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Carl Safina joins board of nonprofit working to improve lives of captive cetaceans

By Erica Cirino

There are many people who believe whales and dolphins do not belong in aquariums and marine parks, and for good reason: When you put a large, highly intelligent animal that naturally travels a hundred or more miles a day into a small concrete tank, the results aren’t pretty. The animals suffer increased mental and physical disease and mortality, are more aggressive toward people and other animals, cannot perform many of their natural behaviors and experience broken family bonds. Instead, they are forced to perform “tricks” for human enjoyment.

Pacific white-sided dolphins performing next to killer whale “Lolita” at the Miami Seaquarium in 2011. Photo: Leonardo DaSilva (flickr)

The Whale Sanctuary Project, a nonprofit co-founded last year by neuroscientist and animal rights activist Dr. Lori Marino, has a goal of creating a safe, healthy environment for captive cetaceans to gain more freedom. This will come in the form of a large seaside sanctuary that would house these captive animals, as well as sick and injured wild whales and dolphins. A highly trained staff would oversee their care, and the group also plans to create an on-site and virtual education center.

Now, author and ecologist Dr. Carl Safina has announced he is accepting a position on the Whale Sanctuary Project’s Board of Directors. He says he is willing to contribute to the project in any capacity he can.

“This is about enlarging our circle of compassion to include lifetime care for captive or injured whales and dolphins,” Safina says.

Tilikum, a killer whale performing at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, in 2015. He died this year. Photo: Christian Benseler (flickr)

Safina has studied animal behavior and has written extensively about both the physical and emotional lives of animals. Most recently he has published Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel, which profiles, among other creatures, killer whales—which are a type of cetacean commonly kept in captivity.

Currently the Whale Sanctuary Project is focused on building the foundation it needs to build a sanctuary in the future. The first sanctuary would be the size of a large city park and could home six to eight cetaceans. There would be sea nets separating the sanctuary from the open ocean and could create separation within the sanctuary. It’s scouting for potential locations in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Washington State. The organization plans to decide on a final location by the end of 2017.

It has assembled a board, which, besides Safina and Whale Sanctuary Project President Lori Marino, includes Executive Director Charles Vinick who has worked closely with Jacques and Jean-Michael Cousteau on various ocean conservation initiatives, David Phillips of Earth Island Institute and Naomi Rose of Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C. It also has a full staff and team of advisors working on the project.

The project was funded with an initial grant of $200,000 from Munchkin, Inc., whose founder Steven Dunn was inspired to donate after learning about the lives of captive cetaceans in the documentary Blackfish. This year Munchkin has donated a $300,000 challenge grant, which Whale Sanctuary Project hopes to match by the end of the year. The total cost of the sanctuary is $15 to $20 million.

While the price of the sanctuary may be steep, the sanctuary’s benefit to cetaceans could be priceless. It would give them a refuge to more peacefully and naturally live out their lives. And it would also serve as a symbol of humanity’s changing beliefs about keeping animals in captivity.

“The presence of a sanctuary will serve to demonstrate how our relationship to these magnificent animals is changing, potentially enabling all captive whales to live in natural environments and—one day—ending the practice of theatrical performances,” Marino says.

Wild offshore bottlenose dolphins jumping on their own free will–not because they were forced to do so for the enjoyment of people. Great South Channel, July 2017. Photo: Carl Safina