The Whale Sanctuary Project

An orca through round viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo.
An orca through a viewing glass at the Detroit Zoo. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Today, I want to tell you about an organization that is very dear to me: The Whale Sanctuary Project. This sanctuary will allow captive cetaceans a chance at retiring and living freely. I love the organization’s work, research, scientists, and hold the utmost respect for this project. This is one that I’d appreciate your help in supporting!

If you’ve read my Orca series, then you understand why it is wrong to make them perform for humans and keep them in captivity. Cetaceans cannot thrive in concrete tanks. There just isn’t enough space for them to swim and get enough physical exercise. Years of breeding and artificial insemination caused cetaceans to breed too young, too inexperienced, and without the choice of when and with whom to breed with. Mothers and calves are regularly separated when the calf is only a few years old. Some cetaceans are forced to live alone, causing depression in these highly social, intelligent, and emotional creatures. After decades of observation, it is obvious to many how cetaceans are suffering in marine amusement parks. But now we have a chance to make it right.

“How can it be morally right for us to do to others, even when those others aren’t human, something we would consider devastating if it happened to us? That comparison isn’t anthropomorphism. It’s empathy.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

A beluga whale on display at Marineland with people viewing it through the acrylic tank.
A beluga whale on display at Marineland. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We
Animals Media

Purpose of a Sanctuary

There are sanctuaries for all kinds of animals including horses, elephants, primates, pigs, dogs, and birds. Many animals retired from farm life, circuses, and zoos reside in sanctuaries. But there has never been a sanctuary for whales and orcas. What better time than now?

The Whale Sanctuary Project “is the first organization focused solely on creating seaside sanctuaries in North America for whales, dolphins, and porpoises who are being retired from entertainment facilities or have been rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care.”2 Most people now understand that cetaceans in marine amusement parks are akin to performing circus animals. However, even if these animals are retired from performing, there is no place for them to go. A sea sanctuary will completely change that.

“Our vision is of a world in which all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are treated with respect and are no longer confined to concrete tanks in entertainment parks and aquariums.”-The Whale Sanctuary Project3

About The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP)

Bird's eye view of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site.
View of the perimeter net that defines the sanctuary space at the Port Hilford site. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP formed in 2016. In 2020, after years of research, exploration, and fundraising, the WSP selected a 100-acre site for the sanctuary at Port Hilford, Nova Scotia. This is an ideal location because it fulfilled the WSP’s principal considerations: “It offered an expansive area that can be netted off for the whales in a bay that’s open to the ocean but was sheltered from storms. It had access to necessary infrastructure and plenty of room along the shore for the facilities that would be needed to care for the animals.” And the Sherbrooke area locals are very supportive.4 

The seaside sanctuary will be 300 times bigger than the typical concrete tank. It will be more natural than tanks in terms of acoustics, water quality, and habitat surroundings (plant and animal species that share the space).5 The cetaceans will be able to swim further and dive deeper, thus getting the exercise their bodies need. “The goal is to offer captive orcas and beluga whales a natural environment that maximizes their opportunities for autonomy, exploration, play, rest, and socializing.”6 They’ll be able to make their own decisions, feed themselves, and most importantly – they won’t be required to perform like circus animals.

“We can’t undo all the harm we’ve inflicted on cetaceans by keeping them in captivity, but by providing them with seaside sanctuaries, we can improve their quality of life. That is our goal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose7

Orca performing at Marineland.
Image by Victor Cardella from Pixabay

Sanctuary Squashes Argument For Captivity

SeaWorld and other marine amusement parks have always indicated that it would be cruel to set captive orcas free into the ocean because they have been in captivity too long. This is partially true. Like animals in other sanctuaries, captive cetaceans cannot be returned to the wild. They may not be able to survive without some care and monitoring. They may not know how to hunt or socialize, and they may never find their original familial pod. Captive cetaceans may be attached to humans for food and social needs. Many captive orcas have dental problems and other health issues. Obviously, captive-born whales are not candidates for release into the wild. But a sanctuary is another story and is a real possibility.8

The Whale Sanctuary Project will change everything.

