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One autumn afternoon in 1993, Amy Simon’s mother brought home a VHS tape of Free Willy, the boy-meets-whale tale that became a sleeper hit across North America that summer. Living in the tiny community of Aspen, Nova Scotia—barely more than a crossroads on the province’s sparsely populated eastern shore—six-year-old Simon had missed it in theaters. But her mother knew she would love the film about a 12-year-old boy who frees a killer whale from the clutches of a nefarious marine-park owner. A shy kid, Simon spent more time with animals than other children, caring for lost baby ducks in the family bathtub and rehabilitating injured squirrels.
Watching Willy’s saga, she was shaken to her core by the idea that an animal of such power and intelligence could be held captive to perform tricks for gawking tourists. And though Simon—cross-legged on the family room floor—couldn’t have known it then, that afternoon would come to play a role in bringing one of the most ambitious animal-rehab projects in history right to her doorstep.
Now 34, Simon still recalls with vivid clarity the scene in which Willy, angry and afraid, refuses to perform, instead battering the glass walls of his tiny aquarium tank in distress. She calls herself a member of the “Free Willy generation”—the hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who bombarded a 1-800-4-WHALES number with calls and Warner Bros. with letters demanding that Keiko, the killer whale who played Willy, be released from his ironic post–Free Willy home in a dismal marine park in Mexico City. It took a few years—and two inferior sequels—but their pleas, alongside broader public pressure, actually worked. Keiko was airlifted in 1996 to an Oregon aquarium to await his final move to an Icelandic harbor called Klettsvik Bay. There, in a natural inlet encircled by towering peaks of volcanic rock, a group called the Free Willy Keiko Foundation built a sea pen where the world’s most famous killer whale acclimated to a natural environment.
From far-away Nova Scotia, a teenaged Simon followed the project’s highs and lows. In 2002, when Keiko swam for the open ocean, she rejoiced. In 2003, when he died of a respiratory problem in a Norwegian fjord—never really having stopped seeking human company—she mourned.
When Simon was 26, she encountered another film that unnerved her just as Free Willy had. The 2013 documentary Blackfish told the story of Tilikum, a killer whale who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida in 2010. Just like Free Willy, Blackfish inspired a new wave of anticaptivity advocacy, dubbed the Blackfish effect.
It also brought renewed attention to an idea that had seemed, until then, like little more than an improbable dream: seaside sanctuaries for whales and dolphins, aquatic iterations of the terrestrial refuges that already existed for big cats, chimps, and elephants. Captive whales and dolphins can’t just be decanted into the ocean to swim free and survive. After a lifetime in captivity, their wild instincts are thoroughly short-circuited. Sanctuaries offer a compromise: an encircled natural space, much larger than any tank but enclosed by underwater nets, where they can live out their lives under the watch of caretakers and veterinarians.
Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and self-described “scholar advocate” featured in Blackfish, was one of the concept’s earliest proponents. In 2015, she was in San Francisco, California, delivering yet another lecture on the idea, this one to a conference in a hotel, when she decided she was done with talk. “I remember going into the lobby and saying to a colleague, ‘Let’s just do it,’” she says. The following year, she formed the Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP), a nonprofit aimed at bringing the dream to life.
Marine mammal advocate Charles Vinick, who had overseen the effort to relocate Keiko to Iceland, known as the Keiko Project, came aboard as executive director. But what WSP needed most, before money or supporters or a timeline, was a home. Beginning in 2016, Marino and her colleagues cast a bicoastal net, scouting for locations for killer whales and belugas.
Simon, who followed cetacean news online, immediately took notice. In 2018, when WSP announced a visit to Sherbrooke—a larger town not far from her home in Aspen—she could hardly believe it. These giants of the conservation community were coming to her home province, bringing with them an animal-rehab and sanctuary proposal of her dreams—the ultimate duck in a bathtub. “It’s not every day these people are going to walk in our door and let us accomplish things that’ve never been done,” she says. She was shaken again, this time at the thought that, perhaps, she could help.
WSP was among the world’s first serious sanctuary proposals, but it wasn’t the only one. As public opinion in the West has increasingly turned against captivity—and as a growing number of jurisdictions pass anticaptivity legislation—other groups have formed in Europe and North America. The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, has been scouring the eastern United States and Caribbean for years, looking for a suitable site to retire its dolphins. Paul Spong, founder of British Columbia’s OrcaLab, has been trying to develop a sanctuary on that province’s central coast for Corky, a killer whale who’s been captive for more than half a century at SeaWorld San Diego in California. And in the United Kingdom, a charity called Sea Life Trust worked for years to find a home for two belugas retired from an aquarium in Shanghai, China.
