The unique position of the SeaWorld parks, including the one in San Diego, California, lies in its dual purpose: on the outside, SeaWorld San Diego is a theme park and aquarium, but behind the scenes, it also functions as a marine life research facility. Every day, as guests enjoy the attractions and view these amazing creatures in awe, scientists and veterinarians are analyzing every detail of these animals’ lives, from their walk to their diets to even the sounds they make.
While most of the time, SeaWorld researchers are applauded for their efforts, occasionally their duality places them in a precarious predicament, caught between the good of the animals and the good of the business. It appears that their latest proposition has put them back in between the proverbial rock and hard place.
The Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium and a partner park of SeaWorld San Diego, has applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service to acquire 18 beluga whales from Russia and import them to the U.S. If approved, the beluga whales would be distributed between the Georgia Aquarium, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, and various SeaWorld parks including San Diego.
SeaWorld San Diego currently houses five beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), including a two-year-old beluga calf born at the facility. SeaWorld San Diego said in statements that proposed import would allow researchers to learn more about the creature’s physiology, reproduction, respiration, and hearing and cognitive abilities, which can be seen as critically important considering that scientists have recently discovered that beluga whales may have the capacity to mimic human sounds.
Referring to the Russian beluga whales, SeaWorld said that the animals “would be viewed by tens of millions of guests every year and provide an invaluable resource to scientists and conservationists.”
However, boisterous opposition has been launched by critics of the importation of the creatures captured in the Okhotsk Sea, citing that returning to practices of importing wild-caught marine life could undo “20 years of progress in the very sustainability that they pretend to support,” according to the Humane Society of the United States’ marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose. Opponents fear that re-starting these practices could lead to inhumane hunting and capturing practices in foreign markets.
The international organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation also voiced vehement opposition to the acquisition. Campaigns and programs manager Courtney S. Vali said that the organization finds it “an egregious betrayal of the public trust – to label this as conservation when it’s actually a decimation of these animals in the wild.”
The Georgia Aquarium insists that the beluga whales were humanely caught, using seine nets in shallow estuaries, and did not include mothers with calves. Veterinarians would fully oversee the transport.
According to the federal fisheries services, the debate has become so heated both for and against the acquisition, the public comment phase was extended 30 days, and sifting through all the quality statements could delay the decision until spring of 2013.
Beluga whales are often fan favorites at SeaWorld San Diego and other aquariums due to their attractive colorings (often times beluga are nicknamed “white whale” due to their smooth white skin) and their naturally gregarious personalities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the beluga whale on their “Red List” as “nearly threatened” in the wild.