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In November of last year, the California Coastal Commission decided the San Diego location of the SeaWorld theme-park chain could expand its concrete tanks housing orca whales only on the condition that the park curtail its breeding program. Following the decision, SeaWorld announced that it would end the breeding program while keeping the existing tanks in place.

The park had also faced a bill introduced by California assemblyman Richard Bloom that would have banned the display of orcas in an aquarium setting. SeaWorld says it will eventually phase out the shows in all of its parks by the end of next year but has not said what will happen to the animals once Shamu splashes the last guest. Last week, a third-party group stepped in with a proposed solution.

"Many of us recognize that concrete tanks are not places for dolphins and whales to be living and that there are no alternatives aside from dumping them back into the ocean," Lori Marino, president and executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, told the Reader.

Releasing individual whales who, outside of captivity are raised with strong familial bonds and social structures, isn't necessarily an option for those who've instead become used to human interaction. Despite years of conditioning prior to his release, Keiko, the orca featured in the 1992 movie Free Willy, failed to integrate with a familial pod and died within a year of being returned to the open ocean.

"Animals born in captivity are not candidates for release, and the few that have been taken from the wild have been in captivity for a very long time," continued Marino. "It's not clear that they could be released without very careful consideration. So, what a sanctuary could offer is something that's in between but still much closer to a natural setting."

The sanctuary Marino's group is proposing is akin to the "sea pens" where Keiko lived in a semi-open ocean environment for several years. There, human interaction is limited and the pens are many times the size of SeaWorld's concrete pools, allowing for the whales to freely move — in the wild, orcas will traverse dozens of miles in the course of a day, a feat impossible even in an expanded land-based tank.

"SeaWorld phased out breeding orcas, and that's a good thing, but there are many, many individuals who are going to spend many years in concrete tanks," Marino said. "We want to see them take the next logical step, which is to phase out the keeping of these tanks altogether."

With a $200,000 grant from baby-product manufacturer Munchkin, Marino and her team have begun exploring potential sites along both coasts, ranging from the northern United States into southern Canada, an ideal latitude for the cooler waters preferred by the whale species the project is targeting. Once a site is selected early next year, the company has committed another $1 million toward funding.

As of this writing, SeaWorld has not been openly responsive to overtures seeking a partnership. Marino is hopeful that they, along with other aquatic parks, will become more responsive as progress is made toward the construction of an actual sanctuary.

"We haven't seen any sign from SeaWorld that they're willing to [place their whales in a sanctuary], but we're new. We're hoping that once they see we're going to do this anyway, and that we're very open to working with them, that they'll come around. This isn't about crushing SeaWorld, it's about getting animals into a better environment, and if they want to join us we'd welcome them."

(corrected 5/14, 7:35 p.m.)

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