11/09/2017 Katie E. Machen

Marine Scientist Asks Audience, 'Can Whales Thrive in Concrete Tanks?'

Lori Marino, president of The Whale Sanctuary Project, gave a killer talk at Franklin & Marshall College’s Nov. 9 Common Hour, a community discussion open to the public and held every Thursday classes are in session.

Marino was featured in the 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” which shed light on welfare problems associated with dolphins and whales, or cetaceans. She opened her lecture with a brief history of cetaceans and focused primarily on orcas, or killer whales, the largest species of dolphin, and beluga whales, known as the “canaries of the sea.”

Orcas and beluga whales have large, complex brains with expanded neocortexes. “We love the features of our brain — but the orca has us beat,” Marino said.

  • Orcas and beluga whales have large, complex brains with expanded neocortexes. “We love the features of our brain — but the orca has us beat,” Marino said. Image Credit: Deb Grove

In her 18 years as a professor of biopsychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Marino has studied the behavior of captive dolphins. She also founded the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, which aims to bridge the gap between such scientific research and animal advocacy.

Cetaceans love to travel and dive. They are social and cultural beings with traditions, dialects, and foraging behaviors that vary depending on where they live. They are matrilineal. If separated from their social groups or their mothers, they become depressed and sometimes even die.

Beluga whales are masterful imitators of sounds and behaviors. “They’re very cheeky,” Marino said. 

  • Beluga whales are masterful imitators of sounds and behaviors. “They’re very cheeky,” Marino said. Image Credit: Deb Grove

In describing the cetaceans’ well-being in marine parks and similar environments, she said more than 3,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises live in captivity around the world today, primarily in concrete tanks and often in solitude. Without mental stimulation or room to swim, the cetaceans sometimes develop chronic stress-related conditions, Marino said.

That’s why she and her team started The Whale Sanctuary Project, to create sea sanctuaries for whales and dolphins. The mammals would have space to swim and they would not be bred or exposed to invasive procedures.

“It’s a place they can thrive,” Marino said. “There are permanent sanctuaries for all kinds of animals with the exception of one. There are none for cetaceans."

She sees sanctuaries as a benefit to everyone: the cetaceans as well as the visitors who can see the animals from a distance and model a change in our relationship with nature.

“These animals have a right to live the lives they’ve evolved to live,” Marino said. A sanctuary is itself still captivity, but “it’s better than a concrete tank.”

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