There be whales here!

Port Hilford edges out Mushaboom for whale sanctuary

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
February 26 2020

SHERBROOKE – Port Hilford Harbour, at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, will be the new home of the first beluga whale sanctuary in North America as early as next year.

The tiny coastal community just southeast of Sherbrooke edged out Mushaboom, near Sheet Harbour, for the honour.

The greatly anticipated announcement came Tuesday morning at a news conference organized by the California-based Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP), an international non-profit that’s spent more than two years combing the United States and Canada for a suitable site, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

“Of the hundreds of locations that we’ve researched in British Columbia, Washington State and Nova Scotia, Port Hilford stands out as the premier location for a whale sanctuary,” WSP Executive Director Charles Vinick said about the decision, which has been a year in the making since the organization narrowed its sites to Port Hilford and Mushaboom last February. “Our objective is to welcome first animals before the end of 2021.”

The WSP is the first organization of its kind that focuses exclusively on creating seaside sanctuaries in North America for orcas and beluga whales who have either been retired from entertainment facilities or rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care. In choosing its sites, the organization considers a variety of technical and environmental factors, including sea-floor conditions, tides and currents, and potential impacts of local wildlife.

But, equally important, Vinick said, is local support. “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. The Sherbrooke community has exceeded all our expectations. You couldn’t ask for a more welcoming and eager community than the Sherbrooke area.”

WSF President Dr. Lori Marino agreed. “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.”

For his part, Stephen Flemming, Executive Director of Sherbrooke Village Museum, expressed the enthusiasm of the entire community. “This is a first, a truly outstanding project,” he said. “The museum, through the Rural Institute for Cultural Heritage and Environmental Sustainability, has been pleased to assist the work,” he said. “I couldn’t be more pleased that this group of distinguished experts chose Nova Scotia for their first sanctuary.”

Amy Simon, a Sherbrooke area assistant lab technician and active volunteer in the project, added, “Our fishers and the local community – their support and their joy and their inspiration – is why we’re here. We are making our footprint on the global shift of think about cetaceans living in confinement.”

Despite the nod to Port Hilford, Wendy Cross, a resident of the Sheet Harbour area who also volunteered on the project over the past year, says she couldn’t be happier. “It wasn’t really a competition,” she said. “Really, it’s about where can we find the best spot for the whales, so Charles and Lori and the (WSP) board considered all the things moving forward, and they chose Sherbrooke. Now, we’re going to work with them and support them to make sure that this comes to fruition.”

Although the whale sanctuary can’t guarantee boons for Port Hilford or the Eastern Shore in general, tangible economic benefits are likely. The WSP will actually cover the estimated $20-million cost of the facility’s start-up and ongoing operating costs. Plans for the sanctuary include a visitor centre, nature trail and viewing spots. The sanctuary will also work with schools and museums to offer educational programs about the whales at the sanctuary and their counterparts in the wild.

To date, the Santa Barbara-based WSP, established in 2018 by some of the world’s leading animal welfare specialists (including Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of the late Jacques Cousteau), has examined 100 potential sites for whale and dolphin sanctuaries in North America. The Port Hilford beluga refuge will be the first on this continent. The first in the world, run by Sea Life Trust of the U.K., opened last May at Iceland’s Klettsvík Bay.