Pandemic won’t stop Whale Sanctuary Project from going ahead

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
April 29 2020

SHERBROOKE – Despite the global pandemic, plans to turn Port Hilford into North America’s first public sanctuary for beluga whales is “moving forward,” the project’s California-based organizers confirm.

In an update sent to the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s last week, Charles Vinick, executive director of the Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP), said the organization will launch a local Facebook page “in the coming days” and explore opening an information centre on Sherbrooke’s Main Street to “create a dialog.”

The news comes as COVID-19’s inexorable spread, and consequent public quarantines and social lockdowns, continues to derail economic initiatives throughout much of the world.

“We are setting up the structure to move forward as actively as possible,” Vinick said.

Stephen Flemming, executive director of Sherbrooke Village Museum and a leading figure in the effort to establish a whale sanctuary in the area, said the project “is such a bright spot for the community. So many are excited to be part of this new initiative and are looking forward to the opportunity to get involved and help define what it all could look like. Personally, I can’t wait to hear all the great ideas our community has.”

Vinick added, “We have begun to do environmental analyses of Port Hilford under the direction of our Nova Scotia research analyst, Dr. Amanda Babin. On Zoom, we are meeting with Nova Scotia scientists and researchers to understand their questions and get their advice. We are receiving inquiries from many people offering their skills and assistance and we are doing everything possible to conduct initial meetings with them via phone and internet.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, WSP officials have engaged traditional and social media to spread the word internationally about Port Hilford’s key role in the project. Earlier this month, the organization’s president, Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and behaviourist, told Marcia Sivek, host of BeProvided Conservation Radio, a podcast from the San Francisco area, “From the get go, they (Port Hilford and Sherbrooke area residents) were enthusiastic supporters and promoters. We could not do this without them.”

The popular BeProvided podcast is carried by the New York-based iHeartRadio network, which describes itself as the “#1 streaming broadcast radio platform with six times the digital listening of the next largest commercial broadcast radio company” in the United States.

In her interview with Sivek, Marino said, “I also think that we need to send a special shout-out to the fishermen in the area who make their livelihood there. They have been terrific, and they’ve taken us out on their boats. They see the opportunity and they see the importance. And we’re working to make sure that everything is good for them when we put this into Port Hilford.”

Marino added, “We have designed or envisioned a site that would hold perhaps eight beluga whales and maybe two or three orcas if they become available – of course, they would be separated. Our enclosure will be at least 300 times larger than the largest tank in any marine park. It will allow the animals not only to swim in a straight line, but swim the way they want and go off to different corners of the sanctuary.”

The sanctuary will also be open to the general public, she said. “We will have an interpretive centre on site. It won’t be the kind of thing where we will have ticket sales or people streaming in, though.”

In February, after spending three years combing through as many as 100 locations in Washington State, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, the WSP selected Port Hilford both for its mix of physical and environmental attributes (sea-floor conditions, tides and currents, and potential impacts of local wildlife) and for its people.

Marino emphasized that this combination is especially important because the initiative is the first on the continent for whales retired from entertainment facilities or rescued from the ocean needing rehabilitation or permanent care. “What we can do is provide a model of transparency that can help others facilitate the creation of these kinds of sanctuaries around the world,” she said.

Tangible economic benefits for the Sherbrooke area are also likely. The WSP will cover the estimated $20-million cost of the facility’s start-up and ongoing operating costs. In addition to a visitor centre, nature trail and viewing spots, the sanctuary will work with schools and museums to offer educational programs about the whales at the sanctuary and their wild counterparts.

In his letter last week, Vinick said that while “some meetings may have to wait, in the interim – with our local leaders Stephen Flemming, Jamie Anderson, Amy Simon, so many others and especially the fishers – we will be able to communicate with all of you. Please, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.”