PORT HILFORD – More than a year before it opens, the Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP) has a line on its first cetacean resident.
The U.S.-based animal advocacy magazine One Green Planet is asking readers to urge the owners of Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., to send its sole orca to the Port Hilford refuge, which is undergoing provincial and federal government permitting and not expected to become operational until at least 2022.
“Tell Marineland to take action to move Kiska to an appropriate, attraction-free home with Whale Sanctuary Project in Nova Scotia,” admonishes the group’s website article, “Free World’s Loneliest Orca”, posted on Aug. 3. “Sign this petition!”
Kiska, a 44-year-old female orca who has been living alone at Marineland since her companion whale was sold to SeaWorld in San Diego in 2011, is attracting public concern across North America for her living conditions at the marine park.
According to a CBC report last week, Ontario’s Animal Welfare Services had instructed the marine park to repair its water systems – which sustain belugas, dolphins, walruses, sea lions, and Kiska – in May. Lawyer and executive director of the Ottawa-based non-profit Animal Justice Camille Labchuk told the broadcaster: “She’s [Kiska] probably the world’s loneliest orca and that’s very sad… The best option... is to convert to an animal-free attraction,” adding that one solution could be the WSP.
That prompted One Green Planet to issue its petition. The post’s author Shelby Hettler did not respond to The Journal’s email request for background.
In an interview, WSP executive director Charles Vinick said that while his organization did not initiate One Green Planet’s campaign, “These types of statements do show the enthusiasm people have for the whale sanctuary and how they see the potential for the whale sanctuary to be a place where captive whales can be given high quality of life.”
Asked whether government agencies tasked with ultimately approving or rejecting the WSP’s application for a licence might consider the magazine’s initiative premature, or even disruptive, he said: “Yes, we’re not ready, we’re not there yet [but] we are making excellent progress with the Department of Lands and Forestry on the Crown lease of the sanctuary lands and waters in Port Hilford and moving forward on all fronts.”
Said Labchuk in an email: “I haven’t been in touch with them [One Green Planet] or with any other petition-starters [and] I haven’t specifically discussed bringing Kiska to Nova Scotia with the WSP… but … sanctuaries like this one need to be part of the solution for whales who are suffering so greatly in captivity.”
She added: “Animal Justice’s view is that governments should play a strong supportive role in enabling sanctuaries so that homes can be found for all of the whales and dolphins currently held captive in Canada and elsewhere. The N.S. sanctuary is a tremendous reflection of the strong leadership and vision at the WSP, and I hope that we will see even more sanctuaries take root. We are hopeful that governments will fund the WSP and other possible sanctuaries, because the plight of captive whales is ultimately a public problem that our political leadership needs to address.”
The timing seems right. In 2019, the Government of Canada passed the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, which phases out the practice of keeping cetaceans, except for rescues, rehabilitation, licensed scientiﬁc research, or the animals’ best interests. It also prohibits their trade, possession, capture and breeding.
The following year, after an exhaustive international search, the WSP selected Port Hilford as its site of its operation, which would be only the second of its kind (after Iceland’s Beluga Whale Sanctuary at the Sæheimar Aquarium).
“With the work we’ve already done to create this sanctuary, we’re sharing with anyone and everyone,” Vinick said. “I think the fact that the public is engaged with us and in knowing the specific name of this animal, Kiska, is good.”
He added: “Now, what we really want to have is an open dialogue with Marineland. We would want to be working with the people who are the caregivers [when] considering whether that particular petition [Kiska] is a candidate for the sanctuary.”