“The science tells us that these animals – dolphins and whales – cannot thrive in concrete tanks and theme parks and aquariums.” -Dr. Lori Marino9

Setting The Example

Human riding two dolphins in a performance at marine amusement park.
Image by JensG from Pixabay

“There are more than 3,600 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in tanks. To end captivity, we need to find somewhere for them to go. But it’s not easy. You can’t just take a whale or dolphin out of a captive environment and return them to the ocean. Some may need human care for the rest of their lives, and those who are suitable for a return to the wild will need to re-learn the skills they will need to survive.” -Whale and Dolphin Conservation10

There are 58-60 orcas and more than 300 belugas at marine amusement parks and aquariums. Other species include different species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Hundreds of dolphins are held at vacation resorts that offer “Dolphin-Assisted Therapy” and “Swim-with-Dolphins” programs.11 Most of the orcas at parks are candidates for the sanctuary, but it cannot provide a home to hundreds of cetaceans. “While our primary focus is the creation of the sanctuary in Nova Scotia, every aspect of it is designed with the larger purpose of its being a model for other and future sanctuaries around the world.”12

The WSP will provide additional support for cetaceans in situations that do not include its sanctuary through its Whale Aid programs. These programs “range from rescuing and rehabilitating ocean-going whales to developing complete plans for other organizations that are working to retire captive whale and dolphins to sanctuaries. Our Whale Aid team comprises experts from around the world in fields ranging from veterinary care to transport to construction and engineering.”13 The Whale Aid program will assist Lolita/Tokitae at the Miami Seaquarium. Working with the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest, she will be returned to the Salish Sea from which she was born, if the Miami Seaquarium ever relinquishes her.14 

If marine amusement parks and aquariums partnered or even just participated with the Whale Sanctuary Project, they could have a huge impact on the whales’ lives, conservation, and even their own public relations. It “would be a powerful legacy for the marine park that released them – a real example of conservation and education in practice.”

“If seaside sanctuaries function as intended, eventually they will no longer hold any retired captive cetaceans. However, they will also serve as rehabilitation centers for stranded cetaceans, even during the period when they have ‘retirees’ as residents. And they will be able to serve this purpose in perpetuity.” -Dr. Naomi A.  Rose16

Orcas swimming at the surface with a mountain and sunset in the background.
Image by Chris Amos from Pixabay

Support This Project & Learn More

“Sanctuaries strive to go out of business.” -Dr. Ingrid Visser

Though a new movement, the WSP isn’t the only sanctuary in the works. Clearly, there’s a need for sanctuaries for marine mammals. The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary opened in Iceland in the spring of 2019. They care for two female beluga whales who came from Changfeng Ocean World in Shanghai, China. In addition, they partner with another organization to rescue puffins.17 There have been proposals for a Dolphin Sea Refuge in Italy and for a South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary.18

Image of The Whale Sanctuary Project's new Operation Centre, a white historic house on a street.
The Whale Sanctuary Project’s new Operation Centre. Image courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

The WSP had the grand opening of the Operations Centre on October 29, 2021. It is located in the small town of Sherbrooke, about 20 minutes from the sanctuary site in Port Hilford Bay. This center, to which I proudly donated a small amount toward its opening, is the WSP’s home base for all of the design, engine­ering, and construc­tion of the sanctuary. It will also serve as a welcome center and it has lodging for two visiting staff members and advisors.19 Going forward, they will focus on the construction of the sea pen.

I encourage you to continue to learn more about the problem of captive cetaceans, and I hope you can support The Whale Sanctuary Project with me! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

The Whale Sanctuary Project logo
Logo courtesy of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

“Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.” -David Neiwert20

 

Additional Resources:

Guide to my Orca Series, to learn more about captive orcas.

Video, “Whales Without Walls,” Charles Vinick, TEDxSantaBarbara, December 18, 2017.

Page, Deeper Dive, The Whale Sanctuary Project. Features scientific studies on cetaceans.

Page, “Live Series” of Webinars and Conversations, The Whale Sanctuary Project.

Video, “Let’s Throw Shamu a Retirement Party,” Dr. Naomi A. Rose, TEDxBend, May 25, 2015.

 

Footnotes:

Sea Turtles are Endangered

Last updated on June 5, 2021.

Sea Turtle swimming in the ocean. Photo by Erin Simmons on Unsplash.
Photo by Erin Simmons on Unsplash.

