In the Puget Sound region, whale lovers call the early 1960s the Capture Era. That’s when hundreds of local killer whales were rounded up, hunted and sold to amusement parks. Seattle became a hub of that brutal international trade, which decimated the population of now-endangered Southern Resident orcas.
Some 60 killer whales currently live in captivity, performing and breeding in amusement parks in eight countries. Of those captive orcas, 22 are in North America. But only one Southern Resident has survived since her capture at Whidbey Island's Penn Cove in 1970. She’s in Florida, at the Miami Seaqarium.
This KOMO TV documentary from 1996 shows how she lifts her trainers out of the water and splashes the adoring crowds.
Lolita has become a poster child for the movement to free captive killer whales. Miami Seaquarium has fought multiple lawsuits attempting to free her, saying a move after all these years later would jeopardize her health. Just as activists produce videos arguing for her release, her keepers counter with footage about their concerns.
THE WHALE SANCTUARY PROJECT
Now, a new nonprofit group is making the case that no cetaceans should be held captive and forced to perform for food. It’s called The Whale Sanctuary Project. It would be a $15 million facility where roughly a half dozen captive orcas could safely retire. The group’s extensive roster includes dozens of scientists and trainers — some who once worked in the captive industry. They want to put their first facility in the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re attached to the Southern Residents. We want to do whatever we can to help them,” said the group’s founder and president Lori Marino, as she toured the Northwest this summer.
Marino is a neuroscientist, known to many people from her prominent role in the 2013 documentary "Blackfish." She gave presentations in several locations around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, answering questions and looking for backers.
In Olympia, she told a packed hotel conference room about her research that shows how the stress of keeping large marine mammals in concrete tanks is attacking their immune systems and shortening their lifespans by decades.
“They die of pneumonia. They die of yeast infections. Just a lot of different opportunistic infections,” Marino said. “And you have to ask yourself, if they have top-notch veterinary care, they’re in filtered water, why are they getting sick? Why can’t they thrive?”
Pointing to slides with details and schematic images, she said the Whale Sanctuary Project will be a place where they can thrive, in an environment that’s as close as possible to swimming free – what the project calls “a model seaside sanctuary.”
“Because it blends the best of both worlds,” Marino said. “These animals are in the ocean, in a natural environment, but they are still cared for. It is like a halfway house for them. It works for elephants and every other large-ranging mammal in the world.”
Public pressure is changing the sea park industry. Just this June, Canada outlawed keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. Seaworld, which has 20 of North America’s 22 captive orcas, is no longer breeding killer whales and they’re phasing out theatrical performances.
Marino told the audience a first-of-its-kind sanctuary in the Northwest could pave the way for many more, as pressure mounts to "empty the tanks" everywhere. She said it also would serve as an educational institution, with the ability to stream live footage and sound from security cameras and hydrophones and pipe it in just about anywhere.
LUMMI SERVE AS ALLIES
Locally, the Whale Sanctuary Project has an important ally: the Lummi Nation. The tribe says the orcas are their relations beneath the sea.
“It is our custom and tradition to always stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Like our relative at the Miami Sea Prison,” said Lummi Councilman Fred Lane, as he presided over ceremonies marking the announcement of a new lawsuit this summer, brought by two individual members of the tribe, seeking to "repatriate" the captive orca.
It was the latest step in a campaign to bring Lolita home, sent out via livestream. The whale, who is also called Tokitae by some and recently has been renamed Sk’aliCh’et-tenaut by the Lummi, has been at Miami Seaquarium for nearly 50 years now.
Lummi Nation Chairman Jay Julius went to Miami last year to press for the whale’s release. He says the tribe wants to see her set free — swimming in her home waters, regardless of any possible consequences.
“She deserves nothing less,” Julius said. “She has every right to be home. Yes. There’s concern she’ll die. I’d rather die at home than in a prison cell, personally.”
Keeping the orca in a sanctuary net pen isn’t the tribe’s goal. But the Lummi’s Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office has signed a letter of intent with the Whale Sanctuary Project, stating that they will cooperate on siting a seaside facility and bringing Sk’aliCh’et-tenaut home, as both groups work to promote the well-being of local orcas.
