• Why Not Take Whales from the Wild? • The Story of Maris & Beethoven • Imagine You’re a Beluga • Forward or Backward? • Enough Already
As GNN and many others have reported, The Georgia Aquarium Inc. (GAI) wants to bring 18 wild beluga whales captured in Eastern Russia into the U.S. and distribute them among five captive facilities (GAI, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego) for the purpose of public display.
GAI can’t import these animals without a permit. It has now applied for one, and NOAA Fisheres/NMFS has made the application and other documents available for public review.
The law requires a 30-day comment period, but because of the controversial nature of GAI’s request, NOAA has extended that comment period from 30 to 60 days and held a hearing on Friday, Oct 12. (Read how the captive-display industry tried to control who got in and spoke here. Read a summary of who actually said what here.)
NOAA could take until January or February to decide to issue the permit or not, but the deadline for submitting comments for or against is October 29. So the time for people who oppose the import to make their feelings known is now.
Why Not Take Whales from the Wild?
Back when keeping dolphins and whales in tanks first became feasible in the late 1950s after earlier failed attempts, the captive-display industry got all its animals from the wild and nobody thought anything about it.
But as people began learning more about how intelligent these animals are, what socially sophisticated, family-oriented lives they live in the wild, how barbaric capture methods are and how morally questionable it is to take these animals out of their environment and away from their families and societies to put them in tanks for human entertainment and profit, public opinion began turning against capturing animals for this purpose and court actions and legislative acts in the U.S. and Canada — passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972; settlement of a suit against SeaWorld in 1976, following a disastrous capture operation, that ended killer whale captures off Washington State; and Canada’s ban on capturing killer whales and belugas in 1976 and 1992 — began making wild captures for public display harder to do.
Marine-mammal advocates estimate that no dolphins or whales have been captured and brought into the U.S. for display purposes since 1993. Instead, the U.S. industry turned to filling and refilling its tanks with captive-borns, rescued and rehabbed animals, and animals shipped in from foreign facilities (that may or may not have taken them from the wild, but at least the U.S. facility could say it didn’t.)
These lines of supply plus the pregnancies the industry can now force through artificial insemination (A.I.) have provided U.S. aquariums and marine parks with plenty of Bottlenose dolphins and roughly enough killer whales but not such an adequate supply of belugas.
The problem is that these beautiful, sweet-natured, highly sociable, fish-and-crustacean-eating, Artic and sub-Artic dwelling white whales, with their pursable lips, swiveling heads, skin that turns from gray to white at around age two, and rich repertoire of calls, simply don’t do well in captivity.
Belugas taken from the wild tend to be heartier and live longer, and many of the females have babies, but their captive-born offspring don’t live as long and only infrequently reproduce.
Of the approximately 82 belugas captured since 1958 (78 for public display, 4 for the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program), 13 are living and 69 are dead. The oldest survivor is Ruby, captured in Manitoba in July 1980 for the Navy and sent to SeaWorld San Diego in April 1997. Ruby is around 35 years old now — a record for U.S. captive belugas. In the wild, belugas can live 50 or 60 years.
Ruby has given birth twice. Her first calf, conceived via A.I., was born at SeaWorld San Diego on May 28, 2008 and died 10 days later. The second, her daughter, Pearl, is now two years old — but only because SeaWorld staffers stepped in to hand-feed her when Ruby rejected her and because another captured female named Allua, in her late 20s, became a sort of surrogate mom.
The record for captive births is held by Mauyak, captured in Manitoba in 1984 and bounced from Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, to Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium and back to Shedd during her 28 years in captivity.
Mauyak has given birth seven times. Two of her calves — her son Miki, five, and her new six-week-old, are with her at Shedd. Her son Qannik, sent from Shedd to PDZA at age seven, died there less than two years later. Her three other calves died the day they were born.
A total of 51 beluga babies have been conceived in captivity since a captured female named Frances, now long dead, gave birth to the first captive-born at New York Aquarium (NYA) on July 22, 1972. That baby also died in a day.
Of these 51 conceptions, 19 captive-borns are living and 32 are dead (including 2 fetuses found in females after their deaths). All 32 who have died were 13 or younger — most much younger. Of the 19 now living, only six have reached or passed their 13th birthday. The oldest are Maris, 18, and Beethoven, 20, both now at Georgia Aquarium.