Sea turtles are endangered, which is probably not news to you, but the reasons why they are endangered may be new to you. According to Oceana.org, sea turtles “play an important role in ocean ecosystems by maintaining healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs, providing key habitat for other marine life, helping to balance marine food webs and facilitating nutrient cycling from water to land.” I want to help people understand what we can do right NOW to help.

Sea turtles have been on the Earth for about 110 million years, and now human activities are to blame for their decline and endangerment. Six out of 7 sea turtle species are threatened or endangered due to human behaviors and activities. Following are the biggest threats:

    • Entanglement and Bycatch
    • Coastal development
    • Artificial Light
    • Coastal Armoring
    • Plastics
    • Beach (and Ocean) Litter
    • Ocean pollution
    • Global warming
    • Poaching and illegal trade of eggs, meat, and shells
    • Turtle Shell Trade
    • Adopt-A-Turtle

Let’s examine each of those further.

A green sea turtle entangled in derelict fishing gear at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.
“A protected green turtle entangled in derelict fishing gear at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Three green sea turtles were freed during the mission.” Photo by NOAA Photo Library on Flickr (NOAA News 2014 October 28), Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Entanglement and Bycatch

Entanglement is exactly what it sounds like, that is, entanglement in fishing nets and gear. Up to 40% of all animals caught in fisheries are discarded as waste. Bycatch refers to animals that were not the target catch – for example, dolphins getting caught in tuna nets. “Despite ‘Dolphin Safe Tuna’ labeling, approximately 1000 dolphins die as bycatch in the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery each year,” according to seeturtles.org. The World Wildlife Fund explains that “modern fishing gear, often undetectable by sight and extremely strong, is very efficient at catching the desired fish species—as well as anything else in its path.” Most often the animals die.

There are some protections for certain species, such as the dolphins mentioned above, but it is not a perfect system and the whole industry needs to find more solutions. “Each year hundreds of thousands of adult and immature sea turtles are accidentally captured in fisheries ranging from highly mechanized operations to small-scale fishermen around the world.” Companies that use devices called Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are following regulations and best practices.

What can you do? Try to only buy responsibly caught seafood. Inform and encourage your family and friends to purchase seafood only from responsible fisheries.

Humans removing fishing line and hook from a sea turtle's mouth.
Photo by NOAA Photo Library on Flickr (NOAA/NMFS/Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Blog), Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Coastal Development

Coastal development is exactly what it sounds like. “Half of the world’s population lives on or within 100 miles of a coastline and this number will likely increase dramatically in the next decade.” Human presence deters turtles from nesting where they would normally. Additionally, humans create pollution and waste – whether it’s litter or waste-water runoff, light pollution, or danger from vehicles driving on beaches.

What can you do? Whether you’re just vacationing at a beach or residing there, educate yourself about habitats in that area. First, follow the scout rule of “leave it cleaner than you found it.” That means to leave no trace! And pick up after other people too, because it’s the right thing to do.

Second, always limit light on beaches (this will allow you to see the stars, too!). Are there conservation efforts ongoing? Are there laws prohibiting certain practices to protect turtles? If so, make sure you follow the laws or best practices. You’ll be making a difference. If you’re going to live coastal, this is even more important – search the internet for where you live so that you can do the right thing, and be the change.

No laws or conservation efforts where you live? How about starting those efforts? You can partner with a local aquarium; lobby city or town council to get signs posted near the beach access points; even host a local seminar at the library and invite residents!

Turn Off The Lights

As mentioned above, artificial light from human presence is a big problem for turtle nests. Sea turtles depend on a dark and quiet beach for nesting. If there is too much light, turtles will choose a less optimal nest site, which reduces the chances of the baby sea turtles surviving. Also, hatchlings have an instinct that leads them in the brightest direction which is normally moonlight reflecting off of the ocean. Excess lighting from the nearby buildings and streets draw hatchlings toward land instead, where they will likely die from predators, humans, or even swimming pools.

What can you do? Eliminate light whether you’re a property or homeowner, tourist, or beach walker. Make your property low light and encourage others to do the same – especially during nesting season!

If you’re walking on the beach at night, don’t use flashlights and phone lights during nesting season. Download a red flashlight app if you must have some light. If you live in a beach-front residence, turn your lights off. I’ve listed an article about turtle-friendly lighting under Additional Resources.

