The Monumental Plans That Could Set Captive Orcas Free

By Tim Zimmermann

As concern, protests -- even proposed legislation -- continue to grow in opposition to keeping cetaceans like killer whales and dolphins in captivity, only one solution continues to be raised: Sea pens. A wildlife refuge in the ocean, a pen would let these cetaceans either ease their way back into the wild, or provide a more natural place for them to live out their lives.

The fate of the "rescued" killer whale Morgan, for example, now rests with a Dutch court, which could upend the long chain of decisions that sent her to Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. Activists' preferred choice for Morgan? A sea pen and, if possible, release back to the wild. Similarly, Lolita, the four-decades-long resident of Miami's Seaquarium, may be given an endangered species listing that applies to her Southern Resident killer whale pod off the coast of Washington state, which could open a door for Lolita's return to her native waters -- again, a sea pen would be necessary. And California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom's proposed "Orca Welfare And Safety Act" mandates an end to orca shows and breeding in California, and would require that SeaWorld San Diego's 10 killer whales either be returned to the wild, if feasible, or retired to a coastal sea pen sanctuary.

There's only one problem: There are no sea pens. Some are under consideration, but it would be a bitter irony if, after all the post-"Blackfish" enthusiasm for giving killer whales more natural lives in ocean enclosures, or even returning them to the wild, lack of good planning or funding put a halt to any killer whale's opportunity to return to real salt water.

Unlike some captive orcas that were born into captivity, Morgan and Lolita could possibly be transitioned back to life in the sea. It would require an enclosed area and involve being taught to hunt and eat live fish again, along with conditioning work to return them to wild killer whale physical condition. That training would ideally progress to the point where open ocean "walks" accompanied by a boat could take place, which could involve seeing and interacting with wild whales (Lolita's immediate family in her case). And, if possible, reintegration with a wild whale group.

The Free Morgan Foundation has a rehab and potential release plan. It would move Morgan to a location in Norway, where her relatives might be found. According to Ingrid Visser, an orca expert who has been a leading voice in the Free Morgan movement, the ideal set-up would involve a sea pen in a harbor or bay protected from harsh weather, as well as a floating sea pen that could be used in the open ocean to create a different environment. Norway is home to a thriving salmon farming industry and Visser believes an interim sea pen could be created from salmon farm pens for as little as $30,000 to $50,000 (a custom-built sea pen, like that used during the rehab and release of "Free Willy's" Keiko, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars).

One of the locations contemplated for Morgan is Sto, a fishing villlage in the north of Norway. Visser has spoken with fishing industry representatives there about potentially using surplus fish pen equipment. With a little creativity, she believes, fish farm pens could serve as a highly adaptable, and economical, sea pen solution, even for longer term use. "Not only can you expand on these pens, but you can daisy chain them together to make triangles and hexagons, with linking channels," she says. "The beauty of fish-farm style sea pens is that they are mobile. We've got to start thinking outside the box for these animals, and there are incredible companies out there that build sea pens for fish farming. No reason they can't be adapted for holding cetaceans, and they are built for very harsh environments to survive currents and storms."

But the cost of the pen is only the beginning. To handle her care, Morgan would need a team that could feed her, train her, and handle any medical issues. Jeff Foster, who worked extensively on the Keiko release project in Iceland and is a consultant to the Free Morgan Foundation, says Morgan would need a team that could feed her, train her, take care of her medical needs, and maintain the sea pen and all the ancillary equipment, like boats and an anchoring system. Ideally, he adds, someone would be on station at the pen 24-hours a day. That adds up to a full-time team of six to eight people, according to Foster. "Norway is very expensive. And with the cost of your pen, qualified staff, care and maintenance, you are probably looking at $600,000 at least for a year," he estimates. "If you do boat walks it adds up. And getting a supply of live fish is a huge cost."

Visser thinks costs could go as high as $1 million a year. And if Morgan could not eventually be released into the wild, her long-term care could extend for decades, which adds up to an impressive financial challenge. Visser points to the sanctuary model for elephants and other animals, which includes inviting a paying public interested in witnessing the rehab and care process, along with visitors' centers. But she doesn't have any illusions that northern Norway will become a tourist mecca, and is well aware of the conundrum of trying to raise money for a Morgan rehab project when Morgan is still in legal limbo. "We haven't raised the funding yet, because we haven't even got Morgan yet," she says. "This is where the [zoo and aquarium] industry should really be taking responsibility and preparing."

Lolita is in the same situation, with her prospects for swimming in the ocean again in the hands of federal agencies, as well as Miami Seaquarium, and how it chooses to respond if Lolita is granted an endangered listing. But if she catches all the right breaks, and there is a chance she could be returned to her native waters in the Pacific Northwest, the Orca Network has a plan that proposes rehabbing her in Kanaka Bay, on the Haro Strait. The initial costs of netting off Kanaka Bay would likely be modest, on the order of thousands of dollars. It was already used once, in 1976, to briefly hold some captured killer whales before they were released.