Most have faced a common problem: where do you find a community willing to turn over a huge swath of its waters to retire a few whales? The places best suited to seaside sanctuaries are sheltered but accessible, neither too warm nor too cold, and close enough to civilization to support a permanent team of veterinarians and caretakers. “It has to be a place with some balance, that has some infrastructure,” says Marino. “And that means somewhere with people, and the people in the community have to want it.”
Marino and her colleagues spent more than two years considering more than 100 sites throughout North America. Wherever they went, their pitch was similar: humans have inflicted terrible suffering on these creatures, and we have a moral imperative to right that wrong. Will you help? In most places, the answer was no. In Washington State, the conservation community opposed the plan. In one Nova Scotia fishing community, residents responded with outright threats.
Finally, in February 2020, Vinick and Marino announced that they’d chosen another little fishing community, called Port Hilford, as WSP’s “model sanctuary”—a home for up to eight belugas and proof to communities worldwide that the idea can work. In Port Hilford, down the road from nearby Aspen and Sherbrooke, their stars finally seemed to align, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of one Amy Simon, converted to their cause 27 years before.
If sanctuaries are going to become more than a boutique solution for a handful of the world’s 3,000-plus captive cetaceans, it will be vital to understand how to replicate that success and how to convince other locals in other villages that what’s good for the whales is good for them, too. “You drop into these communities,” Marino says, “and you drop into history, you drop into social and political waves that you’re unaware of. Sometimes you learn about them the hard way.”
A decade ago, ecologist and philosopher David Abram wondered in his book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, “Do we really believe that the human imagination can sustain itself without being startled by other shapes of sentience—by redwoods and gleaming orchids and the eerie glissando cries of humpback whales?”
Marino has dedicated much of her career to tracing the outline of one such shape. In the 1990s, she studied with evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, best known for devising the mirror test: he put chimpanzees in front of a mirror to see if they’d realize they were looking at themselves and thus could be considered self-aware. They did. With primates spoken for, Marino turned to cetaceans, applying the mirror test to bottlenose dolphins in 2001. They passed, too.
Marino is far from the first scientist to become enthralled by cetaceans. Neuroscientist John C. Lilly first studied their huge, complex brains in the 1950s, and his own career arc is proof of how tightly these animals can grip an imagination. By the 1960s, he’d developed some unconventional notions about interspecies harmony, even envisioning representation for a cetacean nation at the United Nations where whales and dolphins could weigh in on global affairs. (LSD was involved.)
For Marino, too, the sophistication of cetacean brains naturally leads to bold notions. Her contributions to Blackfish included explaining a brain structure called the paralimbic lobe, which links the limbic system (associated with emotion) and the neocortex (associated with higher thought). Relative to overall brain size, cetaceans’ paralimbic lobes are far bigger than those of primates, including humans. No one can really say with certainty what that means for cetacean cognition, but to Marino and some other researchers, it suggests provocative possibilities about the intersection of emotion and intellect. That idea was central to the documentary’s thesis: that the loneliness of captivity had driven Tilikum to a mental breakdown.
The film’s success was a watershed for the anticaptivity movement, but an uncomfortable question remained: what about those thousands of animals already living in parks and aquariums, unfit to live in the wild? Enter the Whale Sanctuary Project. In 2015, before Vinick joined her, Marino began to assemble what she calls a “dream team” of anticaptivity intelligentsia. They included Naomi Rose, a marine-mammal biologist and animal-rights advocate; Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques; and David Philips, founder of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation and executive director of Earth Island Institute, a California nonprofit. WSP contains plenty of Keiko Project alumni, in fact. “That work,” Vinick says, “informs everything we do today with the Whale Sanctuary Project.”
That includes the technical stuff: constructing nets, dealing with violent weather, determining staffing needs. It also includes navigating local politics. When Vinick was trying to bring Keiko to Iceland, “save the whales” didn’t have much resonance locally, especially in fishing communities like those near Klettsvik Bay. Iceland’s cultural identity as a whaling nation was a point of national pride. Some Icelanders thought the project was, in Vinick’s words, “the most ridiculous waste of time and space they ever saw.”
