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Lolita, here in a 1994 file image, has lived for decades at Miami Seaquarium since being taken from her pod of Southern Resident orcas during whale captures in Washington state. Whale Sanctuary Project now proposes building a facility where Lolita and other captive orcas could retire in the Pacific Northwest.

An international nonprofit with the goal of establishing the first whale sanctuary in the world is eyeing a location in Skagit County.

Here, in Deepwater Bay on the east side of Cypress Island, Whale Sanctuary Project partners envision building a sanctuary for orca whales released from entertainment facilities.

Possible candidates include the last surviving Southern Resident orca taken from the Salish Sea decades ago and still living at Miami Seaquarium — an orca known as Lolita or Tokitae.

“If there’s any way we could do that safely ... who wouldn’t want to see her back?” project founder Lori Marino said.

The idea is to enclose about 100 acres of Deepwater Bay in two sets of mesh netting anchored to the bottom and attached to buoys at the top. That space would be expected to accommodate up to six released orcas permanently, as well as have space that could be used to rehabilitate wild Southern Resident orcas.

“A 100-acre space is about 300 times the size of the largest tanks for orcas in the world,” Marino said. “We’re talking about a facility that offers orders of magnitude more space to them, and depth.”

Establishing a sanctuary here, though, is complicated by the endangered status of the 73 Southern Resident orcas remaining in the wild.

While the sanctuary could be a resource to those trying to save the endangered orcas, it could also pose threats to the wild whales, such as if the animals inside the sanctuary expose them to disease.

Whale Sanctuary Project representatives have been discussing that potential with whale experts in the region. They want to understand the risks, how they could be mitigated and what more needs to be known in order to protect both the wild and the released whales should a sanctuary be built.

Another complication for the Cypress Island site is that it was formerly the location of an Atlantic salmon fish farm run by Cooke Aquaculture. While that farm was closed and its floating facilities removed following the August 2017 collapse of one of three net pens, the company hasn’t given up hope of reopening another type of fish farm at the site.

Cooke Aquaculture is challenging a decision by the state Department of Natural Resources to cancel its lease in Deepwater Bay and has proposed raising native steelhead trout there should it regain use of the site.

Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smilie said the agency is aware of Whale Sanctuary Project’s emerging vision for Deepwater Bay, but can’t consider new uses during litigation with Cooke Aquaculture.

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This conceptual graphic from Whale Sanctuary Project shows generally the nonprofit's vision for a 100-acre space for orcas retired from the entertainment industry. The sanctuary would be enclosed in mesh netting held up by buoys and down by anchors. One of two locations the group has identified as potential sites is off Skagit County's Cypress Island.

It’s also uncertain what permits would be required to build and operate a whale sanctuary in Washington — from Natural Resources, other state agencies and federal agencies.

Skagit County Board of Commissioners Chair Lisa Janicki said while the county would have no authority over permits for a whale sanctuary, she would like to see more information provided to local officials and the public.

“They should coordinate a public meeting here,” she said. “We’re not the decision makers, but like our communities here we’re concerned about our resident orca population and want to see them recover.”

The Whale Sanctuary Project held public meetings in July in Seattle, Olympia, Gig Harbor and on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands.

Marino said Skagit County was overlooked as a meeting site because the Whale Sanctuary Project hadn’t yet identified Cypress Island as a top contender for its project. At that time, it was one of several being considered throughout the San Juan Islands.

If the nonprofit decides to proceed with the Cypress Island site, Marino said meetings would be held in Anacortes and possibly other areas of Skagit County.

The goal of Marino and the about 60-member team involved with Whale Sanctuary Project — including big names such as ocean advocate Jean-Michel Cousteau and nature writer Carl Safina — is to provide some freedom to orcas and possibly beluga whales held in captivity.

The push for freeing whales from entertainment facilities has gained interest since Keiko, the orca that captured hearts through its star role in the 1993 film “Free Willy,” was able to live his final years at sea in his home waters off Iceland.

“He had freedom at the end of his life. To me and to many people, that was a great success,” Marino said.

More recently, attention was gained by the 2013 documentary film “Blackfish,” of which many members of Whale Sanctuary Project were involved.

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Heather Keenan interacts with Lolita after the afternoon show Sept. 1, 2010, at the Miami Seaquarium. Lolita is a Southern Resident orca taken from the waters of Washington state decades ago for entertainment purposes.

“The science told us they live unhealthy, short lives (in captivity),” Marino said. “If we’re going to make any headway, the only answer really is a sanctuary — just as there has been for elephants and big cats and bears.”

Whale Sanctuary Project formed in 2016 and began looking for a potential orca sanctuary site in Washington and British Columbia, as well as a site for beluga whales in Nova Scotia, a Canadian province northeast of Maine.

Cypress Island is now one of four sites the organization is still considering — of two on the West Coast for orcas and two on the East Coast for belugas.

“That’s down from hundreds of sites that we initially scoped out, so now we’re just trying to make a decision on which one to sort of begin with for the next steps,” Marino said. “We are first making a decision about whether to start on the East Coast or the West Coast.”

On the West Coast, Cypress Island is a better fit than the more remote option in British Columbia.

Marino said that’s because not only does Deepwater Bay offer the space, depth and water movement needed for a sanctuary, but it’s also remote enough for the whales yet close enough to communities where sanctuary workers could live, such as Anacortes directly south of Cypress Island.

The sanctuary would employ about 30 full-time and part-time staff including veterinarians, marine biologists, security, maintenance, and educators to staff an interpretive center, which could possibly be located in Anacortes.

Having a site well positioned to accommodate Southern Resident orcas also in need of help is important to the group.

“There are a number of Southern Residents who are in trouble ... and because that community is down to so few numbers, we have to do all we can to save every single one of them,” Marino said. “We want to be there to help in any way we can.”

Members of Whale Sanctuary Project have helped Southern Resident orcas before. Marino said the organization was involved in the effort in August 2018 to feed the young female orca called Scarlet by delivering salmon to her by boat.

Marino said should Whale Sanctuary Project decide to focus on building an orca sanctuary on the West Coast, the organization expects several more years of work ahead to obtain support from surrounding communities and permits from state and federal agencies.

“We have a lot more work to do to engage with the people who we would like to have on board with this type of project and would need to have on board,” she said. “We don’t intend to go any further until we talk to everyone who has a stake in this.”

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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