In the summer of 2011, a group of people got together for a week on San Juan Island, off the coast of Seattle. It was an informal gathering that included scientists, conservationists, whale researchers, former whale trainers, journalists and a movie maker. We spent our days watching whales, giving presentations during the evening, and hanging out at the Center for Whale Research, which has been studying the Southern Resident orca population for 42 years.
Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite was interviewing some of us for a movie she was making, Blackfish, about the orca Tilikum who had killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau the previous year. When it was released, Blackfish would capture public attention and shake the captivity industry to its roots. And author David Kirby was also interviewing members of the group for the book he was writing, Death at SeaWorld.
After dinner, one evening, neuroscientist Lori Marino gave a talk about her research on the brains and cognitive abilities of whales and dolphins, and the discussion then turned to how good it would be if all the whales at marine parks (or “sea circuses” as the former trainers called them) could be retired to sanctuaries. After all, zoos and circuses were under increasing pressure to send their elephants and other large land animals to sanctuaries. Why not the same for whales?
At the end of the week, we agreed to stay in touch and perhaps to meet up again in the years to come. We’d call these get-togethers “Superpods” – the word scientists use for when multiple pods of whales meet up for their own social gatherings.
In the summers that followed, some of the group continued to meet on San Juan Island. And in July 2016, when hundreds of people from around the world gathered for three days of talks, movies and presentations at the local theater, Dr. Lori Marino announced the formation of an organization, the Whale Sanctuary Project, that was setting out to create a seaside sanctuary for captive whales.
The following posts make up a blog that I wrote during our five days on the island at Superpod One back in July 2011.