At first, Marino and Vinick thought they would have whales in the water within a couple of years, but by 2019 they were still without a home. For two years, they’d scoured North America’s coasts, poring over hundreds of Google Earth images to pinpoint promising locations. They’d driven thousands of kilometers of coastline in Washington State, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia. They’d clambered over rocky shores, chartered a plane, and hitched rides in fishing boats and dinghies to get closer to remote locales. And they’d met with thousands of people in a blur of conference halls, Legion halls, firehalls, and church halls.
Among the very best sites they identified was one 100 kilometers west of their eventual choice of Port Hilford, a small fishing community called Mushaboom. Nestled in a protected channel between islands, the water was deep, sheltered, and clean. The area saw little traffic, marine or otherwise.
The Mushaboom site was quiet, but it wasn’t empty. Known locally as the Gates, it was well-used as a protected passage for boaters and as an occasional lobster-fishing spot. It was the fishers who mounted the most vehement opposition to the project.
Thinly settled and historically hardscrabble, Nova Scotia’s eastern shore has long been defined by a strong streak of go-it-alone libertarianism. In 2018, the federal government proposed turning the area’s offshore waters into a new marine protected area, sparking fear and anger over the perceived incursion of big government. (When the federal fisheries minister passed through town in May 2019, more than 100 lobster fishers showed up with jeers and threats. “If you’re gonna take our lives, you better be willing to lose yours,” one called out.)
When Vinick and Marino came to town, they knew none of that history. And while a few residents supported the sanctuary, a committed alliance of boaters and fishers worked hard to kibosh it. (They were so committed that several pro-sanctuary locals refused to speak on record, for fear of violent retaliation.)
In December 2019, Marino and Vinick arrived at the Legion near Mushaboom, which had become the de facto center of community consultations. Their aim that night was to find a way to move forward, but as the crowd filed in, that prospect grew dimmer by the minute. One by one the locals came, brandishing signs reading “Say NO to a whale sanctuary” and featuring an X over a baby beluga. By 8:00 p.m., the chairs were full, and the people in them—arms folded, gazes steely, signs held high—didn’t look like a compromising bunch.
Marino began gamely. She explained the toll of captivity on these intensely smart, social creatures. In the wild, she said, belugas cover vast distances and navigate via echolocation. In captivity, they swim infinite circles in bare tanks, suffering emotional distress, self-harm, and early death. Her argument was imploring and passionate, and it fell mostly on deaf ears.
The Q & A that followed lasted three grueling hours. Some residents raised prudent concerns: how much tourism would it attract? Who would foot the bill, pegged at US $15-million just to build and $2-million annually thereafter? (Vinick was frank: besides a pledge of $1-million from a California-based baby-toy manufacturer and another $1-million from a donor who’d agreed to match it, financing was in progress.) Others were more angry than lucid, hurling accusations. Some insisted the contraceptives the group planned to give its resident whales would sterilize their lobsters. Some believed the federal government was secretly behind the sanctuary. Early on, one young man declared the community would “do anything to keep you out, legal or otherwise”—his comments earned a round of applause. Later, residents threatened to put up road blockades or even shoot the whales. “We just didn’t trust ’em,” says Fred Boutilier, a lifelong lobster fisher. “Stories kept changing, the plans got bigger. People don’t want Marineland here in Mushaboom.”
By February 2020, Vinick and Marino decided that Mushaboom wasn’t worth the fight. Instead, they focused on Port Hilford, an hour-and-a-half-long drive eastward along the coast. The site was a little more remote and a little more exposed to the turbulent North Atlantic, but it was the people who made the difference.
Like plenty of communities on Canada’s Atlantic coast, the area around the village of Port Hilford and the nearby town of Sherbrooke has a rich history, replete with rum-running, shipbuilding, and gold rushes. Today, that history is its most bankable asset. Sherbrooke Village, a sanitized refurbishing of Sherbrooke’s Victorian-era town center, populated by costumed historical re-enactors, draws tourists in the summer. In winter, it draws almost no one at all. “If this place ever folded, it would be dire,” says Stephen Flemming, the village’s executive director. “You can count the economic drivers around here on one hand.”
