Tuesday, May 28, 2024

WSP hopes for early opening with three orcas

New ‘fast-tracked’ facility may house whales from France by next spring

  • February 21 2024
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter    

SHERBROOKE — The Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP) is in discussions with French authorities for the transfer of three whales to a “fast-tracked” facility at its site near Port Hilford, as soon as spring 2025, says the organization’s co-founder Michael Mountain.

In an email to The Journal last week, Mountain, who is also the WSP’s secretary of member services said, “We are currently in touch with the French government about bringing a family of orcas – Wikie, Inouk and Keijo – to the sanctuary from the entertainment park Marineland Antibes in the South of France... in the early spring of next year.”

He said that, while the whales had been scheduled to be sent to “an entertainment facility in Japan” – following France’s recent decision to disallow organizations in that country and its territories from keeping whales, dolphins, and porpoises in captivity for entertainment purposes, animal protection groups there approached the WSP “to see whether the whales might, instead, be able to come to the sanctuary in Nova Scotia.”

Mountain emphasized that the new, accelerated project won’t delay the WSP’s original initiative to provide a safe coastal refuge for up to eight adult belugas rescued from marine parks. That operation – the permitting and paperwork for which has been underway since 2020 – is also expected to open sometime next year.

“We have already received and executed the offer of lease for Crown lands (i.e. the sanctuary waters) from the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables,” he said. “An accelerated plan does not change the terms and conditions of [that] lease. Until the French government makes a decision and Marineland (no relation to Marineland Canada) concurs... we cannot have formal discussions with the provincial government about an accelerated plan.”

Nevertheless, he said, “Given the urgency facing [the orcas], we have been developing an accelerated approach to construction [at the sanctuary site] that would provide the necessary elements for accommodating the whales before completing the full sanctuary plan.”

The first phase of the accelerated plan, he explained, includes engineering, fabricating, and installing a bay pen of approximately 6,500 square meters, along with temporary staff quarters and facilities, followed by permanent staff facilities and a perimeter net surrounding the 404,000 square meters of the sanctuary’s water space. “We’re already engaged in contracting with the company that will be fabricating the bay pen, and it can be ready within a matter of months.”

Meanwhile, he said, the WSP will “arrange for our team to work with Marineland to fully understand the whales’ health... There would also be several months of conditioning and preparing the whales for travel so that, for example, they’re comfortable getting onto a sling and being hoisted onto trucks and other transport.”

Once transferred, he said, “We’d then expect [the whales] to be in the bay pen for some months to become accustomed to living in ocean waters. Simultaneously, we will then be installing the perimeter net and completing the permanent shore-side facilities.”

He added: “In our discussions with the French government, we have explained that success in retiring the orcas to the sanctuary would depend on having a fully collaborative effort with Marineland and its owners, and the relevant government agencies and ministries, and our partner, the French NGO One Voice.”

Environmental testing last summer determined that the submerged soils in the sanctuary’s seabed, adjacent to the old gold mining stamp mill, contained arsenic, which could be harmful to both orcas and belugas.

Still, said Mountain: “The arsenic sequestered in the soil is not a problem for orcas because they would not be ingesting [it directly]. And although beluga whales may root around in the soil, the quantity of soil they could ingest is unlikely to be harmful.”

He added: “Given that we will be feeding them the highest grade of fish from elsewhere, the experts [we] consulted do not anticipate this to be a significant problem.”