The Georgia Aquarium is proposing to import 18 white whales, belugas, captured in Russia's Sea of Okhotsk—three to keep for itself, the rest to distribute to five other marine parks.
This reverses a trend. There have been no imports of wild-caught whales or dolphins into the United States for 20 years. One constraint has been the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which requires that captures be humane and not endanger wild populations—a standard that the marine parks find difficult to meet. Another has been a rise in public opposition to whale captivity, a growing PR problem for the industry that may well prove existential.
The beluga proposal, predictably, has ignited controversy. Environmental and animal-rights organizations argue that these 18 wild-caught whales are destined for lives of isolation, sensory deprivation, and mental derangement. The environmentalists suspect that the belugas may just be pump-primers—Trojan whales, in effect—pawns in an industry strategy to resume the interrupted flow of killer whales, the prime moneymakers in marine theme parks.
The industry, for its part, argues that the Russian belugas were captured humanely, that their importation is necessary to ensure that the captive beluga population continues to grow, and that the display of belugas in theme parks is educational and thereby promotes conservation of the species.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency responsible for approving the beluga permit, has concluded its hearings and closed the public comment period. The decision could come any day. No one believes that NMFS, or "Nymphs" as everyone calls the agency, relishes this chore. Responsibility for the welfare of marine mammals has always been an odd fit at NMFS, a branch of the Department of Commerce concerned primarily with fisheries. No matter which way it decides the beluga question, NMFS is certain to be sued.
"Beluga" is a slight tweak of the Russian word for this whale, byeluga, and it derives from byeley, "white." (Beluga is also the Russian word for sturgeon, which doubtless has caused much confusion, and many bad caviar jokes, in Russian conversation over the centuries.) The Canadian Inuit name is kenalogak, "white whale." The scientific name is Delphinapterus leucas, "white dolphin without fins." The whiteness of the whale, for all humanity, is its most striking and eerie feature.
Belugas in the wild, pictured here in an estuary of Canada’s Cunningham River in the Northwest Territories, are known as the “canaries of the sea” because of their whistles and chirps.
Photograph by Gunter Ziesler, Getty Images
The second-most striking characteristic is the voice. The beluga is the most voluble of all cetaceans. The old sailors called it the "sea canary" for its astounding repertoire of twitters, tweets, whistles, clicks, barks, chirps, shrieks, creaks, raspberries, and ratchet sounds. The whale does uncanny frog, parrot, kazoo, and Roman candle imitations, despite the disadvantage of never having heard any of these noises in the original version. For goofy, expressive vocal flatulence, a small pod of belugas can beat the Cub Scouts in any farting contest you ever heard around a campfire. A large pod passes by like some kind of lunatic orchestra.
The white whale belongs with another midsize arctic whale, the narwhal, in a small two-species family, the Monodontidae. This name, "the one-tooths," refers to the long spiral tusk of the narwhal—its sole dentition and the origin of the myth of the unicorn—and slights the other half of the family, badly shortchanging the beluga, which can have as many as 22 teeth and never fewer than 16.
In Old Norse narwhal means "corpse whale." The gray and mottled back looked to Norse seamen like a drowned Viking a long time afloat. If the narwhal is the corpse, then the beluga is, perhaps, the luminous white spirit that has departed the body, leaving the helical nine-foot-long tusk behind.
The beluga is a beautiful creature. It is as bright as an epiphany, with symbol written all over it. And yet, watching belugas, it's possible to understand a little of what Melville struggles to explain in Chapter XLII of Moby Dick: "It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me."
Belugas grow to 15 feet long and can weigh a ton and a half. The short beak is overhung by a bulbous forehead, or "melon," the precursor, by tens of millions of years, of the sonar dome on a submarine. This organ produces and focuses the beluga's sound, both the click-trains of its echolocation and the whistles and chirps of its vocalization. The melon changes shape dramatically as the beluga varies its enunciation.
In the brains of whales and dolphins, which are larger than our own, most of the computing power goes not to mathematics, rhymed couplets, and string theory—so far as we know—but to interpreting rebounding click-trains. The beluga, in its mind's ear, watches sonic imagery of finer grain than anything a Navy sonar technician sees on his screen. Among other refinements, the sonar of belugas and all other toothed whales has a Doppler function: Changes in pitch signal whether its prey fish is coming or going.
