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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Sanctuary could have saved the ‘loneliest orca’ – instead she died in captivity

Last week, a whale dubbed “the world’s loneliest orca” died, ending any last hopes that it might be relocated to a proposed sanctuary.

The killer whale, known as Kiska, was kept at Marineland – a themed zoo and amusement park in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The whale has been in captivity for more than 40 years, having been caught as a juvenile near Iceland and sold to the aquarium industry. She was kept alone in a tank for the last 12 years of her life and became known as the “world’s loneliest whale”.

The orca, believed to be 47, died last Thursday, Brent Ross, a spokesman for the Ontario Department of Justice, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Her cause of death was reportedly a bacterial infection.

The Whale Sanctuary Project, an animal rights group, had been working to get Kiska to a new home. The organization held talks with Marineland about Kiska’s release at one point, but those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

“The news is devastating for all of us who have been working towards the time when she could retire [a] Sanctuary,” WSP President Lori Marino said in a statement following news of the whale’s death.

“We know that no words can explain a lifetime of pain and misery as experienced by a deeply intelligent, social, family-centered being who had the terrible misfortune of becoming known as the world’s loneliest whale,” said Marino.

The proposed 100-acre sanctuary being developed by WSP is located in Port Hilford Bay, Nova Scotia. The sanctuary, which could welcome its first residents in spring 2024, will be the first in North America designed to reinstate captive whales like Kiska.

The idea behind the sanctuary is to create an environment that “maximizes welfare and autonomy” and is as close as possible to the natural habitat of these animals.

The grounds offer residents plenty of space and depths of up to 60 feet to explore. The WSP hopes the sanctuary will be a model for others to be built around the world in the years to come.

The 100 hectares of water in the bay are enclosed by a perimeter net that is anchored on land at one end and at the tip of Barachois Island at the other. This net prevents the whales from swimming out to sea.

“Our 100 hectares have enough space for eight to 10 beluga whales and two to three orcas in a separate area,” said Marino news week. “We could probably accommodate more, but we don’t want to exceed the carrying capacity of the area – the number of animals it can hold and remain untouched – and it would certainly defeat the purpose of confining them.”

The sanctuary’s 100 acres of water are considerably larger than the tanks that captive whales are typically kept in, which may be only a few dozen feet long.

Whales in captivity were usually born there or were taken from the sea at a very young age. As a result, they cannot be released into the wild because, according to Marino, they lack the necessary hunting skills or even the knowledge that a live fish is food.

They will be used to being fed dead fish by their trainers. When the sanctuary opens, staff will be on site to feed the whales and attend to their other needs – such as treating medical issues.

“We will [feed] our residents for several reasons,” Marino said. “First, it is our responsibility to maintain their health and ensure they are well fed, and we can only do that by feeding them. Second, while there are fish and crabs etc swimming through the sanctuary, we cannot assume there would be enough to sustain the whales even if they learned to catch them.

She continued, “Unlike a marine park, we will use the need to feed them as an opportunity to recreate the spatial and temporal dimensions of natural feeding behavior by giving them different ways of getting at the fish and varying how where and when they get them. All of this is to ensure we know how much they eat, but break the typical feeding monotony that characterizes marine park maintenance.”

The perimeter net will be attached to a structure that supports a walkway more than a mile long. This gives staff direct access to the sanctuary’s waters and allows them to interact with the whales, such as feeding them.

“We could vary the place and time, but also how the food is delivered,” Marino said. “One way to feed them is to throw the fish in the water instead of putting it in your mouth. At the same time, we would have to ensure that all individuals meet their daily nutritional needs. If the guard whales decide to hunt for live fish, that would be a positive development. But we wouldn’t rely on their hunting to make sure they’re well fed.”

The residents of the protected area have the opportunity – in most cases for the first time – to interact with natural algae as well as with smaller animals that come through the perimeter nets from the outside.

“[The whales] they can explore and play with them, and once they start feeding on them, all the better. That would be a good sign that natural behavior is returning,” said Marino.

Although human staff will be on site, the public is not allowed to interact with the whales.

“Since this will be a true sanctuary, there will be no interactions with the public and all interactions with staff will be designed to encourage autonomy and exploration,” Marino said.

“We will encourage their freedom of choice to spend their days the way they want. We will have underwater video to watch them and this will be an important way for the public to see how the whales are doing and how they go about their days in a natural environment.”

The sanctuary will be a permanent home for its cetaceans and there are no plans to eventually release any into the wild.

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