A new environmental nonprofit is scouting the Pacific Northwest coast for a suitable cove or bay to establish a refuge for retired captive orca and beluga whales.
The board and staff of the new outfit, called The Whale Sanctuary Project, includes a number of people who helped return Keiko, the star of the Free Willy movie, to Icelandic waters from Newport, Oregon.
Whale Sanctuary Project Executive Director Lori Marino said her group is searching for a cold water home on the East Coast or along the Washington or British Columbia waterfront.
"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,” Marino said.
Marino added the site selection process also includes "making sure that it is not going to be negatively impacting the surrounding animals and environment, and vice versa."
So which whales does this group want released to its care?
"That will depend entirely upon what is happening when the site is built and who becomes available," Marino said in an interview Friday. "It is also the case that this will be a stranding center. It may very well be that our first resident will be an orca that strands or a beluga."
The theme park company SeaWorld said it has no intention of handing over any whales to this new sanctuary nonprofit.
"We have very serious concerns about putting the animals in sea cages, where they would be exposed to disease, pollution and other man-made and natural disasters," said a statement emailed Friday by SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor.
"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,” the statement said. “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 responded that her organization is not proposing to release long-captive whales into the wild.
SeaWorld holds 29 orcas at four locations. The company has suggested the large sum needed to establish a bay pen refuge could be better spent and help more animals if directed to other partnerships.
Whale lovers in the Pacific Northwest have long wanted to bring home one of the last surviving captive orcas of many taken from the Salish Sea in the 1960s and ‘70s. That killer whale, named Lolita, lives at the Miami Seaquarium. The aquarium ownership has steadfastly refused entreaties to consider retiring Lolita to her natal home.
Marino said the initial survey and winnowing of potential sea pen sites is happening remotely using digital map databases.
"We plan to be on the ground after we get a short list of 5-6 sites to visit by early next year," she said. "This is going to take about three to five years from now to a fully operational, populated facility," Marino elaborated, assuming funding is available and there is local buy-in.
Marino is a neuroscientist based in Kanab, Utah, where she also directs the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. Her collaborators on the model whale refuge are spread around the country. The whale sanctuary nonprofit announced on Thursday that it received $200,000 to pay for the site search from the baby products company Munchkin, Inc.
The founders of the group initially came together in mid-summer 2015 in Vancouver, Canada, after Marino presented her idea for a seaside orca sanctuary to the Compassionate Conservation conference held at the University of British Columbia.