Where most whales and dolphins have fused cervical vertebrae—the spine stiffened for more power in the swimming stroke—the beluga has retained an unusual degree of articulation in the neck. It nods emphatically and cranes to look at things. This flexibility, along with the beluga's garrulous commentary on everything it sees, suggests an unusual degree of curiosity—at least, to human beings. The body language and wordiness of human curiosity happen to converge with the beluga's, and we are a species that jumps to conclusions.
The beluga has no dorsal fin, just a slight spinal ridge behind the midpoint of the back. The gestation period is 14 months. The calf, gray at birth, stays with its mother for two years, turning blue-gray as a juvenile and, finally, upon reaching sexual maturity, white.
Belugas are gregarious, sometimes forming aggregations of more than a thousand in the estuaries where they calve in summer. These gathering places—along the margins of the Sea of Okhotsk, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, Hudson Bay, and the Mackenzie Delta—would have made happy hunting grounds for monomaniacal wooden-legged Yankee whaling captains. In these shallows Ahab would never have had to ask, "Hast seen the white whale?"
Why "Humane" Capture Is Hard to Define
If the Georgia Aquarium is to import 18 belugas, the National Marine Fisheries Service requires that the aquarium and its allied marine parks meet a burden of proof. Of the criteria spelled out by the NMFS Office of Protected Resources, most of the debate has centered on two: "The proposed activity is humane and does not present any unnecessary risks to the health and welfare of marine mammals," reads the first. "The proposed activity by itself or in combination with other activities will not likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock," reads the second.
On the first criterion, humaneness, there is an unfortunate vagueness in the language of the law. At the beluga hearings, Jennifer Skidmore of NMFS noted that "'humane' is defined in the MMPA as the method that involves the least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable." This does not chart a clear path to humaneness. The least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable might be a great deal of pain and suffering indeed.
(The absence of clear guidelines here is especially problematic when it comes to NMFS. Left to its own interpretations, the agency has a poor record in preventing pain and suffering in whales and dolphins—not just in its regulation of captures for marine parks but also in its oversight of tuna fleets. Tuna seiners killed hundreds of thousands of dolphins annually as bycatch until the NMFS was sued into enforcing compliance with MMPA.)
To address the second criterion—the impact on the species or stock—the Ocean Park Corporation, on behalf of the marine parks, asked the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to convene an independent panel. The panel's mission, paid for by the industry, was to review the Russian research on the stock in question—the belugas in the Sakhalin-Amur region of the Sea of Okhotsk.
If the marine parks, for their sponsorship money, hoped for a rosy or unequivocal answer on the status of the stock, the IUCN did not oblige.
Caveats and Concerns
The scientists of the IUCN panel expressed many concerns with the methods of their Russian counterparts, particularly those of the aerial survey program. The survey methods were poorly described, the panel reported. It was difficult to discern which of three analysis methods applied to which flown segment. The analysis software, Belukha2, "is not described in a way that inspires complete confidence in its methods or algorithms." Flight segments were not randomly placed, but instead were intentionally flown over known concentrations of belugas, or over areas where concentrations were expected. This is not the way to get unbiased results, obviously. The Russian approach could only skew the numbers upward.
The IUCN report is hedged everywhere with reservations, caveats, and cautions. If any certainty emerges, it is that the status of the Sakhalin-Amur stock is uncertain.
But we do know some things. We know that belugas are threatened across the entire Arctic by overhunting, development, vessel traffic, pollution, and climate change. In 1999 the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission concluded that only 4 of 29 beluga populations worldwide are stable. The belugas of the Sea of Okhotsk were nearly wiped out by overhunting beginning in the 1930s, and by the 1960s commercial white-whaling ceased, for too few belugas could be found.
The numbers have rebounded since, and the Okhotsk stocks are again under pressure from commercial and indigenous whaling, from ship strikes and fishing entanglements, and from live-captures for oceanaria. The Sakhalin-Amur stock has been disproportionately hit by live-captures. The work of assessing the size and condition of this stock is incomplete, but it is certain that it has fallen to less than 60 percent of its original numbers and thus meets the definition of a "depleted" stock under the MMPA.
We know, too, that belugas do poorly in captivity, living shortened lives. Of the 71 that have been captive in the six marine parks now seeking Russian belugas, 34 have died. When Canada banned the practice in 1992, Russia became the last place on Earth where belugas can be captured for display. For the marine parks, until their beluga husbandry improves and they learn how to encourage their white whales to live longer and breed more enthusiastically in captivity, Russia is the only hope.
