In the region that brought the world its first live captive orca entertainment, a nonprofit wants to help end it forever.
The Whale Sanctuary Project, holding public meetings throughout the region this month, wants to build a $15 million netted-off cove and care facility in the San Juan Islands where captive, performing orcas can retire. The project would start with six to eight orcas.
"We owe them this," said project Executive Director Charles Vinick, of Santa Barbara, California. "They have entertained millions of people and made millions of dollars for the people that house them and we should give them back the quality of life they so deserve."
But a steep regulatory battle for permits lies ahead, and that is just for starters. Millions of dollars would need to be raised. And orcas make money for the aquariums where they already live.
The craze for captive performing killer whales all started with Namu. Ted Griffin brought Namu to his waterfront aquarium in Seattle in 1965, where he taught the orca to perform tricks for tourists. Namu was a worldwide sensation and soon Griffin was filling orders for killer whales captured in Puget Sound and shipped all over the world.
A generation of southern resident killer whales was taken from Puget Sound during the capture era from the mid-1960s through 1976, when a legal settlement barred SeaWorld from collecting orcas from Washington waters ever again.
All of the southern resident orcas captured are dead today but one: Lolita, taken from Penn Cove in August 1970. She has performed at the Seaquarium in Miami ever since. Corky, a northern resident captured in Pender Harbour, B.C., in 1969, has lived the longest of any orca in captivity, and is today at Sea World's theme park in San Diego.
For orcas that were born in captivity or have been in captivity most of their lives, the sanctuary could provide a humane alternative, Vinick said. "This is a bit of a halfway house for these animals that in the main cannot be returned to the wild; this is an alternative that can give them some quality of life," he said.
Envisioned is a netted-off natural cove, from 60 to 100 acres in size. The orcas would be fed and cared for and never have to perform again. The facility also could provide emergency response and short-term rehabilitation for wild orcas, Vinick said.
But the primary goal of the sanctuary is to start what he hopes is a growing movement, to do for orcas what already has been done for elephants, great apes and big cats, Vinick said. "We are looking to create a model sanctuary in North America to demonstrate to others this can be done."
The project envisions spending about $15 million to build the facility and another $2 million a year to run it, including veterinary staff. The goal is to move the first orca to the facility by the end of 2020, or early 2021.
The board also is evaluating creating a sanctuary for belugas on the East Coast, and will decide which to pursue partly on the basis of public support. To that end, the Sanctuary Project is holding public hearings around the region this month to discuss the orca sanctuary idea and possible locations, including a meeting 7 p.m. Thursday in Seattle at the Great Hall at Green Lake, 7220 Woodlawn Ave. N.E.
Orcas suffer in captivity, said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and founder and president of the project. She also is the lead author on a peer-reviewed scientific paper in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
Orcas are among the most intelligent and socially sophisticated of all mammals, and suffer stress, sensory disturbance and boredom due to the sterile environment of captivity in which they have no autonomy or control, according to the paper.
"We have all the science we need to know these animals need to be out of concrete tanks," Marino said. "The goal is to empty all the tanks and not breed any more [captive orcas] so eventually this whole form of entertainment is phased out."
Vinick said he hoped the project could partner with SeaWorld, the Seaquarium and others. He envisions a new model in which, through video feeds and other technology, the public could still observe killer whales at the sanctuary, in addition to viewing opportunities in the wild. So far, he's got no takers.
SeaWorld already has announced it will not breed any more captive killer whales. Suzanne Pelisson Beasley, spokesperson for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, said the park regards the proposal as "a high-risk placement" that would expose SeaWorld orcas to an environment they are not used to.
The Miami Seaquarium has on multiple occasions fought lawsuits to free Lolita and also rejected an ongoing campaign by the Lummi Nation for her release. Lummi tribal members are expected to file a new lawsuit soon to free her.
The Seaquarium reiterated its opposition Monday.
"There is no room for further debate on what is best for Lolita," general manager of the Seaquarium Eric Eimstad wrote in a statement. " ... For almost five decades we have provided and cared for Lolita and we will not allow her life to be treated as an experiment. We will not jeopardize her health by considering any move from her home here in Miami."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would have to approve a permit for any move for Lolita, who is part of the endangered population of southern resident killer whales. The agency also would have to approve the operations of any marine mammal rehabilitation facility, said Lynne Barre, who leads killer whale recovery for NOAA.
The agency would have concerns to be addressed in multiple areas, Barre said, from water quality, to preventing transmission of disease.