The Story of Maris & Beethoven
Maris was born at New York Aquarium on July 28, 1994, when NYA was still exhibiting captive belugas, which it isn’t anymore. Her mom, Natasha, was captured in Manitoba on July 16, 1984. Maris was Natasha’s second calf. The first, a male named Hudson, born on August 7, 1991, died before he turned three.
Natasha and Maris have been bounced from NYA to Mystic to NYA to GAI to SeaWorld San Antonio during Maris’s lifetime — alway together until GAI sent them to San Antonio with their male tankmate, Nico, on October 4, 2009 for a captive-beluga breeding gathering while GAI installed a dolphin exhibit and expanded its beluga tank to accommodate a money-making beluga encounter program.
Captured in Russia in 1996, Nico came to Georgia Aquarium with another Russian capture named Gasper from a rundown amusement park in Mexico City about two months before the aquarium’s grand opening on November 23, 2005. Natasha and Maris arrived from NYA a month later with another female named Marina, captured in Manitoba in 1987. When Georgia Aquarium opened, it had five belugas in residence to wow visitors and high hopes that these five would produce babies. But they didn’t.
Gaspar, always sickly, was euthanized a little more than a year later, on January 2, 2007. Marina died 11 months after that. That left Natasha, Maris and Nico and still no babies almost three years later when they were packed up and shipped to SeaWorld San Antonio to mingle with belugas from other facilities in the hope that some would make babies.
Beethoven was born in San Antonio on August 8, 1992. His mother, a captured female named Bandit, was moved to SeaWorld Orlando without him before he turned three, and he was shipped to SeaWorld San Diego before he turned five. Bandit gave birth to a second son in Orlando on July 22, 1999. That baby, named Hudnall, died at age four, making Beethoven Bandit’s only surviving offspring, just as Maris is Natasha’s. Bandit died in Orlando three years later at around age 19.
Beethoven had moved from SeaWorld San Diego to PDZA in the meantime. He arrived back in San Antonio for the big beluga social only four months before Natasha, Maris and Nico arrived from Georgia.
The grand plan to bring captive belugas together to make babies hit a snag when Nico died suddenly in San Antonio on October 31, 2009, a short 27 days after his arrival. His death was a setback. But then staffers noticed that Maris seemed to get along with Beethoven, so SeaWorld and GAI decided to send Maris and Beethoven back to Georgia together and leave Mama Natasha behind — separating mother and daughter for the first time.
GAI heralded the repopulating of its expanded beluga exhibit with a press release announcing “Belugas Are Back!” No mention that only Maris was really “back” — that Nico had died, Natasha had been left in San Antonio and Beethoven was a new arrival. And then GAI waited and hoped that Nature would take its course.
It did. Maris and Beethoven did make a baby, which is a big thing. Only two other captive-born females have ever given birth: 13-year-old Whisper, now at SeaWorld Orlando, who has given birth twice, once to a stillborn calf and once to twins, both dead in three weeks; and 12-year-old Luna at SeaWorld San Antonio, who has conceived once via A.I. Her daughter, Atla, is now two.
Maris’s baby, born on May 18, 2012 after about 12 months gestation, was the fourth second-generation captive-born beluga in U.S. marine-park history. But the calf was born weak and underweight; Maris didn’t know quite what to do with her, never having observed beluga moms give birth and rear young in the wild; Maris’s wild-born mother, who may have been able to help, wasn’t there to assist; and humans were no substitute. The female calf died five days later.
Imagine You’re a Beluga….
So there you have why GAI and its partner facilities need to take more belugas from the wild and what life holds in store for the belugas they want to import. Out of approximately 133 belugas taken or born into captivity in the U.S. since 1958 (82 captured, 51 captive-born), only 32 are alive (13 captured, 19 captive-born).
But rather than admit that keeping these animals in tanks doesn’t work and let their beluga tanks empty through attrition, GAI and its partners want to take more animals from the wild until they figure out how to keep their tanks filled through captive births.
GAI and partners aren’t asking permission to capture the 18 whales they want to import. They’ve already captured them: ten females and eight males that GAI says range from about 3.5 to 11.5 years old, even though some appear still to be gray in photos, suggesting they weren’t yet two when captured.
As GAI explains in its permit application, these animals were cherry-picked from large summer foraging groups in the Sea of Okhotsk’s Sakhalin Bay in 2006, 2010 and 2011 and moved to the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station (UMMRS) on Russia’s Black Sea Coast to await transport to the U.S.