Flemming attended WSP’s first meeting, at Sherbrooke’s firehall in February 2019, along with Simon and Jamie Anderson, Sherbrooke Village’s operations manager. For Simon, the sanctuary was a chance to work side by side with the superstar activists she’d followed for years. For Flemming and Anderson, who were used to outsiders peddling megaprojects of dubious environmental merit to the town (a gold mine, a natural-gas terminal), it fit perfectly within their vision of small-scale, sustainable rural economic development.
Within 24 hours, the trio became WSP’s local fixers, advocating, educating, and allaying concerns among locals unsure what to make of these Americans who had come to town asking for about 40 hectares of the community’s waters. Simon, Flemming, and Anderson approached those with a big claim to the water, and a lot to lose: the fishers.
Just three used the bay regularly, and Hughie MacDonald was their elder statesman. Neither he nor his wife, Helen, took the project seriously at first, filing it away as a megaproject that wouldn’t materialize. “When people from the US came in and said, ‘I’m going to take whales and put them in your bay, with a $20-million start-up cost,’ people laughed,” says Simon. “And they had every right to.”
Simon persuaded the 74-year-old and his wife to meet Vinick in April of 2019. At the MacDonalds’ kitchen table, overlooking a slim channel of fresh water, ringed by woods, Vinick delivered his pitch. Aware of Simon’s enthusiasm, Hughie withheld judgment, even though he suspected the sanctuary could cost him 10 percent of his annual harvest. But after a few more meetings, he and Helen were finally impelled by what the sanctuary could offer the community: permanent local jobs, a modicum of tourism revenue, and a spot on the proverbial map for a community whose best days were more than a century past. Once the MacDonalds signed on, the community’s other fishers weren’t far behind. “We need something here, soon,” Helen says. “Because now, there’s nothing.” A jaunt around Port Hilford is proof that there certainly used to be more. To get from town to the sanctuary site requires navigating a pitted dirt lane that snakes around the west side of Port Hilford Bay. Once the main drag of a gold-mining community settled around the time of the American Civil War, it’s now overgrown by the encroaching woods.
The lane ends at a small wharf near the mouth of the bay. From a small sandy beach, the bay extends more than five kilometers toward the ocean, widening to a yawning mouth almost four kilometers across. Port Hilford Bay will offer plenty of space and quiet for its new residents; they’ll have about 40 netted-off hectares to roam. The anchors for the nets will likely be placed near the existing wharf, where WSP’s preliminary scientific work is already underway.
WSP’s environmental analyst, Amanda Babin, has been working here to help prepare a fuller picture of water conditions: temperature, depth, ecology. Like Simon, the 33-year-old came to her life’s work through Keiko’s story, and admits to being slightly star-struck by her colleagues. “It’s a unique situation to be sharing meals in a small motel in a rural town with these big names,” she says.
Babin and the rest of the WSP team have been examining historical sea-ice charts and analyzing wave and wind action. They’ve devised plans for the nets to withstand the worst the North Atlantic can hurl their way, anchored by piles driven deep into bedrock and weighted with lead to keep them taut during tidal flow. The nets themselves will be placed with input from fishers and other community members, and designed to minimize the risk of wild animals becoming ensnared. Security personnel will monitor the whales 24 hours a day, and the nets will be cleaned regularly by a dive team.
There will also be supporting infrastructure, the final shape of which is still unclear. Also unclear are the answers to a slew of questions the community and WSP itself are asking. Will a visitor center be built at the wharf, or in Sherbrooke itself? What income-generating opportunities will there be for locals? How much tourism is even appropriate to court around a site that is first and foremost a refuge? How do you balance the needs of the sanctuary’s residents with the area’s wild ecology? Navigating these questions will be just as critical as community buy-in to the model sanctuary’s proof of concept.
While WSP’s Mushaboom opponents were mostly disgruntled fishers and recreational boaters, the group encountered an entirely different kind of opposition in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. There, a proposed site within the range of endangered southern resident killer whales sparked alarm among conservation groups, who raised concerns about disrupted migration patterns and disease transmission between wild whales and their sanctuary brethren. “The conservation community would prioritize preventing extinction over the welfare of individuals,” says David Bain, chief scientist at Seattle nonprofit Orca Conservancy, which in 2019 called WSP naive about their sanctuary’s possible effects on wild whales.
With more than a dozen cetacean species endangered worldwide, Bain’s critique strikes at a larger debate between conservation and animal-welfare philosophies: is it better to use limited funds to try to improve the welfare of wild populations or the lives of a comparatively tiny group of captive animals? “It all depends on where the people with money want to put their money,” Bain says. “It’s a values-based decision rather than a scientific decision.”
