention SeaWorld's orcas in its press release - or the company at all - WSP's all-star team has clear ties to the company. Former SeaWorld trainers John Hargrove, Samantha Berg, John Jett, Carol Ray and Jeffrey Ventre will all serve on the advisory board.

Shutterstock

And the project has received initial funding from Munchkin, Inc., CEO Steve Dunn, who initially pledged $1,000,000 to SeaWorld if the company would agree to retire famed orca Tilikum to a sea sanctuary.

WSP will be led by Rose, Marino and David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project. Other members of the project include representatives from some of the top animal organizations in the world, as well as members of the team that reintroduced captive orca Keiko to the wild in the 1990s.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether SeaWorld will be open to retiring its orcas. But the fact that a team of the world's leading orca and animal welfare experts have come together in the united goal of forming a sanctuary indicates a serious shift in both scientific and popular opinion on whale and dolphin captivity.

And for Rose, it's not a matter of if, but when.

Shutterstock

In an interview with The Dodo back in March, Rose noted that SeaWorld had been defending its breeding program up until the day it decided to end it - and said she was confident the company would eventually have do the right thing for the orcas remaining in its care.

"SeaWorld of course is going to say that," she said of the company's opposition to sea sanctuaries. "I expect them to say that ... The fact that that's their PR now doesn't terribly concern me."

To stay updated on The Whale Sanctuary Project, you can follow it on Facebook.