The Whale Sanctuary Project: Making the concept a reality

Dr Lori Marino describes how the Whale Sanctuary Project is building the first seaside sanctuary in North America for formerly captive cetaceans.

In the last few years we’ve experienced a series of eye-opening incidents regarding the welfare of dolphins and whales (and humans) in aquariums and marine parks. The death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, the documentary Blackfish in 2013, and the U.S. federal government’s recent rejection of a proposal by Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild-caught belugas are just a few of these (sometimes tragic) milestones.  As a result, aquariums and theme parks are feeling the pressure to phase out their current practices of keeping dolphins and whales in concrete tanks and using them for entertainment. The Whale Sanctuary Project is working to facilitate that shift.

What is a sanctuary? Authentic sanctuaries differ from commercial zoos and aquariums in a number of ways, most importantly in their priorities. Aquariums and theme parks, by necessity, place ticket sales ahead of animal welfare. Authentic wildlife sanctuaries, on the other hand, prioritize the health and well-being of their residents over anything else. And this profound difference is the defining line between places of exploitation and places of restitution in terms of our relationship with other animals.

Seaside sanctuaries are the only viable alternative to captive, concrete tanks

There are ongoing efforts to phase out dolphin and whale captivity around the world, but these efforts cannot succeed as long as there’s nowhere for the animals to go. Dolphins and whales held in captivity cannot be directly released into the ocean. In fact, most will not be releasable at all. And that’s where seaside sanctuaries come in as the only viable alternative to concrete tanks and the necessary next step for global captive marine mammal advocacy efforts. Without sanctuaries, the effort to end dolphin and whale use for entertainment goes no further.

The incorporation of The Whale Sanctuary Project in May, 2016

In August 2015, a group of marine mammal scientists, advocates and other stakeholders met in Vancouver to discuss the possibility of creating a seaside sanctuary. Serious planning was soon underway, and in May of this year The Whale Sanctuary Project was incorporated with the mission of building the first seaside sanctuary in North America for formerly captive beluga whales and orcas.

The sanctuary will be a protected environment that prioritizes the well-being and autonomy of the animals and is as close as possible to their natural environment. We’re focused on cold-water species like orcas and beluga whales for our first sanctuary, but we were delighted to hear the National Aquarium’s recent announcement that they are going to build a warm-water sanctuary for their eight bottlenose dolphins. It’s a welcome addition to the momentum toward sanctuaries.

Since the incorporation of The Whale Sanctuary Project in May, 2016 things have been moving fast. We’ve already received seed funding from Munchkin, Inc., a baby products company in California. And this will enable us to complete our first two critical tasks: formulating a strategic plan for the building of the sanctuary and transporting and caring for the first residents; and completing an initial survey of possible locations.

In looking for possible sites, the regions we’re looking at closely are Maine and Nova Scotia on the east coast and Washington State and B.C. on the west coast. Both have challenges and opportunities that we will be sifting through so that we can come up with a short list of three-to-five top candidate sites by January 2017, and then move to the next stage: on-the-ground scoping of the chosen sites and final decision on the sanctuary location.

We’re privileged to have a world-class team of advisors to the project, and there’s been a tremendously supportive response from the public. If you’d like to stay updated on our developments, please go to our website at The concept will be a reality before long.


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