Here is a video from the Sea Turtle Conservancy about how to eliminate artificial beach lighting:

Coastal Armoring

Beaches are beautiful and the place many people want to be, myself included, someday. Coastal areas are prime real estate and many beaches in the world have been heavily developed. Coastal armoring refers to sea walls and similar structures that protect real estate property, but they are harmful to sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy explains: “Sea walls directly threaten sea turtles by reducing or degrading suitable nesting habitat. They block turtles from reaching the upper portion of the beach, causing turtles to nest in less-than-optimal nesting areas lower on the beach where their nests are more susceptible to wave action and more likely to be covered with water.”

What can you do? If you’re a developer or building a home for yourself, please always first check with local legislation. Many coastal places in the United States already have existing legislation sometimes called Coastal Zone Protection, Dune Protection, or Dune Management. You can search the internet for the area you are residing in or visiting for information. If your area of interest has no protections or current legislation, how about proposing it to the local council or government? Please don’t build anything without first doing careful research – there’s a ton of organizations out there that can advise or point you in the right direction. Do your homework, and the turtles (as well as other wildlife, humans, and the environment) will reap the benefits. Be the change.

Plastics

Well, this topic is what my blog is all about: plastics and other human-made waste. Hundreds of thousands of marine animals and fish, as well as over 1 million seabirds, die each year from ocean pollution and ingestion or entanglement in marine debris. This includes turtles. Most plastic waste reaches the ocean via rivers, and up to 80% of this waste comes from landfill-bound trash. How does that happen!?!? I’ll get into that in another post.

Plastic bags are a huge factor when it comes to sea turtles. Why? Because turtles eat plastic bags. They mistake them for jellyfish. Many species of turtles do not have taste buds, in case you’re wondering why they can’t tell by taste. See the videos below. The first one shows you the difference between a jellyfish and a plastic bag floating in the water.

The next video shows you turtles eating a jellyfish, to give you visual context.

What can you do? My number one recommendation for the first thing you should change to make a difference: use reusable bags only, and don’t accept plastic bags from anywhere! Getting rid of plastic bags does and will keep making a big difference on so many fronts, so I can’t stress this enough!

After plastic bags, start eliminating all plastics from your life, especially single-use disposable plastics. Recycle, or better yet, don’t buy plastic as much as possible. “Over 1 million marine animals (including mammals, fish, sharks, turtles, and birds) are killed each year due to plastic debris in the ocean. More than 80% of this plastic comes from land. It washes out from our beaches and streets. Plastic travels through storm drains into streams and rivers. It flies away from landfills into our seas. As a result, thousands of sea turtles accidentally swallow these plastics, mistaking them for food.”

Plastic bag from Walmart lying on the beach. I photographed this bag myself and yes, I did pick it up. At high tide that afternoon, it would've washed into the ocean and potentially harmed a sea turtle.
Plastic bag from Walmart lying on the beach. I photographed this bag myself and disposed of it. At high tide that afternoon, it would’ve washed into the ocean and potentially harmed a sea turtle.

Stop using disposable plastic straws and decline them at restaurants. Besides plastic breaking down into smaller pieces and polluting beaches and the ocean, these get stuck in turtles’ nostrils and airways. You don’t need a straw to drink most beverages. If you really must have one, carry a metal or glass straw with you.

Don’t release helium balloons! They burst and fall to the Earth or the sea, and sea turtles mistakenly eat the balloons and die. Or stop using balloons altogether.

Three people on a beach with over 100 collected balloons found during a beach clean-up.
“100 Balloons Collected at a Clean-up at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the New Jersey coast.” Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Beach (and Ocean) Litter

Besides trash flowing into the ocean, litter on beaches prevents hatchlings from reaching the sea.

What can you do? Keep beaches clean. Don’t leave behind litter or beach toys when visiting the beach. I try to leave the beach a little cleaner than I found it, picking up trash that is about to wash into the sea with the changing tides. Participate in beach clean-up events or clean up with your friends or family.

Use coral reef-friendly sunscreen. Many of your average sunscreens have chemicals in them that are not only harmful to the ocean, but also to the human body. Look at the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Sunscreen Guide (see Additional Resources for the link).

