North America’s First Whale Sanctuary Will Be In Nova Scotia

Port Hilford will house several previously captive belugas before the end of 2021.

The Whale Sanctuary Project has selected a Port Hilford, Nova Scotia inlet to become the first North American whale sanctuary.

This American-based charity plans to establish a seaside sanctuary where whales and dolphins can be rehabilitated or live permanently in an environment that maximizes well-being and autonomy by being as close as possible to their natural habitat.

A visitor centre, nature trail and viewing spots are planned for the educational and touristic elements of the project. It hopes to become a model for other international sanctuaries.

The charity will work with the town of Sherbrooke and the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s to create this new permanent retirement home for up to eight belugas who have previously lived in captivity at entertainment centres. It may also include some orcas.

“It’s an ideal location for whales coming from marine parks and aquariums,” said Charles Vinick, executive director of Whale Sanctuary Project, in a February 25 news release.

“You couldn’t ask for a more welcoming and eager community than the people of the Sherbrooke area.”

Part of the reason why Port Hilford was chosen is because the people from the local communities had shown a lot of interest and engagement during the selection process.

Port Hilford, Nova Scotia. Courtesy of Whale Sanctuary Project.

About 100 acres of the bay will be encircled with netting to create the sanctuary’s perimeter. It will be open to the ocean water but also allow protection from storms.

The whales who come to this upcoming sanctuary will have previously lived in captured environments but they will get to have free reign to swim within the area.

In order to make the whales feel safer and more at ease during bad weather they may have never experienced before, the sanctuary will include spaces for them to take shelter within the bay.

“It’s as though they’ve already made the whales part of their community. And the town already has the feel of a sanctuary.”

-Dr. Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project

Beluga and orca whales suffer in captivity. Over the years, there has been mounting pressure to end the practice in Canada.

In June 2019, Parliament passed Bill S-203, nicknamed the “Free Willy law,” which bans whale, dolphin and porpoise captivity unless it is in cases of protecting the animal’s welfare, rescue, rehabilitation or scientific research.

“Whales and dolphins are highly intelligent, emotionally sensitive and socially complex animals,” said Dr. Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project.

“In the confines of a concrete tank at a marine park they suffer chronic stress and then often fatal illness. Relocating them to an ocean environment will give them a healthier life where they can thrive.”

Marino added that the people of Sherbrooke showed their enthusiasm from the very first meeting.

“They’ve been holding special activities for the kids,” she said.

“It’s as though they’ve already made the whales part of their community. And the town already has the feel of a sanctuary.”

Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library.

For now, the communities and the charity will be working to finalize the designs for the whale sanctuary and begin the regulatory processes.

The Whale Sanctuary Project considered hundreds of possible locations off the coasts of Canada and Washington state before making its decision. It had specific criteria for what it was looking for.

For example, the selected location needed to be a sheltered area with around 100 acres water and depths reaching 15 meters to ensure the belugas can finally deep dive during their retirement.

The water needed to have specific temperature ranges and salinity. Even the sea-floor conditions, tides and currents were evaluated, along with the potential impacts of local wildlife on the whales and vice-versa.

Additionally, there needed to be enough space for facilities to take care of the animals and a place to host educational activities.

But it was really the community’s enthusiasm that sealed the deal.

“As important as the physical properties of the location are in deciding on a site location, we also knew that the relationship the sanctuary would have with its host community would be pivotal,” Vinick said.

“The Sherbrooke community has exceeded all our expectations.”

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