A critical player in this is Jeff Foster, the Whale Sanctuary Project's site search, animal transfer and rehab coordinator. He began capturing orcas in Puget Sound at age 15 and went on to an international career as a whale hunter and trainer.
“And spent about 20 years in the captive industry," he said. "And then started doing more research and rescue and rehab. And I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years."
Foster is perhaps best known for his role as a trainer who oversaw the release in Iceland of the orca Keiko, after he played the title role in the film "Free Willy." (Keiko never fully adapted to the wild and died in Norway in 2003.) Foster was also the marine mammal handler for the successful capture, rehab and reintroduction of the orphaned Northern Resident orca Springer, who went on to birth two calves.
He says the Whale Sanctuary Project can play a critical role in helping wild orcas, by also running a separate rehab center. This would be a place to tend to ailing orcas, like the skinny Southern Resident J-50 (aka Scarlet), who died last summer despite intervention by federal scientists from the U.S. and Canada. Foster and the Whale Sanctuary Project were part of that effort, which he says inspired them to add the rehab center into their concept.
“That population is so fragile. We’re losing animals every year. They’re not reproducing. The calves aren’t surviving,” he said. “We’re at the critical juncture here, we have to do something now, we can’t afford not to.”
But this is where the project becomes controversial. Donna Sandstrom is executive director of the orca advocacy group The Whale Trail. She served on Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca task force. She also worked on the Springer project as a citizen organizer and has thought long and hard about the risks involved in that kind of effort.
“I’m quite concerned that people don’t understand the unintended consequences or the possible outcomes if we start directly intervening with the Southern Residents,” Sandstrom said.
Sandstrom says it might feel good to set up a rehab center for whales. But that’s like putting a Band-Aid on the corner of a gaping wound. She says anyone who cares about endangered orcas needs to focus on addressing root causes to help them: increasing salmon runs so they have enough to eat, cleaning up the water and reducing vessel traffic that disturbs them.
“I don’t think we are there yet and I don’t think we should start going down that path until we’ve at least tried the habitat level protections,” she said.
Sandstrom is worried the sanctuary project could become a big distraction from the enormous efforts needed toward their habitat.
She’s also concerned about the possible effects the project could have on the wild orcas here, once former captives arrive.
There are biological concerns: would they bring in disease? Project advocates say all candidates would be thoroughly screened prior to admission. The facility also would have double barriers in the water to keep any pathogens from spreading. And they point out they will have to get state and federal permits that will address all of these issues, as well.
Sandstrom says there are also cultural concerns, because whales are very vocal — wild orcas likely would hear foreign calls coming from behind the ropes of the sanctuary net pens.
“You know when the captures happened here in the '60s, the pods would not abandon the whales who had been netted off. They stayed until the whales were actually removed from places like Penn Cove,” Sandstrom said. “So I am fearful that having Lolita in hearing range of the Southern Residents, but not being able to join them, will create a terrible dilemma for both of them.”
Others think any contact would be a relief. Lolita’s presumed mother is 91-year-old L-25, Ocean Sun. Advocates say she deserves to at least know that her long-lost daughter is alive. But Sandstrom says there’s too much unknown risk.
“My recommendation for them would be to go anywhere but here," Sandstrom said. "Go someplace where there isn’t already a resident population, much less an endangered one."
But there is a strong drive to retire captive orcas in Puget Sound, almost as a kind of reparations for the Capture Era.
The Whale Sanctuary Project has narrowed its search to four locations: two in Nova Scotia and two in the Northwest. The sole location in Washington is in the San Juans off Cypress Island, the location of Cooke Aquaculture's notorious net pen collapse in 2017.
That site is still caught up in litigation over its lease, but the state Department of Natural Resources isn’t ruling out possible future use by the Whale Sanctuary Project. In an email they called it “an interesting proposal.”
Before anything can move forward though, the project says it needs to raise at least $20 million dollars.
UPDATE, Dec. 4, 9 p.m.: this story has been updated to clarify the roles of Jeff Foster and Donna Sandstrom in the Springer project.