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JOHN DeMONT: Whale sanctuary news music to Port Hilford's ears

A concept image of the whale sanctuary planned for Port Hilford, Guysborough County. -  Contributed/The Whale Sanctuary Project
A concept image of the whale sanctuary planned for Port Hilford, Guysborough County. - Contributed/The Whale Sanctuary Project

For such a joyful occasion, there was some woeful talk Tuesday at Halifax’s Museum of the Atlantic, some imparted information that made at least one person in the room feel bad for being a member of the human race.

It was about the lives of the 3,000-or-so whales, dolphins and porpoises being held in captivity around the world.

How whales that, in the wild, swim 100 kilometres a day and dive 91 metres into the ocean spend their lives in tanks no longer than they are wide. How majestic animals that thrill us by their very presence in nature are reduced to performing carnival tricks for our amusement. How creatures that “have culture … dialect … and a big brain” are so beaten down in our care that they essentially give up.

“We can do better for these animals than putting them in concrete tanks so that they can entertain us,” Lori Marino, president of the conservation group The Whale Sanctuary Project told the room.

That was just before everybody there was on their feet, clapping and cheering.

Moments earlier, Whale Sanctuary executive-director Charles Vinick explained that — in the wake of Parliament passing a bill last year bringing an end to keeping whales and dolphins captive in Canada — his group had considered hundreds of locations in British Columbia, Washington State and Nova Scotia in its search for the site of North America’s first open-water sanctuary for whales being retired from entertainment parks.

“We were looking for a community that embraces our vision,” he said.

Port Hilford picked

On Tuesday, they announced that they had chosen tiny Port Hilford, N.S., a beautiful, quiet inlet where the famous country yodeler Wilf Carter was born, to give these mammals a fresh, new life.

Since most of the whales in captivity in Canada were born that way, it would be a disaster to release them into the wild. From the sounds of it they will have it good down on the Eastern Shore.

The idea there is to net off 40 hectares of water space, which is more than 300 times larger than the biggest amusement park tank. That is thought to be space enough for five to eight beluga whales rescued from their lives as amusement park curiosities. (Right now 55 belugas are in captivity in Canada, compared to a single orca.)

There, Marino and Vinick told us, the whales would be able to dive 12 to 15 metres to a natural sandy bottom, where there’s lots of interesting things to see and explore.

For the first time in their lives will be able to swim in one direction for several body lengths before having to turn around.

When they breach, they will see something they have never seen before, birds, which they will be free to chase.

Since they’ve never caught their own food, staff will be nearby 24/7 to ensure the whales are fed and looked after.

"By creating a seaside sanctuary, we are giving these whales a quality of life,” said Marino. “They have entertained us … we owe them something back.”

Don’t expect to see belugas swimming around down anytime soon. Identifying a site was just the first step in making the sanctuary a reality. Now the formal applications for permits and licences begin, as do talks with the province and feds, along with formal discussions with First Nations.

"It's uncharted territory,” said Vinick, who hopes to have the first whale into the sanctuary by the end of 2021, although he admits that may be overly optimistic.

It helps that, unlike parts of the province where folks resisted the prospect of losing ocean access, the local fishing community is onside enough with the Port Hilford proposal that one of the speakers mentioned some of the supportive families by name.

I get that kind of buy-in. The argument in favour of a whale sanctuary is so compelling. So is the reality of what it will bring.

At the end of Tuesday’s event I talked to a guy I know and his partner, who happens to have a house on Port Hillford.

He asked, jokingly, if she would hear the whales call when the sanctuary is up and running.

“Will I hear the whales call?” she asked in a way that sounded, to me, hopeful, which is how most everyone seemed to feel in that room, on that happy day.


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