This project has taken six years of plotting, negotiating and lobbying, but the outcome of it could be epic,” says James Burleigh, global ambassador for Merlin Entertainment’s Sea Life brand. “We’re hoping it will be game-changing in terms of the attraction industry’s attitude and treatment of cetaceans.”
Operator of more than 50 Sea Life aquariums, one of Merlin’s founding beliefs was that cetaceans should not be held in captivity for entertainment purposes, so the company came up against a problem when it acquired the Living and Leisure Australia Group, in 2012, as the organisation owned Shanghai Chang Feng Ocean World, which ran such a show involving two beluga whales.
“We’ve had to close down dolphin shows and rehome dolphins before - when we acquired Gardaland in Italy and Heidepark in Germany - but this is the first time that whales had come into our possession and it sparked a long held idea to open a sea sanctuary,” explains Burleigh.
It’s been a lengthy, challenging and expensive journey for the attractions operator, but one which Burleigh says is hugely rewarding. The cost of the project has not been revealed, and won’t ever be recouped, as any future profits will be ploughed back into the not-for-profit Sea Life Trust, which also includes the Gweek Seal Sanctuary in Cornwall, UK.
“We’re doing it purely and simply because it’s the morally right thing to do,” says Burleigh. “These whales were born in captivity so couldn’t survive in the wild, but we want them to have a better life than living in a large swimming pool. The sanctuary will be 35 times bigger, deeper, wider and more natural.”
He’s also hopeful there will be a spin-off effect, with the wider attractions industry taking note: “There are 3,000 cetaceans in captivity and lots of them are involved in shows. We understand that it takes attractions a while to change their business models, but nonetheless, we hope more will follow our example. The younger generation doesn’t want to see whales performing for crowds and, as attitudes start to change, we will be very open to sharing our experience and knowledge with other operators looking to do the same.”
Location, location, location
Merlin teamed up with the charity, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), to help bring this project to fruition. The two organisations have worked together for some 20 years, having previously been successful in stopping the importation of whale meat through EU ports.
The first and biggest challenge was to find a suitable location. This took years and many locations were investigated. It needed to be as close to the whales’ natural habitat as possible, with very cold waters and a bay which could be netted off to create a sea pen, as well as the right infrastructure. It was also crucial that they had unequivocal support, both locally and nationally. Russia would have been ideal, as that is where belugas are from, but it was ruled out because the government still allows the capture of cetaceans.
Other sites in Norway, Scotland, Alaska and Greenland were considered and subsequently rejected for not meeting every criterion this time, although some may be suitable for future projects. After many years of searching, Merlin settled on the bay which was used to house Keiko, the orca seen in the Free Willy films.
The 32,000sq m (344,000sq ft) inlet at Klettsvik Bay on Heimaey Island, in southern Iceland, has a sub-Arctic environment, and a very supportive community, including people who have previous knowledge and expertise of this type of project. “Lots of the people living in the area were involved with Keiko and know how to build sea nets and pontoons which can survive tempestuous weather,” says Burleigh. “The bay had a small existing aquarium which has been moved down to the harbour, next to the holding care pool and this will be the base to manage the sanctuary.”
Visitors will be welcomed to the education centre, but it will not be one of Merlin’s busiest attractions – the island has a population of just 4,000 and is a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland. That said, Iceland’s tourism industry is growing and tends to appeal to people interested in the natural environment.
Cause for hope
Now this long-term project is almost at completion. The whales will be moved to Iceland in April and then to their new home in June. A team of trainers will move with them, along with a specialist curator, who will continue to look after the animals and educate them on living in the semi-wild.
“Initially they will need a lot of looking after by their trainers. They will need to be fed and trained in what and what not to eat,” says Cathy Williamson from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who has also worked on the project. “Hopefully in time, they will start to catch their own food, although there probably won’t be enough fish in the bay to sustain them completely. The two whales are only 13 and will hopefully live several more decades, as their life expectancy in the wild is 40 to 60 years.”
The sanctuary could comfortably accommodate around 10 animals, so Merlin is keen to find more and will offer attractions the opportunity to retire their whales. Although optimistic the sanctuary will have a spin-off effect, Burleigh says Merlin will be restrained in their approach: “We won’t be going on a pilgrimage around the industry to talk about what we’re doing and trying to get cetaceans. This isn’t a sales pitch or placard waving – we still run aquariums, but our backstop is never with cetaceans. We’re focused on doing the right thing and trying to lead by example.”
To this end, there is some cause for optimism. The National Aquarium in Baltimore is currently working on plans for a sea sanctuary for its dolphins. It will have different spatial considerations and give the dolphins the opportunity to express their natural behaviours and be exposed to natural elements like fish and marine plants. A first for North America, this is likely to further help to change public opinion and the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity.