SeaWorld Says ‘No’ To Sanctuary For Tilikum, But Scientists Are Building One Anyway

Scientists are building a sea sanctuary where orcas could retire, despite SeaWorld’s very public opposition on the matter.

A new nonprofit group, called The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP), includes Dr. Lori Marino, executive director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, and David Phillips, co-founder and executive director of Earth Island Institute and director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

The frustration levels of these professionals, and the call to action, is described in an article by The Dodo.

Exhausted by SeaWorld’s excuses, a team of animal advocates — including Rose, several former SeaWorld trainers, and Lori Marino, a biologist and executive director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy — have, for lack of a better phrase, gone rogue.”

SeaWorld’s “excuses” include fear of parasites and bad weather, which the animals would be exposed to if released into a sea pen, according to the company’s blog post entitled, “Why Sea Cages Are Dangerous.”

“Almost all of our whales were born at SeaWorld and have never lived in the wild. They would not be able to handle the ocean’s man-made pollution or naturally occurring diseases.

“Stuck in these cages, they would be helpless to avoid contagious diseases, parasites and pollutants. They would be sitting ducks, stuck in one place no matter what the tide brings in, whether it’s an oil spill or a hurricane. That a risk we simply won’t take.”

But according to the WSP group’s website, the haven will provide lifetime support for Tilikum and other whales that are non-releasable.

“The planned sanctuary will primarily serve orcas, belugas and dolphins endemic to colder waters who are retired from entertainment facilities, and injured or ill animals rescued from the ocean.

“Rescued animals may be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, but those retired from the entertainment industry, who have never known life in the wild, are considered unlikely candidates for release and so would be given lifetime care.

“The sanctuary would be open to the public on a regularly scheduled basis, in a manner that avoids disturbing the animals, and would offer comprehensive conservation and education programs.”

The decision to move forward has followed the appearance of a disturbing video in which a SeaWorld orca, while held in tight quarters, crashes itself into a metal gate over and over.

The WSP sanctuary has been given a head start financially by Munchkin, Inc., a baby product company that has been pivotal in providing monetary and moral support for efforts to help captive whales. Munchkin, Inc. has contributed $200,000 to a sea sanctuary so far, and pledged one million dollars in addition. The company’s CEO, Steven Dunn, told this writer that it was time to take action.

“It’s time to stop talking about creating a seaside sanctuary and make it a reality so captive whales, dolphins and porpoises can live their lives in a more natural environment.

“I believe if we build seaside sanctuaries, societal and economic pressure will force amusement parks to do the right thing by halting all breeding programs and begin releasing these amazing creatures to the seaside sanctuaries.”

Dunn took it one step farther and offered SeaWorld $1,000,000 to release Tilikum to the sanctuary, according to an article in The Inertia.

SeaWorld responded on Friday with a statement, according to OPB News.

“Given the ages of our whales, the length of time they’ve spent in human care and the social relationships they’ve formed with other whales, it would do them more harm than good.

“These ideas are simplistic and don’t take into account that the majority of the whales were born in human care, and their plan could cause our whales immense stress and death during transport and release.”

Marino said there was no intent to release captive-born whales into the wild, but to offer them a more natural environment in which to live.

SeaWorld, in its protests, mentioned Keiko, the Free Willy whale, who was released after many years in captivity.

“Even though Keiko was born in the wild and millions of dollars were spent preparing him for release, after being released he died from pneumonia. We’re not going to take this risk with SeaWorld’s whales.”

But Theresa Demarest, who created the documentary film Keiko: The Untold Story of the Star of ‘Free Willy’, argues this point.

“Misconceptions about what happened with Keiko during his return to his natural habitat are all too often taken as truth by the general public and cloud the facts of how he actually did during this unprecedented effort.”

Demarest said that during the unprecedented rehabilitation effort, Keiko:

  • Thrived for more than five years having gained over 3,000 pounds.
  • Mixed it up with wild orcas and manifested physical signs of attempts to mate.
  • Left his trainers, followed a wild pod, and traveled on his own from Iceland to Norway, having fed himself for over six weeks and arriving as a fat, well-fed whale.

Scientists agree that Keiko is, in fact, an excellent example for those who support using sea pens.

Marino said the first step in building the WSP sanctuary will be a search for the correct site. Areas mentioned have been the East Coast or Pacific Northwest.

The selection process involves, “studying the unique geographic, oceanographic and anthropogenic conditions of a number of possible coastal locations, and a strategic plan for building and operating the sanctuary as well as transport and care of the first animals.”

Marino said that the choice of location involves, “making sure that it is not going to be negatively impacting the surrounding animals and environment, and vice versa.

“It would have to be a safe cove or quiet bay or inlet that we can cordon off, that has access to utilities because there will be the need for feeding the animals and staff and so forth.”

She added that it will take time.

“We plan to be on the ground after we get a short list of 5-6 sites to visit by early next year. This is going to take about three to five years from now to a fully operational, populated facility,”

Tilikum, the world’s most famous orca has been languishing in solitary confinement through most of the days since he was diagnosed with a terminal lung infection.

Tilikum has “good days and bad days,” according to an update on SeaWorld’s blog.

Voted the most influential living animal in 2016 by Time magazine, the largest orca in captivity became world famous when he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, in 2010. His life was chronicled in the documentary film Blackfish, which was the beginning of a whole list of headaches for SeaWorld.

[Image via Tory Kallman/Shutterstock]