I remember the first time I saw an orca, or really, any large aquatic mammal. I was about 9 years old at the time. Through the glass wall, I watched as the majestic creature swam by. He looked back at the humans gawking at him and seemed just as interested in seeing us as we were him.
The year was 1997 and the orca was Keiko. Residents of Friday Harbor remember the movie “Free Willy” differently than I do, I’m sure. As a young lover of animals, I alternated between that movie and “Homeward Bound” in my days of watching a film over and over and over again.
Thinking back to how Keiko’s life story progressed, I can’t help but wonder what benefits and detriments a whale sanctuary within the waters of the Salish Sea could have.
As I understand it, the goal of the Whale Sanctuary Project isn’t to release the orcas back into the wild, which I think is a great plan. Any animals that have been in captivity do not have the naturally acquired immunities that their wild counterparts do. That is likely what ultimately killed Keiko.
One of the benefits of a whale sanctuary is 24/7 veterinary care availability. While Keiko was still in his ocean pen in Iceland before being released into the sea, he was treated for pneumonia and fed frozen fish.
I support getting the orcas and other captive marine mammals out of the small containment centers in which they’re currently residing but am uncomfortable with the proposed sanctuary being placed in the islands.
My biggest concern are the pollutants that are in the Salish Sea. Known as one of the main reasons the Southern resident orcas are suffering, the prevalence of PCBs and other pollutants in the area is likely far higher than of the water in which the captive orcas are currently housed.
Secondly, the cost. Keiko’s adventure into freedom cost $20 million. Couldn’t we put the $20 million that is estimated for the whale sanctuary toward saving the ailing Southern residents?
I feel these organizations, like Miami Seaquarium, that refuse to relinquish its captive orcas should put efforts into providing better living quarters for them. The tank built for Keiko in Oregon was about four times larger than the one in which Tokitae is living in Miami. A larger tank could protect the orcas from the harsh conditions in the seawater, as long as they’re given plenty of room to swim, maybe have a fellow former entertainment venue friend and things to interact with to satiate their intellectual desires.
I, however, am not a scientist and believe that the people who are qualified to make reintroduction or sanctuary-providing decisions be the ones making them.
I’ll leave you with this quote from the June 2009 Marine Mammal Science Journal’s article “From Captivity to the wild and back: An attempt to release Keiko the killer whale” by M. Simon of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, et al.:
“The release of Keiko demonstrated that release of long-term captive animals is especially challenging and while we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, the survival and well being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so.”