British Columbia

Ocean sanctuary proposed for captive orcas

Whale Sanctuary Project wants to move killer whales kept in captivity into a penned-off area near the San Juan Islands where they can live out their days in an environment as close to living in the wild as possible.

Washington state group wants to build penned-off area near the San Juan Islands

Nonprofit group Whale Sanctuary Project wants to relocate whales in captivity to an ocean pen where they can live out the rest of their lives in an environment close to their natural habitat. (Courtesy of Ted Griffin)

Killer whales kept in captivity at marine parks could retire seaside if a  Washington state group gets its wish.

Whale Sanctuary Project wants to build a penned-off area in the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands with capacity for up to eight whales and then relocate captive orcas to the pen. Lori Marino, founder and president of the group, spoke with On The Island host Gregor Craigie about what the project will entail.

"It would be a large bay, possibly 60 to 100 acres with enough depth for the animals to dive," explained Marino, who said it would be equipped with a veterinary facility to treat ill whales, both wild and those in the pen, and workers would feed the previously-captive whale who can't fend for themselves.

Marino said the project will be funded entirely by donations and estimates it will cost an initial $15 million and then about $2 million annually to maintain. She said the logistics of moving the whales is "surprisingly the easy part" and would involve plane and truck transport with a team of people who have moved orcas before. 

Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island, used social media to express concerns about the project, saying people should not "change nature" and questioning if Marino had reached out to First Nation peoples in the San Juan area to gauge their opinion.

Raynell Morris, member of the Lummi Nation in Washington State, said the Lummi Nation has signed a letter of intent with Whale Sanctuary Project and supports the idea.

"They are relatives that live under the waves," said Morris, who wants every effort made to feed and care for killer whales.

An orca whale breaches in view of Mount Baker in the San Juan Islands in 2015. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

New form of captivity

Andrew Trites, director of marine mammal research at the University of British Columbia's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, is sceptical about what Whale Sanctuary Project is proposing.

"They're basically trading one type of captivity for another, and it's not clear to me that it is any better than what the whales currently have," said Trites.

Trites said the size of the proposed pen sounds not much bigger than some of the pools captive whales are kept in. 

Young children get a close-up view of an orca during a visit to the animal theme park, SeaWorld, in San Diego, Calif. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

He said he understands the good intentions behind the project but has concerns about pathogens in the ocean being passed to penned orcas and the mental health impact on the whales who have been raised in captivity.

"Moving them to a different environment could be very stressful to them and actually do greater harm," he said, adding people might think "this is the best thing ever" when it may not be in the interest of all captive orcas. 

The Whale Sanctuary Project is holding public meetings in Washington state throughout July to get feedback on its proposal.

To hear the complete interview with Lori Marino see the audio link below:

For more on the future of the southern resident killer whales ...

Listen to a new CBC British Columbia podcast.  Killers: J pod on the Brink is hosted by Gloria Macarenko, and the first episode comes your way July 18. 

You can subscribe now, wherever you get your podcasts. 

With files from Ben Mussett and On The Island