British Columbia

B.C. sites being considered for world's 1st 'retirement home' for captive whales

'The mission is to build this for individuals who are currently on display in aquariums and theme parks to be retired,' says Whale Sanctuary Project president Lori Marino. 'And that is mainly orcas, belugas.'

U.S.-based Whale Sanctuary Project looking for local input on potential sites to move captive orcas, belugas

Orcas like this could soon call an open water sanctuary in British Columbia home if a U.S.-based whale advocate is successful in its bold plan to create a retirement space. (Reuters/Mike Blake )

A U.S-based organization is looking for input on a possible B.C. location for a whale retirement home.

"Back to Nature" is the Whale Sanctuary Project's slogan, and it has developed a bold plan to find an area where it can essentially allow orcas or belugas that have been kept in captivity their whole lives to swim freely and even potentially communicate with their long-lost relatives.

Lori Marino is president of the Whale Sanctuary Project. (Lori Marino)

"We're going to be cordoning off large areas where fish can come through where they can experience the natural rhythms of the ocean," said Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project. "There will be flow through, there will be fish, there will be lots of stuff to do."

The plan is to isolate a 26-hectare section of ocean using nets to block the mouth of a cove, inlet or bay in an area where there is enough depth for the animals to dive.

There would be facilities on land to house staff who would co-ordinate feeding and health care for the animals.

The sea pen where Keiko, a 5-ton killer whale best known for his appearance in Warner Brothers' 'Free Willy' films, was housed after being freed in 1996 from a Mexico City amusement park. The Whale Sanctuary Project hopes to go even further with enclosed, open water spaces for captive orcas and belugas. (Reuters)

"We don't want the residents to feel like they're in a pen or a cage," said Marino. "We want them to feel as close as possible what it's like to be free-ranging.

"The point is that it would be orders of magnitude better than the largest concrete tank in existence."

The project is also considering sites in Washington State and Nova Scotia, where independent biologists have already said the idea could work.

Marino says her group is currently looking at up to 30 possible sites in B.C., but wants to narrow that down to five or six.

And that's where locals come in.

A concept drawing of what a whale sanctuary could look like. (The Whale Sanctuary Project)

"If there's anyone out there who has property, coastal property that meets the criteria, and they want to have a whale sanctuary in their backyard, give me a call," she said, adding that the project is prepared to pay for a location.

Marino is looking for ideas and opinions, and is asking people to contact the project through its website.

The space would have to be around 25 hectares large, and at least half of it would need to be 15 to 20 metres deep so that the whales could dive, "for the first time in their lives," according to Marino.

The Whale Sanctuary Project says it is trying to be particularly sensitive when it comes to locals embracing the project, that's why it wants feedback about what would make a good site.

Marino argues that there is also an economic upside to the project, as it would employ people to maintain the site and also care for the animals.

Young children get a close-up view of an orca killer whale during a visit to SeaWorld in San Diego, California, March 19, 2014. SeaWorld no longer breeds the animals and will phase out performances by 2019. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Marino says her group has been reaching out to local First Nations, who she says are stakeholders. It's also trying to build a relationship with the Vancouver Aquarium.

"You know, I hope the Vancouver Aquarium hears this and wants to work with us because what they do, they do brilliantly, which is public education, public outreach ... their field work, field studies ... fabulous," said Marino.

"[But] they don't need to keep whales and dolphins in concrete tanks to do what they do so well."

Marino says the project is expected to finalize a short list of sites by February, and she estimates it would cost approximately $20 million US to get the project up and running.

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