GAI describes this capture and pre-transport operation matter-of-factly in its permit application: s.o.p., business as usual, nothing we don’t know how to do. But imagine yourself as one of the 18 highly intelligent, highly family oriented, free-born and free-swimming young whales GAI targeted….
There you are, peacefully foraging with other pod members in the quiet, shallow waters off Baydukova Island, paying no attention to if even noticing the silent sailing craft called baidars nearby, when suddenly humans in motorboats tethered behind these sailing craft crank up their engines and come zooming up at you, buzz around you and drop a net between you and your kin. You can’t swim to them, and they can’t reach you.
Then the humans herd you to shore, wrap you in the net, tie you to the side of a baidar, drag you five miles through the water to Choklova Island, and herd you into a seapen with other captives you may or may not know. And there you remain for the next two months learning to eat dead fish and tolerate being handled by humans if you want to survive.
Here’s a taste of what that part of the capture process is like for these animals, from Part 1 of a two-part Russian TV documentary called “Meeting with Nature: Dolphins Way” that aired on the English-language Russian news channel RT (Russia Today) on July 25, 2010.
If you survive these first two months of your involuntary journey from freedom to captivity and manage to stay healthy, one day, you’re hauled up out of the water with nets and straps and machines, transferred into a water-filled container inside a helicopter and flown to a nearby airport, where you’re lifted out of that container, transferred to another one aboard a plane and flown 16 to 18 hours “not including refueling stops” to another airport on the Black Sea Coast.
There, you are again hoisted out of your container and transferred to a different one on the back of a truck. Then you’re driven overland, bumping and sloshing, for another couple of hours to UMMRS, where you’re lifted out of your container again and lowered, dumped or rolled into a seapen or pool — maybe shared with other belugas, maybe not.
Here’s a taste of what that part of the process is like, from Part 2 of the Russian TV documentary, “Meeting with Nature: Dolphins Way”:
Motorboats, nets, pens, human handling, eating dead fish, being hoisted out of the water and lowered into containers multiple times, helicopters and airplanes, noise and vibrations, bouncing around in a water-filled box on the back of a truck, concrete tank walls, strange humans, constantly changing environments and tankmates — all this is alien, frightening, stressful, confusing. And this is what GAI puts you through just to get you to where it will warehouse you until it gets the green light to initiate Phase 2 of your journey: another 23- to 30-hour truck/plane/truck transport to your final destination in the U.S.
If you survive, as GAI assures NOAA you will, and your final destination is GAI, you will spend the rest of your life inside a building, never again knowing fresh air and sunshine, wind and waves, the richness of the ocean, tides and storms, moon and stars — let alone the comfort and companionship of your family and pod. Instead, you will spend the rest of your life swimming in circles inside a barren tank that looks big to the humans gazing raptly in at you from outside but isn’t much more than a tiny, transparent box filled with chemically treated water to you.
Born in the wild where you and your kin gather in large aggregations and chatter so constantly and musically that humans call you the “canaries of the sea,” you will go silent in your tiny box and will probably be required to let humans grope you as part of the GAI’s money-making “Beluga & Friends” Encounter Program ($170 per person).
GAI will have complete freedom to keep you, move you, swap you or separate you from your offspring and tankmates. And should you die, don’t expect your death to be widely mourned. GAI will do its best to keep your death quiet while it replaces you with another white whale, depending on the media not to pay much attention and counting on visitors not to notice or care. A beluga is a beluga is a beluga.
Backward or Forward — Which Way Will It Be?
That’s essentially the fate awaiting the 18 belugas GAI wants to import. It has these young animals all ready to go, some of them so young when captured they hadn’t turned white yet. But it can’t load-em up and ship’em out without a permit from NOAA Fisheries, and the granting of that permit is not guaranteed.
Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld and Shedd are powerful organizations that bring lots of tourist dollars to their areas, which is no small thing even in a healthy economy. But SeaWorldm especially, once the kingpin, is no longer as all powerful as it once was. That changed forever when the killer whale named Tilikum (taken from the wild) killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010 — a truth brought home to SeaWorld when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said, “That’s it, no more trainers in the water with killer whales,” and SeaWorld went to court to get a judge to say they could do it anyway, and instead the judge said, “No.”
