SAN DIEGO (CN) — Marine scientists joined People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on Wednesday to announce they are forming an organization to build sea sanctuaries for captive orcas — and will ask SeaWorld to foot the bill.
The announcement came a week after SeaWorld said it was scrapping its $100 million Blue World expansion project at its San Diego theme park.
Canceling that orca tank expansion plan mooted SeaWorld's 2015 lawsuit against the Coastal Commission, which demanded that SeaWorld stop breeding captive orcas.
It also means SeaWorld's killer whales will live out their lives in the tanks, which the park said will be improved.
SeaWorld announced in March that it would stop breeding orcas. Attendance — and stock prices — plummeted after the documentary "Blackfish" was released in 2013.
On Wednesday, scientists joined PETA to announce plans they have worked on since August, on the feasibility of building the first sea pens in North America to house orcas. They called it the best option for killer whales that have lived in captivity. The sea sanctuaries might eventually host dolphins and beluga whales as well.
PETA wildlife veterinarian Heather Rally said she has visited all three SeaWorld parks and seen obvious trauma in the mammals which she attributes to the orcas' life in captivity.
Rally said SeaWorld's backstage tanks are barely big enough to accommodate the whale's body, let alone allow them to engage in basic activities vital for orcas' health.
Orcas in captivity act out and experience social alienation and depression, causing them to hurt themselves by biting and chewing on their cages and even bang their head against the enclosure, Rally said.
Marine mammal neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino echoed Rally's convictions about the whales, whose brains are much larger than other animals of their size. Because of orcas' complex brains, Marino said, the "artificial environments cannot provide the complexity these animals need to thrive."
"Seaside sanctuaries are the answer. They need space, social relationships and the ability to exercise autonomy," Marino said.
Moving the orcas back to sanctuaries in their natural habitat is a "long-standing" successful global model used to rehabilitate animals from chimpanzees to elephants. Once back in the ocean, the orcas could communicate with wild killer whale pods, dive, hunt and engage in other natural behaviors, Marino said.
The whales and other marine mammals would be transported from SeaWorld and other amusement parks to one or more sanctuaries in various ocean locales.
The experts cited the success of Keiko, the whale from "Free Willy," who was rescued from an aquarium in Mexico, moved to a sea pen in Iceland, then into the open ocean, where he calls the waters of Norway home.
Ocean Futures Society president Jean-Michel Cousteau suggested that if SeaWorld gets on board with calls from animal activists and scientists to move their orcas to sea pens, the company could form a state-of-the-art business model to cash in on moving the whales back to the ocean.
SeaWorld could use livestreaming, podcasts and social media to keep their orca-fan customers connected to killer whales who no longer call the parks home, Cousteau said, calling the plan a "win-win."
"If you protect the ocean, you protect yourself. I don't want them to go out of business; I want them to educate us," Cousteau said.
Neither PETA nor the experts at the press conference could put a price tag on building and maintaining the sea sanctuaries. But PETA's senior vice president of communications, Lisa Lange, suggested SeaWorld can, and should, foot the bill.
"SeaWorld has the opportunity to be part of the solution or part of the problem. They have the money and can make this a money-making venture," Lange said.
The ultimate goal is to free the whales back into the ocean, Lange said.
"In a sanctuary, the well-being of the animals comes first and that cannot be the case in a theme park where a visitor comes first," she said.
SeaWorld did not return an email request for comment.Follow @@BiancaDBruno
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