More than 300 beluga whales and 60 orcas remain captive in aquariums around the world, with recent films such as Blackfish highlighting the ethics of breeding them for entertainment.
The stress can be even more dire for ageing whales that are no longer able to perform for audiences but remain doomed to live out their days in captivity.
Now, however, one group of ageing beluga whales and orcas might soon enjoy their golden years in style, part of a groundbreaking whale retirement community in Canada that promises tranquil waters – and a meal plan heavy on the fish.
The Whale Sanctuary Project, a US-based organisation, announced this week it had selected a small town in eastern Canada as the testing grounds for its first sanctuary to resettle whales leaving the performance world.
“Their quality of life can be a whole lot better than it is in the entertainment parks,” said Dr Lori Marino, the group’s founder. “But they don’t have the survival skills to just be dumped back in the ocean.
“[The sanctuary] is much closer to their natural habitat than the way they’re living now.”
The organisation looked for roughly 40 hectares (100 acres) of sheltered bay, resistant to storms and frigid temperatures. After scouring North America for a suitable location, including sites off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state, the organisation chose Port Hilford, a coastal community 124 miles north of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The sanctuary would involve running a net along the mouth of the inlet, enclosing the area. The currents there are strong enough to allow a constant flow of water, and the bay teems with marine life.
Given that the whales have spent their lives in captivity and would probably suffer immense stress upon release into the wild, the Whale Sanctuary Project plans to feed the whales, as well as providing on-site medical care.
If all goes according to plan – pending approvals from the provincial and federal levels of Canadian government and nearly $15m (GBP11m) in investment – as many as eight beluga whales could swim the waters off Nova Scotia’s eastern shore in 2021.
The area is sparsely populated, but the community there has been eager to make it work. “These are people who really get it,” said Marino. “We’ve been struck by how they’ve opened their hearts.”
As interest in aquariums wanes and marine parks face mounting backlash, hundreds of whales will inevitably need to find a home in the coming years.
“I worked with captive dolphins and beluga whales when I was a student. It wasn’t until I actually saw them in the wild that I realised who they were,” said Marino. “They don’t belong in concrete tanks. They need to have the ocean and all its variety and challenges to really thrive.”
In June, Canada passed the “Free Willy bill” banning the trade, possession, capture and breeding of cetaceans. Although two facilities will be permitted to keep existing species in captivity – a Pacific white-sided dolphin at the Vancouver Aquarium, and a lone orca, Kiska, and more than 50 beluga whales at Marineland in Niagara Falls – neither is permitted to breed or acquire more animals.
The Whale Sanctuary Project has reached out to marine parks across the continent with the hope of working together to create a new way of thinking about sanctuaries.
“Belugas don’t have their own Blackfish movie, so they’re easy to forget about. But there are so many of them in those tanks, not doing well,” Marino said.
“This is about moving the needle and showing the next generation that there’s another way to relate to whales,” she said. “They’re not performers and commodities. We should respect them.”