Jeff Foster was the person who drove the bolts and strung up the net for that 1976 operation, and he says that while the initial costs of using Kanaka Bay would be minimal, it is not ideal for a long-term rehab and potential release project. "The downside is it's not big enough to do boat training for Lolita, in anticipation of taking her on open ocean walks," he says. "Kanaka is maybe a good starting place and inexpensive. But if you are going to do boat training you are going to need something bigger than that. It is only 15-20 feet deep at low tide, and not very protected in the winter." Howard Garrett of Orcan Network agrees that Kanaka Bay is a bit tight, but is optimistic that even within its confines Lolita would be quick to learn how to stay with a boat. Garrett says ideally she would arrive in April, so there would be a good chunk of training time before any winter storms arrive. "[We] expect that it won't take more than a few months for Lolita -- by then we'll call her Tokitae -- to be fully competent and confident to venture out on her own and return at will," Garrett says. "At that point a care station could be set up at a wide range of locations, really anywhere in the Salish Sea, where her caretakers could have whatever she needs -- food, medical help, companionship -- at all times."

Another group, the Orca Conservancy, also has a Lolita retirement proposal, which would use a pen in a larger, more secluded bay, called Neah Bay, at the entrance to the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Lolita's family pod (her mother is believed to still be alive) frequents both the Strait of Juan De Fuca as well as the Haro Strait, so either location would give her both an ocean environment as well as contact with her closest relatives. Long-term funding for Lolita's care, as with Morgan, is the most daunting challenge. Lolita is in her mid-40s. If in the end she is not releasable, she could require care for another 40-plus years. The Orca Network's Garrett estimates that relocating Lolita to the Pacific Northwest, and the first year of care could cost close to $1 million dollars (procuring fresh, live, salmon alone, he says, could run hundreds of thousands of dollars a year). But Garrett is optimistic that the funds will be there. "We haven't begun a dedicated fund-raising campaign for Lolita, but literally millions of people are eager to see Lolita return to her native habitat," he says. "So when the need for funding approaches, fund-raising is not expected to be problematic."

Money aside, housing either Morgan or Lolita in a netted off bay, or a sea pen constructed from fish farm pens, is eminently doable. By far the most challenging and ambitious project -- the biggest, baddest idea in the world of sea pens -- would be a killer whale sanctuary to house SeaWorld San Diego's 10 killer whales if the Orca Welfare and Safety Act ever passes, and forces or induces SeaWorld to part with its California whales and move them to an open ocean retirement. Naomi Rose, an orca expert with the Animal Welfare Institute who consulted with State Assemblyman Bloom on his "Blackfish Bill," says it is too early to be drawing up any concrete plans. "Worrying about how it would get done is a little premature. The bill hasn't even passed," she says. "But if SeaWorld had half a brain they would get ahead of the curve and proactively say, okay, fine, we will do this and charge admission for everyone who wants to see them. They will lose some revenues but hopefully not that much."

Failing that (and the Orca Welfare and Safety Act does not stipulate how a coastal sanctuary would be paid for), Rose envisions a killer whale sanctuary modeled on existing sanctuaries for land animals: A self-sustaining non-profit operation that would use grant and foundation money, along with visitor revenues, to fund the care of retired killer whales. The legislation requires the killer whales to remain in California, so a coastal location with cold water, perhaps served up by the California current, would have to be found. Ideally, says Rose, the location would be not too far from SeaWorld in San Diego, and she is optimistic that permitting would not be a roadblock. "You could probably build a facility in two to three years," Rose estimates. "My feeling is the initial capital investment would be on order of a couple of million dollars, partly because you would need to build a visitor center. But after that self-sustaining costs would be quite low."

Foster, who during his early days capturing killer whales for SeaWorld kludged together holding pens from 55-gallon drums and fencing material, is intrigued by the practical challenges of building an orca sanctuary for multiple animals. "I can barely imagine that. It would have to be a large space with multiple sea pens in a large netted off bay, a bay that is large enough to move around by boat," he says. "For that many animals it would have to be the right spot, and I can think of just a few places that might work. It would almost have to be something tied into an old or unused military base, and probably not in someone's back yard where people could just come kayaking over."

Foster is also not as sanguine about the annual running costs. "It could cost millions a year," he estimates. "Even the vet costs alone for Keiko were $10,000 a month. With that many animals of this size in a marine environment it is going to be expensive."

What Foster doesn't question, however, is the benefit to the animals of moving into an ocean environment. "You want to do it right," he says. "The whole goal is to try and provide them with a better habitat, and without question a sea pen is much more dynamic than a pool."

There is a lot that would have to happen before Morgan, Lolita, or SeaWorld San Diego's killer whales get a true whiff of the ocean world, if they ever do. But simply debating the issue is certainly progress. Ingrid Visser, for one, hopes that we're just at the start of a conversation about transitioning marine mammals out of captivity. "If you look at the fact that there are more than 2,000 captive cetaceans around the world, then multiple sanctuaries should not be ruled out," she says. "Anything that's bigger than a marine park pool is instantaneously a better option for these animals. Not only is the size bigger but they have environmental stimulation. And from there we have to go exponentially bigger."

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to correct a fact in a quote from Ingrid Visser. There are than 2,,000 captive cetaceans worldwide, not 600, according to Visser. We regret the error.