The IUCN panel, in concluding its report, thanks Ocean Park Corporation, noting that it is rare for marine parks, beneficiaries of the trade in cetaceans, to invest in the research and monitoring necessary to ensure long-term sustainability. It is rare indeed, and admirable.
And yet the depth and sincerity of the industry's dedication to science and sustainability is not beyond question. The marine parks commissioned the capture of the 18 belugas over a five-year period, stashing them in tanks by the Black Sea, well before the results of the scientific assessment were in, before public hearings, and before any permit was granted. With what would appear to be calculation, they have presented the NMFS with a fait accompli.
From Dolphin Trainer to Dolphin Advocate
"What the [Georgia] Aquarium is trying to do is hypocritical," Ric O'Barry, director of the Dolphin Project, told me. "They say they want to display the belugas so they can educate the public, sensitize the public, and the public will protect the belugas after that. Protect them from whom? The aquarium is the only one bothering them. They captured them. They threw them in a truck. They want to throw them in an airplane and bring them to their building in Atlanta, Georgia, so that they can teach respect for nature. What is wrong with that picture?"
O'Barry is a turncoat. A pioneer in the trapping and training of dolphins for marine parks, he was also the head trainer for the squad of captive female dolphins who starred as Flipper, the male bottlenose dolphin of the 1960s television series Flipper. (Female dolphins are preferred as thespians. Males are scene-killers, prone to frequent and untimely erections.)
As his career advanced, O'Barry began to question the morality of his work. Was it right to own dolphins? His moment of truth came after cancellation of the television series, when Kathy, his favorite among the females playing Flipper, fell ill in a small tank and died in his arms. A week later he was in jail in Bimini, having attempted to free a dolphin named Charley Brown from his pen. And so O'Barry's lifework has gone ever since: 180 degrees off its direction at the start.
"There is no such thing as a humane capture," he said. "That's an oxymoron. I've captured more than a hundred dolphins myself, so I know what I'm talking about. It's an extremely violent procedure. They're separated from families. Many die during the process."
O'Barry is the protagonist of The Cove, which won the 2010 Academy Award for best documentary. With camouflaged cameras, O'Barry and the filmmakers recorded the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, Japan, the fishermen wielding knives and spears, the dolphins flailing and screaming, the killing cove turning red with blood. Collectors from marine parks routinely showed up at Taiji, buying dolphins selected from among the doomed. When the bloody footage of the cove came to light, the marine parks argued that they had rescued, by their purchases, a few lucky dolphins from certain death. O'Barry and his allies countered that the marine parks, by the high prices they paid for "rescued" dolphins, subsidized the hunt; the oceanaria were not white knights—they were participants.
Ric O’Barry has gone from being a dolphin trainer, working with the animals who appeared on TV’s Flipper, to being a dolphin activist, protesting the hunting and capture of the marine animals.
Photograph by SHINGO ITO, AFP
David Phillips and Mark Palmer of Earth Island Institute, O'Barry's colleagues in the campaign against the Taiji kill, suggest that the lesson of the bloody cove is not just the appetite of the marine parks for wild whales and dolphins, but also the judgment of the National Marine Fisheries Service. For years the NMFS granted import permits for Taiji dolphins, accepting the assertions of the marine parks that the Taiji captures were humane. If the agency is to issue a permit for the 18 belugas, it will have to depend on similar assertions by the Russians, in particular the testimony of the beluga entrepreneur Nicolay Marchenko, who was hired by the marine parks to do the captures, and who has sent 31 slaughtered belugas from this same Sakhalin-Amur stock as shipments of meat to Japan.
The End of the Whale's Song
The Flipper of my own career—the cinematic whale—was Keiko, the killer whale in the movie Free Willy. I am his biographer. In researching Keiko's early life, I learned that soon after his capture in Iceland, while still a calf, he shut down his echolocation. This sudden silence is common among dolphins and other toothed whales in captivity. The click-trains ricochet around the tank, the walls become an acoustic hall of mirrors, and the whale gives up.
This made me curious about belugas. In their American cages, would these Russian sea canaries continue to sing? As a trainer, Ric O'Barry worked with only one beluga, but he has seen many other species of whale in transition to captivity, so I put the question to him.