Ever since SeaWorld President & CEO Jim Atchison compounded the damage done to SeaWorld’s reputation and media relations by snarling and stonewalling his way through a press conference two days after Dawn Brancheau’s death, the media also seems readier to report on stories that SeaWorld would rather they didn’t. Like the story of the horrible injury inflicted on an 11-year-old, captive-born, male killer whale named Nakai by other captive males, it seems, at Seaworld San Diego on September 20 that briefly rekindled the debate over whether killer whales — and, by extension, other dolphins and whales — belong in captivity at all.
This erosion of SeaWorld’s power and name and the media’s and public’s growing awareness of the dangers to humans and animals of keeping dolphins and whales in captivity and increasing willingness to weigh the ethical questions surrounding this practice could all work against GAI’s bid to bring these captured belugas into the U.S. — especially if enough people who oppose the plan make a big enough stink.
Naomi Rose, PhD, marine-mammal expert and senior scientist with Humane Society International, says she’s not about to let this major step backward in our evolving understanding of, appreciation for and relationship with dolphins and whales happen on her watch. She’s a force, no question. But she can’t fight this fight alone.
A whole bunch of other good people and organizations are also trying to stop the import, and Dr. Rose has put together some talking points that she invites people to draw on when submitting their own comments to NOAA. To date, NOAA has received more than 5,500 comments and counting — and a quick scan indicates that the overwhelming majority are against.
But a fight is never over until it’s over, especially where the captive-display industry is concerned. Five things you can do:
1. Review GAI’s permit application and other documents. They’re enlightening.
2. Read the talking points Dr. Rose has prepared on the problems with GAI’s application at EarthinTransition.org and feel free to crib from them or contact Dr. Rose for more information. Earth in Transition posted these talking points as part of a seven-part series on beluga whales. Read the other installments and learn all sorts of fascinating things about these beautiful animals.
3. To learn more about why people oppose the import, read: Jason Garcia’s October 3 article in The Orlando Sentinel, Brandon Keim’s October 5 report for Wired Science, Felicity Barringer’s October 9 article in The New York Times, the Dolphin and Whale Conservation Society’s position paper, Marc Bekoff’s October 9 Psychology Today blog post, and environmental attorney Martha (Mo) Brock’s testimony at the October 12 hearing.
4. Send NOAA a letter or fax or post a comment by October 29, saying that you also oppose bringing captured belugas into the U.S.
- Send letters to: Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, NOAA Fisheries, 1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705, Silver Spring MD 20910.
- Send a fax to: 301-713-0376, Attention: Jennifer Skidmore.
- Post a comment here.
5. Tell Georgia Aquarium Inc. directly that you oppose bringing captured belugas into the U.S. Write to:
- Anthony Godfrey, President & COO, Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker Street, Atlanta GA 30313
- Billy Hurley, Sr. Vice President & Chief Zoological Officer, Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker Street, Atlanta GA 30313, 404-581-4308, firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the first dolphins or whales taken from the ocean and put in a tank so humans could pay to stare at it was a beluga: a nameless, 12-foot, 2,500-pound male who went on display at the Boston Aquarial Garden in 1861 and lived for about 18 months — long enough to learn to pull a girl around in a small boat.
Some two dozen belugas died in tanks during that early attempt to keep them captive before the practice died out during the Great Depression, only to be revived around 1958. That’s more than 150 years, on and off, of taking these animals out of their natural environment and putting them in tanks to make it easy for humans to get near them, and more than 150 animals snatched from their world to satisfy this human desire.
Isn’t that enough?
Of course it’s thrilling to get close to a live beluga — or Bottlenose dolphin, or killer whale, or any other marine mammal. But there are ways, and there are ways.
Tell NOAA and GAI you’ve seen enough dolphins and whales in captivity. Tell GAI if it puts more free-born belugas in tanks, it will lose your business.
Tell NOAA and GAI that you’re beginning to understand that dolphins and whales were not put on this planet for humans to do with as we will just because we can. Tell them you’re beginning to realize that these big-brained, intelligent, long-lived,socially sophisticated, family-oriented, air-breathing mammals have as much right to live in peace and freedom as we do.
Tell NOAA and GAI that, gosh, yes, you will always get a thrill out of being near a beluga, but you just don’t feel right about visiting them in captivity anymore.
Tell NOAA and GAI that, from now on, if you want to see dolphins and whales, you’ll pay them the respect and pursue the richer rewards of seeing them as they’re meant to be seen.
You’ll go to them instead of making them come to you.