When Charles Vinick describes the proposed ocean home in Nova Scotia for whales that have been in captivity, it sounds idyllic, peaceful and healthy.
“It’s a natural seabed, there will be creatures to explore, with crabs on the bottom, birds to hunt on the surface of the sea, etc. It’s a really rewarding environment for them and a lot healthier than that. everything they’ve known before. “
This contrasts with the typical marine park vibe, where whales would be withdrawn: a restrictive glass tank, thick concrete walls, humans constantly speechless, pointing and screaming at them.
If Vinick’s proposed whale sanctuary project comes to fruition, the US $ 15 million effort would bring beluga whales or orcas that have lived in captivity to Port Hilford, Nova Scotia to live the rest of their lives in an ocean enclosure.
The project recently secured an agreement to purchase land next to the proposed sanctuary from a private landowner, and is slowly making its way through provincial and federal regulatory hurdles.
And while community support for the business is strong in an area of the province that has generally had a harder time attracting tourists than others, at least one marine researcher is casting some cold water on the idea. .
Andrew Trites, director of the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, says such a sanctuary is needed, but raises logistical, budgetary and even animal welfare issues.
“I agree,” he said, “but I think everyone should have their eyes wide open. And when I hear things only said in very rosy terms, I think we should also check the reality. . “
About the project
The 44-hectare site near Sherbrooke – chosen for its depth, water flow, tides, lack of ice cover, and community support – is believed to be home to around eight belugas or killer whales, although the two species do not coexist not.
Although the Whale Sanctuary Project does not yet have an agreement with a marine park to transfer animals, Vinick says staff are having conversations about it. The whales would be transported to Nova Scotia in a tank aboard a ship, truck or plane, depending on where they come from, and would arrive in pairs so they would have a companion they are used to. to live.
Their new ocean house would be around 300 times larger than the largest performance tank, Vinick says, and have an average depth of 10 meters, reaching 18 meters in places.
The whales would be kept in the enclosure with nets held at the surface with large buoys and at the bottom of the sea with a heavy chain and anchors.
Since most whales in captivity do not have the skills to survive on their own in the wild, they would remain in the sanctuary for the rest of their lives, which in the case of the beluga can last 50 or 60 years, and even more for orcas.
Vinick says all funding for the project will come from donations and the group has already raised millions, although he declined to specify a number.
The public would be allowed to view the whales from a viewing platform, but Vinick says the whales would not be required to perform and he does not plan to charge a fee for visitors.
For Vinick, who has spent most of his career managing ocean-related organizations and businesses, the Whale Sanctuary Project is a dream rooted in compassion and respect.
“These whales have entertained tens of millions of people. They have earned hundreds of millions of dollars for the people who held them captive. It is the least we can do to give them back some of their life and life. dignity they have as a species, ”he says.
Animal welfare, financial worries
While Trites acknowledges that there would be benefits for whales to be in a natural environment, he also worries about how the animals would adapt to their new lives.
As a researcher, he studied the ecology, nutrition, physiology and behavior of marine mammals. He says that in the wild, whales spend most of their time foraging for food and watching out for predators, so they are mentally stimulated.
“The only risk to animals that are in confined spaces, even a space as large as the bay, is that they will be bored. The reality is that they will become lethargic and essentially become like a couch potato, just lying down and hardly moving. because all you’re waiting for is the next meal. “
In addition to the potential for depression, whales can also be aggressive if their natural mating instincts are suppressed, Trites says.
Vinick said the staff would provide “enrichment” programs for the whales and they would be stimulated by the dynamic marine environment. He says he does not yet know if the animals would be all male or female, or a mixture, but that there would be no breeding.
Trites also questions the financial foundations of a project that relies strictly on donations.
“Donors can be fickle,” he says. “What often happens with these things is it’s the same demand year after year and people just get numb.”
Trites learned the consequences the hard way. He had a small research center in Port Moody, B.C. that kept four sea lions, but when COVID-19 hit donor funding priorities changed and he had to shut it down.
“In our case, we had a house to send the animals to. But if we hadn’t had that, we would have been in a terrible situation.”
Trites highlights the many expenses associated with operating a facility with live animals, including food, vets, staff, security and trainers, and in the case of the whale sanctuary, keeping the nets clean. to ensure good water flow.
“I don’t know if they have a real appreciation for the price it costs,” he says. “I suspect that in the end it will be the taxpayers who will have to fund it. And that may not be what people signed up for.”
Vinick estimates annual operating costs will be around $ 2 million, but he maintains the group will not seek government money.
This is reassuring for Beulah Malloy, Councilor for the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money to do this project, and we have to be sure that the funding will be there,” she said. “Because if the funding wasn’t there, if something happened, like, my concern is, well, what’s going to happen to the whales?” “
Malloy says residents generally support the project, both because they like the idea of giving whales a more natural place to live and because they see it as a potential boost to the economy. local.
What’s next for the project?
The Whale Sanctuary Project submitted its application for a lease of Crown land through the provincial Department of Lands and Forests. The project will require consultation, research and a federal and provincial environmental assessment.
The group has already carried out studies on hydrodynamics, water chemistry and plankton, and is not aware of any potential negative environmental impacts from the project, Vinick said.
Local fishermen have agreed to give the project exclusive use of the waters and the wharf in the area.
Next month, the group plans to open a visitor center in Sherbrooke to share information about the whales and the project.