The aquarium announcement also underscored a fact: The facility in downtown Atlanta had for years tried without success to get the whales here. It had few, if any, legal maneuvers left.
Since their capture several years ago, the creatures have been in holding tanks at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. They're in a sort of limbo. They belong to Russia, but the aquarium still feels responsible for them. Aquarium officials estimate they've spent $6.5 million for the creatures' care since trawlers took them from the silvered waters of the Sea of Okhotsk.
Now, said aquarium Chairman and CEO Michael Leven, the aquarium may have found permanent homes for seven Delphinapterus leucas. It's looking for suitable facilities for eight more.
“We’ve tried very hard to get these animals housed somewhere in the world,” he said. “We just felt that we had a moral and ethical responsibility to find them a place.”
The aquarium also is trying to get ahead of any bad publicity that may come its way if "Born to be Free" airs in the United States. The film, about 90 minutes long, debuted in London earlier this month. It focuses on 15 belugas taken from the northeastern coast of Russia between 2006 and 2011. The documentary is critical of the care the whales have received in Russia.
Aquarium officials, who have not seen the film, are wary that it could tar the aquarium's image in much the same way that "Blackfish" became a public-relations debacle for SeaWorld Orlando. "Blackfish" detailed the life of Tilikum, an orca that killed its trainer. Since that documentary aired three years ago, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc. has announced it no longer will breed captive killer whales.
This latest film, said Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, has aquarium officials worried.
“It puts pressure on them,” she said, “and they want to come out ahead of time looking better than the film will probably make them look.”
‘Everything lined up’
The aquarium originally sought 18 belugas — a number sufficient, it determined, to create a self-sustaining population with 30 belugas already on display in North America. Four of those belugas swim in Cold Water Quest at the Georgia Aquarium.
“Everything lined up,” said Eric Gaglione, the aquarium’s vice president of zoological operations. He worked out an arrangement with Russia to trap the whales. “This could have been a good acquisition for us.”
But aquarium officials didn't count on push-back from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which denied a permit to bring the creatures to Georgia. Importing them, administration officials said, might have prompted more international trade in the endangered cetaceans. The aquarium appealed the ruling, but gave up last year when a U.S. District Court judge denied the case.
For the aquarium, the decision not to take any animals captured in the wild underscores a complicated relationship with the big swimmers. They generate cheers and protests, laughter and tears.
The whales delight most aquarium-goers, said Leven; they appear to smile at visitors as they turn and twist in their habitat’s chilled currents. Looking at a beluga in Atlanta, Leven said, may be the only time they ever see one.
They’ve also saddened museum visitors and staff. Three adult belugas and two infants have died at the aquarium since it opened nearly 11 years ago, touching off social media debates about keeping warm-blooded swimmers in tanks.
The aquarium's announcement is just one of many to come, predicted Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute. The National Aquarium in Baltimore, she noted, recently said it would send its eight dolphins to an animal sanctuary.
“You’re going to see more and more of this happening,” said Rose. “You see the National Aquarium, deciding to retire eight dolphins, and SeaWorld ending its orca breeding program.”
Even the new animated film "Finding Dory" has a subtle anti-captivity message, she said. "Then you see 'Finding Dory,' and you realize where this industry is heading. …The handwriting is on the wall."
The change in policy also hints at the future, Rose said. “They’re going to ease out of this unsustainable and inhumane practice,” she predicted, “and I’m OK with them taking 10 or 20 years.”