I’m not an animal activist by any means.  I’m not, as they say, “anti-cap.”  Which is why as I read through the writings of the anti-SeaWorld and animal rights crowds, I continually become flabbergasted at how single-sided and incomplete the articles and the blog posts are.  Lately, I’ve been reading how orcas are headed to the Olympics in Sochi, how a new petition might set Lolita free, and that SeaWorld is staying silent on Taiji.  But there’s a whole other side to these stories and I’m sure you’ll find what Blackfish star Jaff Ventre likes to call “The Big Picture” fascinating.  In the first of three installments, we look at the fate of:

THE SOCHI ORCAS

The Vlodivostok Center for Marine Mammal Adaptation has become a training center and clearing house for dolphins, belugas, orcas, and other species in much the same way the Seattle Public Aquarium operated in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The two orcas, one of which is believed to be Narnia, were scheduled to arrive at the Sochi Dolphinarium, operated by White Sphere, in time for the Olympics.  You can see the Dolphinarium in this photo.  The widest point of the tank where the orcas were scheduled to perform is 27 meters.  For reference, the swimming pool just to its south in the photo is around 90 meters long.  This is a different dolphinarium than where the dolphin will be swimming with the Olympic torch (that one is a swim with dolphins type operation).

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The public outcry (and the concern that Putin’s release of Greenpeace activists might backfire) resulted in the orcas being sent to Moscow instead.  Although it’s not certain where they might be, the best data shows they are likely near the construction site of the new Moscow Aquarium in the All-Russian Exposition Center, an enormous complex of buildings that once showcased the best of Soviet accomplishments.  Russian activist Mirumir Dobrosklonov shared the following photos online via social media.  The first shows tanks constructed to “acclimatize” marine animals for the new aquarium.

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In October, an inflatable structure was placed over the tanks:

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To give you a sense of scope, a poster on Russian Orcas using the handle “MacAlpine” took the following video:

It’s assumned that these orcas will eventually find their way to the Moscow Aquarium when it opens, though that still has to be at least two years away.  And here’s what they have to look forward to:

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The building of the aquarium will consist of underground and ground parts. Underground part, its total area will be 9.68 million square meters, will include the aquarium (about 9 thousand square meters) and the theater of pinnipeds (680 square meters). Dolphin Therapy Center (2 thousand square meters), technical facilities, cafes and restaurants will be located on the top floor. Auditoriums of the dolphinarium can host 2,500 people. Preparatory works have already been started.

Visitors of the largest aquarium in Europe, the aquarium with dolphins can not only entertain, but also get new knowledge and improve their health. Five special pools will also operate for children with special needs. In the educational and entertainment center one will see killer whales and beluga, South American sea lions, sharks, rays and many other species of fish. Visitors will be able to travel around the world and meet the aquatic flora and fauna of Russia, the Far East, China, Southeast Asia and America. Project is developed by a team of professionals, for example dolphins, caught in Japan, will be trained by the Japanese experts.

Meanwhile, the question remains what will happen with the orcas during that interim period of construction.  An associate of mine in the Russian attractions business asked around and came back with this: “Very likely Sochi before the big summer season starts.”

In addition to the two orcas in Moscow, two or three (depending what source you use) were sent to China late last year.  Rumor had it they were going to perform at the new Chimelong Ocean Kingdom on Hengqin Island, literally next door to the resort town of Macau.  When the rumors surfaced, Tom Mehrmann of Ocean Park, an AZA-certified zoo and theme park in Hong Kong, told Post Magazine, “There is a lot of concern in the industry that they don’t have the space [for killer whales].  The arena they have is sufficient for belugas and dolphins but orcas were never in that mix. If they went and acquired orcas I would assume they would have to scramble to develop and expand their facilities.”

In fact, orcas are planned for the park, but as this map shows, not until a later phase of construction:

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If the orcas are on property, they’re well hidden.  But there’s the posibility they could have gone elsewhere.  I asked someone in the Chinese attractions industry to look at all the existing aquariums, theme parks, and zoos in China to see if orcas were spotted at any.  No luck, but then he told me something that bothers me: “One aquarium guy told me ‘Not China.  Try Pyongyang.'”

Kim Jong Un has been on a major building spree lately, with a new state of the art waterpark last year.

Spectators watch people use The Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang in this undated photo released by North Korea's KCNA

And in 2012 a new Dolphinarium, inspired by the belugas placed on display during the World Expo in Yeosu, South Korea.  Even more troubling is what else this Chinese aquarium manager had to say to my associate.  “We were approached by Pyongyang asking where we could find orcas.  He likes that SeaWorld movie so much, he wants one for himself.”  Sometimes advocacy films can backfire when reason isn’t in play to begin with.  In the case of North Korea, the Rungna Dolphinarium is just too small for orcas.  Take a look:

Rungna Dolphinarium, Pyongyang, North Korea

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In the end, we don’t know where the orcas flown to China are nor the ones intended for Sochi.  They won’t be performing during the Olympics, but they will be, somewhere, for someone.  And the Russians will continue to catch orcas and sell them for an estimated value of $1 million apiece to parks around the world.

That’s “The Big Story” on Sochi’s orcas . . . for now.

TOMORROW: The effort to free Lolita from the Seaquarium, how the cost of lettuce could derail the process, and how the ultimate decision on her future may lie with the Spanish.

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