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A dolphin plays in front of the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay

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Minke whale - V Mignon

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Sponging dolphin in Shark Bay

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WDC team at UN Ocean conference

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We need whale poo 📷 WDC NA

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SeaWorld SHOULD support sanctuaries

Given SeaWorld’s amazing announcement last month, its more recent publicity condemning both release and sanctuaries for captive orcas was a big disappointment, including in its representation of what happened to Keiko, the Free Willy whale. In fact, SeaWorld is better placed than any other company holding orcas in captivity, to ensure that no further orcas die in its facilities by supporting sanctuaries.

Whales and dolphins held in captivity, in some cases for many years, have been successfully returned to the wild. A return to the wild is not, however, what WDC and, in general, the animal protection community is calling for, for the orcas held by SeaWorld. Recognising that following long spells in captivity, some of these individuals may be too physically or mentally scarred to survive without human care, others have lived all their lives in captivity and are even the offspring of orcas from different oceans. These individuals should be offered the chance to retire and live out the remainder of their lives in a safe enclosure in a natural cove or bay, where their health and welfare needs are taken care of, they can display more natural behaviour, they do not have to perform in shows, and public observation is only from a distance. This is what an orca sanctuary would look like.

There are currently no whale or dolphin sanctuaries available for captive individuals to go to live out their lives in these conditions or even be rehabilitated for a return to the wild. WDC and others like us have long realised that sanctuaries need to be established to provide an alternative future for captive whales and dolphins. In November 2015, leading US baby product company Munchkin pledged $1 million to help build a coastal sanctuary for orcas, if SeaWorld would allow Tilikum to be its first occupant. 

WDC has been working with Merlin Entertainments to establish sanctuaries for bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales. It’s a long and complicated process to find the right site. Sanctuaries need to offer space and protection in clean waters of the right temperature while, ideally, being accessible to visitors so they can support the sanctuary financially, learn about the benefits of sanctuaries and spread the word. It also takes time to secure the necessary financial, political and community support. There are over 3000 whales, dolphins and porpoises held in captivity around the world and sanctuaries may be needed for them all! 

WDC is also part of an expert panel focused on the establishment of a sanctuary in North America, should SeaWorld and others come to the long overdue conclusion that sanctuaries could be part of the future for the orcas currently held in concrete tanks, a fraction of the size of an orca’s natural habitat in the wild. And SeaWorld could be part of that future, too. Visitors could still see orcas, just under more natural conditions, on the orcas’ terms. SeaWorld has already said it wants to phase out its orca shows and has announced its orca breeding programmes will end. So come on, SeaWorld, help avoid another tragic orca death in captivity and help build sanctuaries where those remaining can have a more positive future.

About Cathy Williamson

Cathy Williamson was policy manager of our End Captivity Programme until July 2021.