Ocean Pollution

Although trash and plastics are one component, there are many, many other ways in which human activities pollute the ocean. Waste and by-products, like toxic metals, PCBs, petroleum products, agricultural and industrial runoff of contaminants such as fertilizers, chemicals, nutrients, and untreated waste; are all major problems for ocean and land dwellers. These are also causing major human health problems (many major diseases can be tied to these chemicals – again, another topic for another day). Oil companies are a big contributor to pollution, above and beyond oil spills.

What can you do? Buy less and consume less overall. Reduce how much meat you eat and how many animal products you use, because agriculture creates a lot of waste, methane, and chemicals. These chemicals make it into waterways and then the ocean, which poisons wildlife throughout the food chain. Buying from a farmer’s market locally or even growing your own food can reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide chemicals that make it into our water (because smaller farms don’t always use such harsh chemicals, and I doubt you do in your own garden). Reduce the chemicals you use in your yard and dispose of others properly through the hazardous waste collection in your area.

Global Warming

This is a sensitive topic because it is so tied to politics these days. But global warming is real and happening, at an accelerated rate, which means many species will not be able to adapt quickly enough. This means the possible extinction of plants and animals and fish that are necessary to Earth’s balance.

What can you do? Reduce how much you drive. Perhaps try carpooling or using mass transportation. Ride a bike. Buy an electric car. Tell the oil companies to go to hell. Reduce the amount of energy you use. Avoid using fossil fuel energy whenever possible. Eat less meat and reduce your water use. Those are the first steps – start there!

Poaching and Illegal Trade

In some countries, turtle meat and turtle eggs are a food source; in others, turtle eggs are collected by people for income in order to feed their families. Sometimes during nesting season, hunters will watch for nesting females. Once located, they will wait until the female turtle has finished laying her eggs, then kill her for the meat and take the eggs as well.

What can you do? If you travel, don’t buy food or products that use turtle, as that supports the practice. Organizations and governments are educating tourists and local inhabitants about the endangered turtles around the world. You can help by supporting the causes that protect and monitor sea turtle nests. You can help by spreading the information and helping to educate others about the problems. Participate in eco-tourism!

Turtle Shell Trade

This relates to poaching and illegal trade but is specific in regards to products made from turtle shells, aka tortoiseshell; and is usually specific to the Hawksbill sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy indicates that “scientists estimate that hawksbill populations have declined by 90 percent during the past 100 years.” This has been outlawed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) which is an international agreement signed by 173 governments. However, the black market demand for turtle shells is still high.

What can you do? Don’t buy items that might be made from turtle shells or other turtle parts (including skin). Of course, those products likely won’t be labeled “turtle shell” or “hawksbill shell” but if you suspect, just say no and walk away. Unfortunately, the alternative is plastic, which I am trying to eliminate from my life. So be more minimalist and don’t buy either! You’ll remember your trip or vacation without a bunch of souvenirs anyway. Here’s a handy infographic put out by Travel For Wildlife to help you avoid turtle shell products:

How to identify & avoid Hawksbill Turtle Shell infographic

They also made this very informative video, so please share it on social media with your friends and family!

You can join me in signing the pledge to avoid turtle shells with the See Turtles Organization. They, too, have wonderful resources about how to identify real turtle shell vs. fake. Again, maybe just don’t buy either – it’s not worth the risk!

Adopt-A-Sea Turtle!

Last, you can symbolically adopt a sea turtle or a sea turtle nest. There are many of these, you’ll find many just by searching online but look for a reliable organization. Most of the programs help fund education about sea turtle nesting or protecting the nests themselves.

Turtle on beach, Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash
Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash

What other ideas do you have? Please feel free to leave a comment or question or idea! Thanks so much for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Beachfront Lighting: Turtle Friendly Lighting Examples,”

Article, “What Can You Do to Save Sea Turtles?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, accessed June 8, 2021.

Page, “Turtle Excluder Devices,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, accessed June 8, 2021.

Website, My Plastic Free Life.

Online store, Life Without Plastic.

Article, “Help Protect Sea Turtles!” See Turtles Organization, accessed June 5, 2021.

Article, “EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens,” Environmental Working Group.

Footnotes: