The Whale Sanctuary Project with Lori Marino – Ep 2, Season 2

Photo by Mike Doherty on Unsplash

Welcome to season two, episode two of PROTECT. Today we’re exploring a very inspiring protection and conservation effort of marine animals being whales and dolphins. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Lori Marino – a neuroscientist and expert in animal behaviour and intelligence and she’s also the Founder and President of The Whale Sanctuary Project in Nova Scotia. 

Lori is internationally renowned for her work on the evolution of the brain and intelligence in dolphins and whales and she has published over 130 peer reviewed scientific papers, book chapters and magazine articles. She’s also an expert on marine animal captivity issues such as dolphin assisted therapy and the educational claims of the zoo and aquarium industry. You might also recognise her from documentaries, including Blackfish, Unlocking the Cage and Long Gone Wild.

Today, Lori generously shares her expertise on these beautiful animals, and details what life is like for them in the wild versus the concrete tanks. We then get some insights on the seaside Whale Sanctuary Project, and the amazing place that Lori and her team are working on to help whales and dolphins return to an ocean area where they can live healthier and happier lives. I hope you enjoyed the episode.

Angela: Lori, welcome to the PROTECT Podcast, I’m so honoured to have you on here today. 

Lori: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it. 

Angela: So can we please start with how you found yourself working in this space and what a day to day looks like for you. 

Lori: I didn’t come to study dolphins or any marine mammals because I wanted to be a marine biologist. And that’s kind of unusual, because most people who study dolphins really wanted to study them from the beginning. And I’ve always just been interested in the biological basis of behaviour. And I happened to come upon dolphins in graduate school, and was very impressed with their brains their behaviour, and decided that this was a really interesting group of animals to study. So I didn’t come at it from a marine biology point of view, I really came at it from a sort of a neuroscience and comparative psychology point of view. 

Angela: And what do you do day to day? 

Lori: Well, what day to day, it’s not as glamorous as… 

Angela: Sure it is!

Lori: No it isn’t. It actually depends upon what you do. Sure, I have colleagues who do field research and they’re out there on a boat several months a year, chasing dolphins and whales and observing their behaviour. And that’s hard work but it’s exciting. 

What I do is I mainly study the brains of dolphins and whales who have passed and done imaging studies and so what that means is I spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen, analysing data and looking at anatomy, brain anatomy. And although to me it is absolutely fascinating because it’s like being on another planet, it may not be what people think of when they think of somebody who studies dolphins. 

Angela: So I’d like to talk in depth about the whale sanctuary. But I would love a little bit of insight around whales and dolphins. Is there any interesting facts you can tell us about them – any innate qualities they have that make them so wonderful? 

Lori: Well, I’ve had the fortune of working with them working with dolphins and whales, both in captivity and in the wild doing some field research and I think that the main thing that struck me through those experiences is one, of course, their sharp intelligence, they are very quick on the uptake. And you always get the feeling that you are working with an animal who is just as quick as you are and you’re trying to figure out them and they’re trying to figure out you. 

But the thing that really, I have to say made a difference for me, that led to The Whale Sanctuary Project was in working with dolphins and whales, in tanks, in marine parks, it allows you to do things that you can’t do otherwise. Like control conditions so that you can do some kind of an experimental test. But the dolphins and whales in those tanks are really different from the dolphins and whales that I encountered in the wild. And the difference is that the dolphins and whales in tanks tend to be quite desperate for companionship and stimulation and the ones in the wild have their own lives to lead and we are not the centre of their attention. And that was a really important and poignant realisation that, you know, not every bottlenose dolphin or orca or beluga whale out there has as their goal in life to interact with a human. They have stimulating lives, strong social relationships. They have all their emotional and cognitive needs met. They have great lives in the wild. They don’t need us and and that was something that I really came to understand. 

Angela: Yes, that’s beautiful. So let’s talk about The Whale Sanctuary. Is it the world’s first seaside sanctuary? 

Lori: Well, no, it’s not. The Whale Sanctuary Project was started in 2016 and it is the world’s first North American sanctuary for belugas and orcas. And there are two other organisations doing something similar. There’s Sea Life Trust, and they have a sanctuary in Iceland, where they have two beluga whales, and then the National Aquarium in Baltimore in the United States is looking for a site for their bottlenose dolphins. So even though we’re not the only ones, we are one of a very small number and our sanctuary would be the very first in North America to house both beluga whales and also orcas. 

Angela: So tell us about The Whale Sanctuary, what’s the space like? 

Lori: So what we did is we went and we found a beautiful day, on the eastern shore, north of Nova Scotia called Port Hillford. And it’s about two hours east of Halifax – a major city there. It’s in a little little area, you know, there’s not many houses, the towns around it are small, but it’s this big, beautiful bay and it meets all the requirements. It’s deep, the water quality is good, it has good flow. So the Port Hilford Bay is a big, beautiful Bay that’s protected from storms is deep, has good water flow, good water quality and meets all the physical characteristics and our task is to create a sanctuary by netting off about 100 to 110 acres of that bay for the whales to live in. So that’s why I say that, yes, you create a sanctuary but pretty much nature gives you what you need to give to the whales so they can have a good life. It’s not like a concrete tank where everything’s artificial. This is in nature, even though it’s still captivity. 

Angela: The ocean knows what it’s doing right? 

Lori: And the whales know when they’re in the ocean. Their bodies and brains respond. 

Angela: What a wonderful concept. So, thanks to a host of documentaries, we’ve got social media, I feel like the traction and the message is growing about the implications of keeping these animals particularly in entertainment parks in captivity. So could you detail what they go through? Any stress factors –  I’ve read about self harm as well. And what it’s like for them? 

Lori: Well, life in the tanks for orcas, especially, but also belugas, bottlenose dolphins, other cetaceans, is enormously stressful. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because the tanks are so artificial and so barren compared to what those big brains need to be stimulated and for them to thrive. So on its face value, it’s clear that this is not the right environment for them. 

But we also know from a lot of scientific evidence, especially from the veterinary literature, that dolphins and whales don’t live very healthy lives in concrete tanks. They suffer from, as you said, a lot of the behavioural abnormalities that indicate chronic stress like self harm, like anorexia, like hyper aggression, like stereotypies, you know, repetitive behaviours. They also suffer from a lot of infectious diseases that indicate that their immune systems are not functioning properly and they often socially are really not very healthy either. The relationships within the tanks are not always healthy and they’re not very natural. 

So we see this in them and so everything we know about how these animals live in these tanks, points to the same conclusion that they don’t belong there and by the way, all of this leads to shortened lifespans, lower survivorship, you can pick whatever statistics you want. But basically, compared to healthy, free ranging wild, you know, societies out there in the ocean, they just don’t do very well. 

Angela: What are we talking about is like half their lifespan? 

Lori: Well, yeah, if you, for instance, take a look at orcas and compare that to a healthy free ranging Orca population. They live at most half the lifespan, most orcas in the tanks die before they are 25 or 30 years old. And that is still a very young orca, on any basis. And in the wild. They don’t all but they can live to 50, 60, 70, 8, 90 years old. And it’s not a question so much of you know, who lives longer as much as why is it that in the tanks, these animals aren’t living to the maximum? 

In the wild there are lots of things that you can encounter, pollution, harassment, pathogens, predators and all these things come into play to make it sometimes difficult for free ranging whales to live to the full maximum lifespan. But many do. But why? Why is it in the tanks none of them do? None of them. They have food. They have no predators. It’s supposed to be a clean environment and they have 24, seven veterinary care and most of them don’t even make it into middle age. Something’s very, very wrong. 

Angela: Absolutely. What does it take to rehabilitate one of these animals versus I know a lot of people want them released, but not all of them can make it out there. 

Lori: That’s right, and most I would say, are not going to be released. Our sanctuary is predicated on the assumption that we will have the whales for their whole lifespan and the reason they cannot be released is because if they were born in captivity, or were captured as infants, they probably – I  know in the case of captive born – they don’t have the skills they need to survive. And so the next best thing we can do for them is put them back into nature to give them a chance to live in the ocean, in the most natural environment possible, while still caring for them and feeding them. 

It is not ideal because all these animals should be living with their families in the wild. But given where we’re starting from the fact that there are well over 3,000 dolphins and whales, confined to small tanks around the world. sanctuary is most certainly the next step in our ability to at least provide a better wellbeing for captive dolphins and whales. And I hope that maybe some time in the future, there won’t be captive dolphins and whales, especially for entertainment. But there are now so we want to get them back as much as what was taken from them. 

Angela: Definitely. So how did these animals find their way to you? Do you advocate for their release? Do you get a call? 

Lori: Well, we don’t have the dolphins and whales yet because we haven’t finished building the sanctuary but we maintain a very open dialogue with people who work in the captivity industry. There are people who work in the captivity industry who are on our advisory committee. We have conversations, we remain open, you’re not going to find us out there trying to close down SeaWorld. That’s not what we do. That’s not what we’re about. What we’re about is saying, look, we all know that we can do better for these animals, you guys at SeaWorld, your colleagues, and you know that to at least most of you do. 

So let’s work together to do something that is going to make us feel good. That is going to make the animals feel good. That we all know is better for them. So this is a call for collaboration. It is not a call to destroy these facilities and organisations. I have a lot of colleagues in SeaWorld and other places, veterinarian colleagues etc. who are superb at what they do, and they have a lot of knowledge. And I’m just saying, we’re just saying, let’s just all do this together, it’ll be okay. 

Angela: Absolutely. Well, we are moving to a place where we know better, and we can do better. 

Lori: When people first started capturing orcas and dolphins and belugas, the level of mortality was astounding. I mean they were just dying, left and right. And they still do, but not anything like what – I mean, we knew nothing about these animals, we knew nothing about how to keep them alive more than a few days or a few weeks. So in the beginning, it was a carnage. But over the years, we’ve come to learn a lot about these animals and what they need to thrive. And so now we need to put that knowledge into use. we need to apply that knowledge for their betterment and that knowledge is vastly greater than what we had when we first started putting animals like this in tanks. 

Angela: So do you have a memorable rehabilitation story you’ve seen in your career? 

Lori: Well, in terms of rehabilitation, it’s very, very difficult to rehabilitate animals who were born to captivity. Obviously, the story that’s closest to us is the story of Keiko, the orca, who was taken captive. He was a very, very young juvenile, and was the star of the movie Free Willy and through a variety of circumstances, he ended up being transferred from the Mexican facility up to the Pacific Northwest, and then finally back to his home waters in Iceland. And he spent five years in Iceland, living in a sanctuary. And one of the people who managed that whole project was Charles Vinick, and he is our Executive Director. And there are also many other people on our teams like Jeff Foster, who were there working with Keiko. 

So those same people are now helping to create this sanctuary and they were all touched by the fact that they were able to give Keiko a life he never would have had had he remained in that facility in a concrete tank. A lot of people talk about how the Keiko project was a failure because he eventually died. The fact of the matter is, is that he lived at least several years, in a way that he never would have had he never been rehabilitated. He lived in the ocean, he took walks out of the sanctuary bounds, he met other orcas, he fed himself, he played, he showed exuberance and joy, he had a ball. And that’s something that wouldn’t have happened except for that effort. 

And I think that drives a lot of the people working on this today is to see that these animals can regain some joy in their life by giving back to them what basically was taken from them, even though they were born into tanks. Just being born into the tanks doesn’t mean you’re better acclimated, you’re not you suffer all the same stress related issues and die just as early and often. There’s something incompatible about the tanks, and being a dolphin and whale. 

All we want to do is say look, you know, they shouldn’t be there to begin with. That’s on us. But at least let’s do the best we can for them. Given their situation. I think that was done with Keiko, and there are a few other circumstances where dolphins have been released successfully. But like I said, we’re not going to be releasing anybody, we’re just going to be giving them more of what they need to thrive. 

Angela: As you mentioned earlier, they know when they’re in the ocean, so natural instinct should come. 

Lori: Well, of course we’re still gonna have veterinary care for them, who’s still going to feed them, we’re still gonna have to check on them and make sure that they’re healthy and adapting. None of that trauma of living in a tank goes away overnight but as we see in elephant sanctuaries, and other sanctuaries around the world, when these animals, these individuals, get into a situation where they know they’re finally safe, and have some space to move – they blossom. They don’t overnight become untraumatized but you see a difference, you see in their demeanour, and in their behaviour that they know they’re in a different place than they were. And that’s what I think we all live for, to see that.

Angela: Yeah, and even just having a little bit of independence for themselves.

Lori: Independence is huge. Independence, autonomy, choice, that is all critically important for mental health and it’s important for dolphins and whales as it is for us, they need to be able to make choices about how they spend their day and in the sanctuary, they will be able to do that. 

Angela: Yes, that’s wonderful. So I just had a question around them socially? Do they stay with their families? Or do they make friends? Because I’ve always wondered how they can put them all in a tank together and they’re all supposed to work it out? 

Lori: Well, that’s a problem, right? There’s these artificial collections of individuals, depending upon the species, and depending upon the population and the culture, they could stay with their families their whole lives, or they could branch out and it depends. 

So for instance, if you look at orcas, the ones that live in Washington state, the southern resident killer whales, have a very different culture than those in Iceland, or even anywhere else. They have a unique culture where for instance, the male’s grow up and spend their whole lives with their mums pod, in that post their mum, they’re Mamma’s boys, right? It’s in every orca culture, but it it isn’t in theirs. The point is, is that they are cultural beings, and these cultures are created by them and they cannot live that way. In tanks, it’s an artificial collection of animals. And over the years, they probably do find ways of coping socially but it’s not anything like what they would have in a free ranging situation. And we know that mothers and calves are separated for breeding purposes, for transferring one animal to be on display from one place to another. All these things are socially disruptive. 

We see a lot of calf mortality in the tanks. And again, you have to think to yourself, why – the mothers welfare, there are no pathogens, there’s no predators. So what is being disrupted here and the mother cannot attach, or the mother doesn’t have enough room to sequester herself away with her baby to keep the baby safe from the others. There’s a lot of aggression, because there’s no place to disperse. So it really is very, very much like you and I, few people were thrown into a single room. And were asked to live there for 30 years. What would that be like? We might eke out some kind of existence but it’d be far from what we would need to be happy and healthy. That’s what it’s like. 

I mean, there are a number of parks who create hybrids. So dolphins of different species are allowed to mate or are artificially inseminated. And you know, this never, this hardly, I wouldn’t say never, but hardly ever curves in the wild. So there’s all kinds of things that go on in the tanks that just are not conducive to health and these animals. 

Angela: They’re purely just surviving. 

Lori: Yeah, I would say they’re surviving, they’re definitely not thriving. Well, some do better than others. Some are more resilient than others. And different parks offer some opportunities that I mean, not all parks are the same. So some are better than others. But at the same time, the basic equation of dolphins and whales in concrete tanks does not work. It doesn’t matter what kind of enrichment programme you have, or what toys you give them or how good the veterinarians are, the basic foundation doesn’t work. And that’s really the problem. That’s why they have to get out of there and go into a situation that’s more natural for them. 

Angela: So what are your plans for the sanctuary? 

Lori: Our plans are to complete the sanctuary, hopefully get all of our permitting done, and bring six to eight beluga whales from capitol facility to the sanctuary, and maybe two or three or four orcas – we’re going to concentrate on beluga whales first, and then we’ll see if there are any orcas who become available. But our plans are to have a full staff where we are there for them. 

For the first time in their lives, they’ll be in a situation where they are the priority and we will have trainers who will help us to maintain the husbandry behaviours and the other behaviours that we will need to do things like, make sure they’re healthy, call them in to a certain area, if there’s something that we want to interact with them. So there’ll be human interaction, but nothing above and beyond what’s needed to keep them healthy and safe. There will be a full service veterinary team who will have food for them, we will feed them and we will have an interpretive centre nearby where we can educate the public about who these animals are, why they need to be in the ocean. 

We will also have educational programmes and outreach programmes, visitors will be allowed but only from a distance. There’s no entertainments, there’s no display of that kind. 

Angela: No performing.

Lori: No performances, nothing like that. Nobody’s going to be paid to play a kind of thing paid a fee, the dolphin or anything like that. It’ll be all respectful of their privacy and their autonomy and at the same time, we want to use the sanctuary as an occasion to educate people about why sanctuaries are so important and why these animals need to be in the ocean. Because if we don’t take that side of it seriously, then we lose a tremendous opportunity. 

So we will have a lot of educational outreach programmes coming out of the sanctuary, we’ll have internships, we’ll have live streaming, where people can see what the whales are doing under the water. We can live stream into classrooms and any place else you want. And so this is about, you know, educating about nature from nature. It’s all very, very exciting, because there’s really so much that we can do, once you start with the premise, that we’re allowing these animals to be who they are.

Angela: What a beautiful space it sounds like. 

Lori: I think it will be beautiful place. It’s a beautiful Bay. It’s in a beautiful part of Nova Scotia. And what we want is just to see these whales bright there and take, we’re not going to be able to take more than a few whales but the idea here is to say, look, if this works, then there’s no reason not to do it. No reason. And we think it will work because we have expertise. And so the idea is to provide an example of something that doesn’t really exist yet to any degree, but will become something that everyone will be doing in the future. 

Angela: So conservation in the wild, I like it.

Lori: Protection, welfare, conservation, all of it be done in the ocean, and in the natural habitat period.

Angela: As it should be. 

Lori: I’ve learned that the animals you see in aquariums and zoos, not like the animals that you see in their natural habitat. Their demeanour is entirely different. There’s no question that wild animals need to be in the wild and dolphins and whales are wild animals. 

Angela: So with some species endangered Will you also be supporting local conservation? 

Lori: Well, we will be doing conservation by being a rescue and rehab and release facility for any dolphins and whales, any cetaceans in the area who are stranded or become injured and need medical care before they are rehabilitated and placed back with their family. So because we will have the space and the veterinary expertise, we have reached out to all the conservation groups in the maritimes to let them know that we stand ready to help in whatever way we can with those kinds of issues, those kinds of problems. 

If there’s a beluga whale or any other kind of cetacean who’s stranded, we can provide a place where they can be treated, and then hopefully placed back into their social group where they belong. 

Angela: Great. So how can people support The Whale Sanctuary directly? And do you have any advice for anyone that may want to help advocate to get these animals out of captivity, 

Lori: Well, the first step would be to just go to our website at www.whalesanctuaryproject.org And you will find all kinds of goodies on there. And you’ll find updates, stories, blogs, scientific papers, information about who is on the team, about Keiko about all the kinds of things that we do all of our endeavours. And that’s the best place to start and there’s a place where you can write in to get more information or to ask a question of me, and I answer every single question. And so that is the best way and to let others know about it, as well. 

And I’d say as far as advocacy, I am a big proponent of advocacy based upon scholarship and science, and empirical evidence. I know that all forms of advocacy, including the kind where you’re on the sidewalk, and you’re holding the sign, have their place, that’s not what we do. It’s not what I advocate to be the strongest form of advocacy. To me, the strongest form is to just work with our scientific knowledge of what these animals go through in circumstances as a base, and to advocate from a position of knowledge, expertise, and credentials. 

So you know, what I call scholar advocacy, because, you know, that, to me, is the strongest type of advocacy, when you’re basing your arguments on science, the scholarship and knowledge and reason and I don’t advocate for any forms of violence or disruption of anybody’s livelihood or anything like that – we stand firmly against that. So I think that the best way to be an advocate for these animals is to learn the most you can about them. 

Angela: Very thoughtful advice. Thank you. And finally, as a global community, do you feel that we’re moving forward in the right direction? 

Lori: I do, I think we are – There are all kinds of things that are going on in the world. You know, France, for instance, just decided to ban keeping orcas on display. Canada is really ahead of the curve with their progressive legislation to ban keeping dolphins and whales for entertainment purposes and breeding them in captivity. There were things going on. Of course, at the same time, there are other parts of the world like Asia, for instance, where things are going in the opposite direction. And it’s just because different cultures discover things at different points. 

So the reason that China has almost 80 marine parks, and is trying to fill them with captive orcas and belugas and dolphins, it’s because of the success that the places in this country have had. So they want the same thing. So it’s an evolution. And I just would say that there is responsibility, if you are a marine park in in western part of the world, to think to yourself, how you’re influencing how others goals are achieved. So sure, you may not take animals from the wild anymore, but you’re still showing a model that is causing others to do that. And so I’d like to see us take more responsibility for that, as we progress in North America and in Europe. 

Angela: Yeah. Well, at least you’re positive that we are moving forward. That’s good. 

Lori: Yes, we are. No, the world’s very complex. 

Angela: Of course, yes. I feel like I’ve taken so much from their lives. And you and your team are working to give so much back. So thank you. 

Lori: Our pleasure. 

Angela: Now Lori this has been such a pleasure to speak to you today, and to be informed and to learn so much about them. And I know that myself and the listeners will be delighted to continue supporting you. And I’ll also link your Instagram page because I enjoy those updates. That’s where I get my whale sanctuary news. 

Lori: Thank you, yes.

Angela: So thank you for your incredible contribution to research and conservation. Honestly, it’s been a delight. 

Lori: And thank you for everything that you do as well. Thank you for having me. 

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