Whale sanctuaries where orcas and belugas can retire from captivity

Sanctuaries exist for many animal species. Generally speaking, an animal sanctuary is a place where animals are being “retired” after living in zoos or circuses. It is a place where they can live protected for the rest of their lives. For some species, this concept is nothing new. For cetaceans, however, this is fairly new territory. In this post, we explore whale sanctuaries, why they are important, and discuss two sanctuaries in particular.

From Keiko to Korean dolphins

There have been attempts to release cetaceans back to the wild. You may remember Keiko, the movie star of the “Free Willy” franchise. He was given the chance to return to his home waters in 1998 and was eventually released in 2002. This first project showed how incredibly challenging it is to teach a captive animal to be “wild” again. Many would argue that the release was not successful. Indeed, Keiko never joined a wild pod and was not able to feed himself.

A more successful story is the release of Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins in Korea. Some of them even have their first calves in the wild now. You can read the happy end story in an earlier post. These projects aimed to release the animals back into the wild, which is not necessarily the case for sanctuaries.

Dolphins cannot always go back to the wild

There’s a variety of reasons why an individual may not be suitable for release. Even though cetaceans are still being taken from the wild for marine parks, many individuals in captivity today were captive-born. That means there is no social group for them to go back to in the wild. Cetaceans also have to learn many behaviors, e.g., hunting, for several years from their mothers and other family members. In captivity, they didn’t have the chance to learn crucial survival skills.

In the case of killer whales, there are many hybrids of different ecotypes in captivity. Their parents would have never met and reproduced in the wild. That’s why seaside sanctuaries for cetaceans are so important.

Especially since the 2013 documentary Blackfish, keeping cetaceans in captivity for entertainment has become more controversial. At least in North America and Europe, the public attitude has shifted. However, there is nowhere for these animals to go. That’s where seaside sanctuaries come in. They offer the possibility for these animals to live in their natural habitat for the rest of their lives.

How do you know if a sanctuary is authentic?

In many countries, the term “animal sanctuary” is not legally protected. Therefore, facilities that do not deserve the name may claim to be one. If you keep a few guidelines in mind, recognizing an authentic sanctuary is pretty straightforward.

The most important characteristic is that the well-being of its inhabitants remains the highest priority at all times. The aim should be to allow them to live as autonomous as possible. They should be able to explore, play, rest and socialize as they wish. There should be no intention to make a profit off the animals in any way. For example, cetaceans should not have to perform in any form of entertainment shows or displays. Also, it is important that the facilities do not breed cetaceans. A sanctuary’s purpose is not to breed more animals in captivity. Visitors should not interact directly with the animals. They should not be able to touch or take photos with the animals for money. There might not even be a guarantee to see the animals at all.

Next time you’re planning a zoo visit, maybe check if there’s an authentic sanctuary in the area as an alternative. Now let’s have a look at the currently only cetacean seaside sanctuary in the world and one project in progress.

beluga whale sanctuaries
The world’s first seaside sanctuary in Iceland is home to Little Grey and Little White, two belugas. – Credit: Hanna Michel

The Sea Life Trust Beluga Sanctuary in Iceland

The world’s first open water sanctuary for cetaceans is the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary at Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) in the South of Iceland. Its inhabitants, two belugas, took residence in 2019. Collaborating with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Sea Life first publicly announced its plans in 2018. 

The female belugas Little Grey and Little White are estimated to be born in 2006 or 2007. When they were probably less than one year old, they were captured in the Okhotsk Sea, off the Russian coast. First, they were taken to a Russian Research facility. They stayed here until Changfeng Ocean World Shanghai in China acquired them in 2011. Little Grey’s and Little White’s fate took a turn in 2012 when Merlin Entertainments bought the park. The British-based entertainment firm is the parent company of places like Legoland, Madame Tussauds, Sea Life, and more. Merlin and Sea Life have a longstanding policy against the public display of cetaceans at their facilities. This is how the search for a suitable place to retire the two beluga ladies began.

Following in Keiko’s footsteps

Eventually, a small sea inlet at an archipelago off the South coast of Iceland won first place: Klettsvík Bay. This name might ring a bell in the orca enthusiasts among you. It’s the same place where Keiko’s sea pen was located until his release. Klettsvík is a small natural inlet at the entrance of the harbor of Heimaey. It is the largest and main island in Vestmannaeyjar, with a population of ca. 4,500 inhabitants. In contrast to Keiko’s sea pen, the bay is now enclosed by netting from the surface to the sea bed. A care pool area allows the veterinary team access to Little Grey and Little White.

At first sight, the bay’s location may raise concerns about the vessel traffic passing by the sanctuary. Situated at the entrance of the harbor of Heimaey, there were worries about the noise pollution due to the vessels entering and exiting the harbor. For mitigation, there are agreements about speed and proximity at which vessels pass by. Additionally, Little Grey and Little White have received desensitization training to habituate them to both above and underwater noise. They have also undergone boat training as staff will get out to the sanctuary by boat as well.

beluga whale sanctuaries
Little Grey and Little White at the Sanctuary – Credit: Hanna Michel

Little Grey’s and Little White’s first swim in seawater

After a 6,000-mile journey over 30 hours, the two belugas arrived in Iceland on 19 June 2019. In early August last year, Little Grey and Little White were moved from the land-based facility to the bayside care area. After an adjustment period, they could swim in the open water sanctuary and explore their surroundings for the first time a few weeks later. The bay pen provides them with 32,000 m² of space and up to ten meters of dept. Over winter, the beluga pair stayed in the land-based facilities again. However, it is planned to move them back to the bayside area for good eventually.