"Well, they stop singing. That's what happens," he said. "That part of their life is over. You're talking about a sonic creature, a creature whose primary sense is sound, putting them in a concrete box. You wouldn't do that to a snake. If you go to the Atlanta Zoo, or the Miami Zoo, and take a look at the snake exhibit, you will see that the snake is given more consideration than any dolphin in captivity. In the snake exhibit, the snake has some grass in the habitat. It has some rocks. It has tree limbs to climb on. Go to the Georgia Aquarium and put your head underwater with your face mask on, and you'll see that there's nothing inside this box except water and a drain. It's just a bare concrete box. You wouldn't do that to a snake. So why would we do it to dolphins?"
A Captive Life
However the statutory questions on the Russian belugas are decided by the National Marine Fisheries Service—whether the agency grants or denies the import permit—the larger questions, the meta-questions, will remain.
The law, in specifying that whale and dolphin captures must be humane, implies that such a thing is possible. But is it really? Can it ever be humane to chase a sentient, gregarious, highly social creature like the beluga—a wild animal with strong family ties, a long juvenile dependency period, and an obligate relationship with Arctic ice—into the shallows, net selected members of the pod, separate juveniles from their mothers, truck the captives 4,350 miles (7,000 kilometers) to holding tanks on the Black Sea, detain them in Mother Russia for as long as six years, and then disperse them by airplane to concrete tanks in Florida, Georgia, Connecticut, and Japan?
The NMFS Office of Protected Resources, in its stipulation that "the applicant's qualifications, facilities, and resources must be adequate for the proper care and maintenance of the marine mammal," implies that proper care is an attainable standard. But is it? Can a creature that has known no walls or boundaries, neither in its individual life nor in the history of its species, be properly cared for in the confines of a tank?
A beluga whale catches a visitor’s eye at the Vancouver Aquarium. The facility once would capture cetaceans from the wild for display but halted this practice in 1996.
Photograph by Chris Cheadle, Getty Images
The language of the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes clear that it was the intent and insistence of Congress that any marine mammals on display in marine parks serve an educational purpose. That's the law. But did Congress really think this provision through? What sort of education do captive marine mammals provide? Is it natural history that the crowds learn, in the bleachers above oceanarium tanks, or unnatural history? In the wild, belugas do not breach—do not leap above the surface—but in marine parks they are trained to do so. In the wild, belugas do not swim in tandem with trainers in wetsuits riding them like water skis, a foot on either back. Wild belugas do not juggle. In the wild, belugas do not try to talk like humans—a phenomenon first observed in the U.S. Navy beluga named NOC, who learned to alter his normal vocal mechanisms, drop his voice a couple of octaves, and sing what sounds like a drunken nursery rhyme.
The popping buzz that a captive beluga delivers on cue, poolside, is not a sound called "popcorn," as Shedd Aquarium trainers inform young Chicagoans. That buzz is the click-train of echolocation. It was meant not to beg for a food reward in front of a crowd, but to target fast wild fish in the open ocean.
What sort of education do these behaviors offer?
And what is the larger lesson being taught? That marine mammals are here for our entertainment? That human dominance over sea life is to be celebrated? That cuteness is a virtue worthy of protection? That wild whales will be respected, and their populations protected, once their captive cousins can be taught to do tricks?
Are these the right lessons, or exactly the wrong?
"They Are Other Nations"
In National Geographic assignments over the years, I have spent hundreds of hours underwater with many wild cetaceans: blue whales, gray whales, sperm whales, humpback whales, dense-beaked whales, pilot whales, melon-headed whales, killer whales; spinner, spotted, bottlenose, and rough-toothed dolphins. I have come to a conclusion shared by every National Geographic photographer who has ever rolled off a boat with me:
That dolphin you see at Sea World is not a dolphin.
It is shaped very much like a dolphin—and a beautiful shape it is. But the captive dolphin is a simulacrum. It's a facsimile. Everything important about the real world of dolphins has been taken from it. Nothing it does is what a dolphin should be doing.
Among Homo sapiens there are two schools of thought on marine parks. One is that belugas and their kin are just animals: Not to worry, in their tanks they get three squares a day, they are free from any concern about sharks, their trainers give them love and companionship, and it's fun for everyone when they leap on signal to splash the crowd. The other is the notion expressed by Henry Beston in his book The Outermost House:
In a world older and more complex than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.
Ken Brower writes about the environment and the natural world. He is a longtime contributor to National Geographic magazine. Among his books are Wake of the Whale, an illustrated biography of National Geographic photographer Bill Curtsinger, and Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale From "Free Willy" to the Wild. He lives in Berkeley, California.