At Port Hilford, the risk of interference with wild animals is nearly zero, according to Vinick. Still, the site will have a permanent acoustic array that listens for underwater noise of either human or animal variety. In the unlikely event that a wild cetacean strays into the protected waters nearby, sanctuary staff could hurry the resident whales into temporary enclosures, away from the perimeter net.
Extreme weather is a different story: the area has been hit by two post-tropical storms in the past two years alone. But Vinick is far from blithe about that, especially after his experience during the Keiko Project. Klettsvik Bay, Keiko’s old home, was frequently besieged by vicious storms and tidal surges. Today, under the direction of Sea Life Trust, that site is again home to whales, and Vinick is frank: “I don’t know that the infrastructure they put in place will survive.” Sea Life Trust’s Rob Lott acknowledges the weather challenges, but says that they arrived at Klettsvik Bay after ruling out options in Russia, Scotland, and Norway.
One thing Sea Life Trust did have, however, was whales. While WSP is being developed with the ethos that if you build it, the whales will come, Sea Life Trust had residents lined up. Little Grey and Little White were previous residents of Changfeng Ocean World, a Shanghai marine park acquired in 2012 by a company with a policy against holding whales and dolphins in captivity. That company worked with Sea Life Trust for years to find, fund, and develop the sanctuary for the pair.
WSP’s initial cash infusion has come from Steve Dunn, CEO of global baby lifestyle brand Munchkin. Dunn’s largesse is a particularly profound example of the Blackfish effect. After seeing the film, Dunn tried to donate $1-million to SeaWorld to free Tilikum. When SeaWorld declined, he approached WSP. WSP has also hired a full-time fundraising director, and in December 2020, launched a new fundraising campaign called the Keiko Legacy Fund.
The branding is no surprise—Keiko’s story, even if it is best known thanks to a sentimental kids’ movie, remains the most tangible connection most people will ever have to the animals WSP hopes to protect. “The name recognition is so important,” says Jeff Foster, a former SeaWorld trainer who was intimately involved in the Keiko Project. “Once you put the name on it and people start developing a relationship with that animal, they’ll do more for that animal.”
Back in Sherbrooke, residents have embraced their community’s newfound identity as wholeheartedly as other communities have rejected it. Hand-painted posters reading Belugas Belong Here alongside smiling whales have been nailed to telephone poles, mailboxes, and houses all over town. At the Sherbrooke Village Inn’s restaurant—where the menu is also adorned with playful cetaceans—you can order a “beluga tail” dessert (fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and topped with caramel or strawberry and whipped cream). Last winter, Sherbrooke Village’s annual Old-Fashioned Christmas event featured a “Christmas beluga house,” decorated with beluga artwork and a snorkeling Santa Claus. The village had a spookier but equally cetaceous equivalent at Halloween.
Before the pandemic, Vinick and Marino hoped their sanctuary would welcome whales this year. Vinick is now eyeing the end of 2022, in part because WSP’s US-based staff have mostly been unable to enter Canada. That’s slowed the pace of permitting, as have follow-up consultations with community and Mi’kmaw groups, which Vinick feels should be conducted in person, not by Zoom.
But the pair believes that when whales are finally swimming in Port Hilford, it will be a transformative moment—not just for the community or for a handful of as-yet-unidentified belugas, but for the sanctuary movement at large. “I think when people see how the sanctuary and community work together, it will become increasingly easy to find sites and people who want to collaborate to make these happen,” says Marino.
In every community they’ve visited—in each of those conference halls, Legion halls, firehalls, and churches—Vinick and Marino have laid out the stakes as they see them for the world’s captive cetaceans, and posed that same question: will your town help? Their reception, every time, has been as much about factors outside their control as about the ethical entreaty itself. In Mushaboom, it was a wariness of outsiders; in Washington, conservation groups at odds with WSP’s vision; in Port Hilford, a town in need of a new purpose—and Amy Simon, with the legacy that inspired her.
Free Willy, of course, had a Hollywood ending. Keiko’s tragic real-life circumstances were much more complicated. And no one can yet say how WSP’s story in Port Hilford will end. Nor is it clear whether enough sites will ever be found to make a difference for more than a small fraction of the world’s captive cetaceans. We do know, Vinick says, one thing for certain: “It is very easy to capture a whale from the ocean. It’s much harder to put one back.”