The first permanent sea sanctuary for whales and dolphins could be located in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to marine mammal experts who are also still considering other locations.
Interest in establishing a sea sanctuary for former captive cetaceans is ramping up, with a workshop on the matter to be held in December at the Society for Marine Mammalogy biennial conference in San Francisco.
"There are sanctuaries for elephants, primates, tigers, lions and other animals, but there is not a single one for dolphins and whales," Lori Marino, who will be co-hosting the conference with Naomi Rose, told Discovery News.
Photos: Diving Into a Humpback Whale Fight
Marino, who is the executive director of Utah-based Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, proposed that the sanctuary (otherwise known as a "sea pen") be located in Vancouver.
"I mentioned that during the Compassionate Conservation Conference in July, but we are considering other sites as well," she said. "There are possible sites all along the U.S. West Coast into Canada, and there are some good places along the East Coast too. Much depends upon the needs of the particular species, legal and policy issues, and whether or not there is local public support."
The idea is still in its earliest phase of development, with Marino and others bringing together multiple interested individuals to discuss the plans. These include conservationists, veterinarians, engineers and - whenever possible - members of the marine park industry.
Marino and her colleagues are calling for a "shift in their business model" that moves away from entertaining people to putting the welfare of the animals first while also educating the public.
The biggest differences between an aquarium and the proposed sanctuary would be, according to Marino, that the animals would not be regularly (if at all) on public display, they would have more space, social opportunities, autonomy, natural stimulation, and would be able to catch their own food.
30 Days of the Ocean: Photos
David Phillips, who is the executive director of the Earth Island Institute, directed the effort to bring Keiko the orca, made famous in the "Free Willy" movie, from near death in captivity to the whale's home waters of Iceland. Keiko later died of natural causes while swimming in the fjords.
"While there are some captive dolphins and whales that can't be released in the wild, there are none that can't be successfully moved to a sea sanctuary," Phillips told Discovery News. "It would have major and instantaneous benefits to their health and well being."
He added that without a seaside sanctuary, "captive orcas and dolphins are stuck with an unhealthy and bleak future. We can do better."
Phillips believes that, in addition to Vancouver, there are plenty of sites in North America that would meet the needs of captive orcas and dolphins.
Rob Laidlaw is executive director of Canada-based Zoocheck, which is an animal advocacy organization. He told Discovery that he also supports the establishment of a sea sanctuary, believing that it remains "the most feasible option that stands the best chance of providing (captive orcas and dolphins) with enhanced welfare and quality of life through the provision of more space than any traditional captive setting, as well as environmental complexity and flexibility and a heightened level of individual autonomy."
He agrees that the sanctuary could work at many different sites, "however, it would be wonderful if the first permanent pen sanctuary were located in Canada."
Photos: Mammals of the Sea
Not everyone supports the idea unreservedly. Phillip Clapham, leader of the cetacean assessment and ecology program at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Alaska, has expressed concern over how such a pen could allow certain species to swim long distances, as they would do in the wild.
Still others have raised concerns over possible spread of disease from contained marine mammals to wild populations.
Marino admitted, "We could never completely mimic the entire ocean, of course, and zoonotic disease issues would require careful planning and consideration. Many of the concerns, however, are really just empty justifications for keeping whales and dolphins where they are (in captivity)."
"We feel an obligation to give back to animals who have been abused and exploited, and to restore as much as we can of what was taken away from them."