As the first sanctuary of its kind, this is a learning process that possible future sanctuaries can benefit from to gain knowledge and optimize protocols. Klettsvík Bay offers space enough for ca. ten belugas and the Sea Life Trust would love to see other belugas joining Little Grey and Little White. In the wild, belugas typically live in large groups and can live up to 60-70 years. Fingers crossed that these two have many decades of swimming in Icelandic waters ahead of them. And hopefully, more belugas will join them in the future.

The Whale Sanctuary Project

The Whale Sanctuary Project aims to provide a more natural environment for killer whales and belugas in a large bay off the Canadian East Coast. The project founder and president, Dr. Lori Marino, is a renowned neuroscientist. She has studied animal behavior and intelligence for decades. Based on her research, she has been advocating against keeping cetaceans in captivity for years and, for example, also appeared in Blackfish. Sylvia Earle and Jean-Michel Cousteau are among the project’s many advisors.

For over two years, the project’s team visited and assessed more than 130 different sites on the North American East and West coast. In the end, a bay at Port Hilford, Nova Scotia, won the race as the sanctuary site. It will provide the whales with about 110 acres (0.5 km²) of space to roam and explore waters up to 18 m deep.

The creation will cost around $12-15 million U.S., then $2 million U.S. each year to care for orcas and belugas. This seems to be a considerable amount of money; however, to put the number in perspective, according to Charles Vinick, the project’s Executive Director, this is still less than what it would cost a marine park to build another tank. The expenses are mainly dependent on donations and sponsors. One way of supporting the project will be “adopting” the whales, just like you can do with Little Grey and Little White.

The sanctuary will be open to the public at regularly scheduled times and will include a visitor center, nature trails, and viewing spots. Educational programs about the whales at the sanctuary and their wild counterparts will be offered to schools and museums. Cameras installed both above and below the surface will allow observations of the whales.  

Who will be the residents at the whale sanctuary?

Potential candidates for the sanctuary include killer whales from different Sea World Parks and Belugas from Marineland Canada. You can read some of the whales’ biographies on the whale sanctuary project’s website. The sanctuary could be the last chance for some Orcas to socialize again after years of solitude. For instance, Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium or Kiska at Marineland Canada both had to live without companions for decades. The project’s team is in contact with several marine parks. Some of these have made formal commitments to close their cetacean facilities. However, as the information is confidential, the project hasn’t made public, which whales may be on the shortlist. Stay tuned – the future residents’ names will be announced on their website as soon as possible.

The Sanctuary Operation Center will open very soon in a small town named Sherbrooke, about 20 minutes from the sanctuary site. From this home base, further steps towards the completion of the project will be taken. In the best-case scenario, the team plans to welcome the first whales at the end of 2022. To dive deeper into the topic, I recommend checking out The Whale Sanctuary’s YouTube channel. Here you find recordings of their webinar series about the project.

The short film ‘Whales Without Walls’ tells the story of the Whale Sanctuary Project. The aim is the creation of North America’s first seaside sanctuary for retired whales from entertainment parks. It premiered in January 2020 at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

End of captivity for cetaceans?

Captive cetaceans have endured inadequate living conditions for most or all their lives. At the same time, they were entertaining hundreds of thousands of people and earning millions of $U.S. for their owners. It’s time to let them retire and give them what they deserve: the chance to live in their natural environment. This will allow them to roam and echolocate, to experience ocean, sun, wind, and texture.

Currently, there are more than 3,000 cetaceans kept at hundreds of entertainment facilities around the world. However, tides are changing. In the last decade or so, several countries have introduced legislation to ban the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. Other countries have banned their breeding. That’s excellent news and shows how important the establishment of seaside sanctuaries is. They are the next important step towards ending captivity. Additionally, sanctuaries will be able to serve as rehabilitation centers for stranded cetaceans. This can be the case even when they won’t hold any retired captive cetaceans any longer.

The projects in Iceland and Canada will hopefully encourage the rehabilitation of more captive cetaceans into natural environments in the future. The National Aquarium in Baltimore, for instance, is another facility working on retiring their Bottlenose dolphins to a sanctuary, as they announced in 2016. I want to finish this post with a quote from the Whale Sanctuary Project’s website, which I couldn’t agree with more:

“We need a new, more respectful relationship with wildlife and nature if we wish to survive on Earth. Sanctuaries like this can help build that relationship.”

The Whale Sanctuary Project

Thank you for reading!

Further whale sanctuary reading:

Biologist, Guide, Lecturer | hanna.michel.mb@gmail.com

Hanna is a biologist from Germany with focus on marine mammals. During her university days she was involved in research projects in Italy, Australia and also Iceland. This is where she has spent most of her time since receiving her Master’s degree. Here she has been working as a naturalist for whale watching companies in different parts of the country. Since starting to work as a guide and lecturer on polar expedition cruises in 2017, she has been migrating between Iceland and Antarctica sharing her passion for cetaceans and seals.

4 thoughts on “Whale sanctuaries where orcas and belugas can retire from captivity”

  1. Rathana Subramaniam

    Please save them.. Kiska banging her head against the wall.. its heartbreaking. Please help.. No animals deserves this. ????????

  2. Kiska needs help, she is self damaging….. waiting for a whale sanctuary to be built off Nova Scotia is too long, too far away. What can be done to help her today? NOW. Can we form a Kiska friend group and make sure she gets meaningful visits daily? I am serious. What is happening now is outright animal cruelty and her isolation is leading her to harm herself by crashing into the sides of her tank. Let’s get going on this!! There is currently a sanctuary off the coast of Iceland. There are two resident belugas that I know of. Would they welcome Kiska? April 14, 2022

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