Locations along B.C.'s coastline are being considered for a one-of-a-kind sanctuary, a facility the BC SPCA sees as an alternative home for whales currently kept in tanks.
The Whale Sanctuary Project seeks to develop a seaside sanctuary, where whales and other cetaceans living in aquariums could "retire" from entertaining.
The group behind the project -- 23 people including marine mammal scientists, veterinarians, engineers, public relations specialists and others -- has proposed a facility that would allow the animals to live as close as possible to their natural environment. The sanctuary would "maximize well-being and autonomy," the group says, allowing them to socialize in a larger space than tanks allow.
The sanctuary would primarily be for orcas, belugas and dolphins native to colder waters, and the inhabitants would be from aquariums as well as those that have been rescued. Ideally, rescued animals will still be returned to the wild, but the sanctuary could house those deemed ineligible for release.
It would be open to the public regularly, but in a way that prevents disturbing the cetaceans, the group says. It would also offer a conservation and education program.
Currently, organizers are searching for the right location and working on a strategic plan for building, transport of mammals and funding. They're looking at options in Nova Scotia and off the coast of Washington State as well.
"We were up in the Johnstone Strait and in Vancouver, in the Gulf Islands, and we identified a number of potential sites up in the Johnstone Strait and south of that," Whale Sanctuary Project president Lori Marino told CTV News.
Marino, a neuroscientist and animal behaviour expert, said the goal of the facility is to take back some of the natural environment that was taken from them.
Members of the BC SPCA are on board with the idea, saying the time has come for officials to take action.
The society's chief scientific officer Sara Dubois serves as an advisor to the sanctuary group, and said the idea has been well thought out.
"These are real scientists and researchers," she said. "So much has been learned about how to manage these animals now, and how not to manage these animals, especially in captivity."
BC SPCA seeks to intervene in aquarium lawsuit
At the same time, the BC SPCA is also attempting to intervene in a related lawsuit. The BC SPCA released a statement Thursday saying the society is seeking intervener status in a Vancouver Aquarium lawsuit against the city's park board.
Approval from the B.C. Supreme Court would allow the SPCA, and the Vancouver Humane Society, to join the litigation without permission from the original litigants.
The societies said they support a ban the Vancouver Aquarium is asking the court to overturn, arguing the complex needs of cetaceans can't be met in captivity.
The suit stems from a park board vote to ban cetaceans from public displays at the Stanley Park facility, a discussion sparked by the deaths of the aquarium's resident belugas.
The decision made in May resulted in a bylaw amendment that effectively prevented any new whales, dolphins and porpoises from being held at the public tanks owned by the Aquarium. The other cetaceans living at the aquarium were grandfathered in and not affected by the bylaw, except that they could no longer be part of shows or performances.
They could still be on display to the public, however. The aquarium's false killer whale and white-sided dolphin remain on display, but its harbour porpoise died in June.
Aquarium staff said the decision meant rescued whales deemed non-releasable would have to be euthanized, but the park board clarified that its jurisdiction did not apply to the aquarium's marine mammal research centre, which is also home to seals, otters and other rescued wildlife.
Still, the aquarium has applied for a judicial review, claiming the board doesn't have the statutory power to enact the amendment. The review also alleges commissioners refused to hear from aquarium officials and that the decision renders a $100-million aquarium upgrade, which includes a $20-million beluga habitat, obsolete.
The aquarium had previously planned to reopen the beluga habitat by spring break 2019, then close it the same year the facility's 60-year lease on the land expires.
The review asks the B.C. Supreme Court to rule the ban invalid.
The SPCA statement said striking down the law would "set a dangerous precedent" and would limit their influence on drafting and implementation of laws affecting animals.
"If this bylaw is overturned it will not only compromise the welfare of cetaceans, it could undermine animal welfare across Canada," VHS executive director Debra Probert said in the statement.
If granted status, the societies would submit that the park board is acting within its capacity and in the public interest.
With a report from CTV Vancouver's Maria Weisgarber