Dutch transfer killer whale Morgan to Spain

By TOBY STERLING | November 29, 2011 | 5:35 AM EST

The 1,400 kilogram (3,085 pound) female orca named Morgan is hoisted by crane into a container on a truck at the Dolfinarium in Harderwijk, Netherlands, early Tuesday Nov. 29, 2011. A Dutch dolphin park has loaded a young killer whale into a container on a truck ahead of her transfer by plane to amusement park Loro Parque on the Spanish island of Tenerife later Tuesday after conservationists lost a legal battle to have her released. (AP Photo/Bas Czerwinski)

AMSTERDAM (AP) — A Dutch dolphin park hoisted a young killer whale onto a truck early Tuesday, preparing to transfer her to a Spanish amusement park after conservationists lost a legal batter to have her released into the open sea.

Early in the morning, the 1,400 kilogram (3,085 pound) female orca named Morgan was lifted by crane, where she was resting in a hammock that restrains her movement and protects her fins. Trainers kept her wet during the transfer into a tank on the truck.

Her container was to be put in a plane and flown to the Spanish island of Tenerife, where she will be transferred again to her new home in Loro Parque, said spokesman Bert van Plateringen.

The city of Harderwijk issued an emergency ban blocking "Free Morgan" demonstrations during the transfer, though a coalition of conservationists who sought to have her released said they have no plans to interfere in the operation.

"We would never do anything that could endanger Morgan," said coalition spokeswoman Nancy Slot.

Morgan, who is estimated to be about 3 years old, weighed only 400 kilograms (880 pounds) when she was rescued in shallow waters off the Dutch North Sea coast in June 2010.

The Dutch government permit that originally approved her capture said the dolphinarium could hold her and restore her health so she could be released. But after the park assembled a team of experts for advice on what to do next, it found she had little chance of survival in the wild unless her natal pod, or family, could be identified.

Analysis of her vocal patterns showed only that she was from Norwegian waters.

Opposing experts for the "Free Morgan" group said the dolphinarium was guided by financial interests, rather than concern for the animal's well-being.

International treaties prohibit the trade of killer whales — which are actually classified as oceangoing dolphins — without difficult-to-obtain exemption permits. Fewer than 50 orcas are held in captivity worldwide and the bulk of them are owned by SeaWorld, a subsidiary of U.S. private equity giant BlackRock.

A female capable of breeding and introducing new genes into the pool of captive orcas is worth millions of euros (dollars).

The Dutch Dolphinarium is owned by France's Compagnie des Alpes. Loro Parque, owned by a German businessman, received its four orcas on loan from SeaWorld. Though Morgan cannot be transferred to the United States, any offspring she may have can be.

The Harderwijk Dolphinarium, which put Morgan on display after her rescue, has not disclosed financial details of her shipment to Loro Parque, though Van Plateringen said it is not profiting from the deal.

Orcas are thought to be among the most intelligent and social of mammals, and the idea of reintroducing captive whales into the wild garnered widespread public sympathy after the 1993 film "Free Willy."

Real life releases have a mixed record at best, however. Keiko, the animal that starred in "Free Willy" was released in Icelandic waters after 20 years in captivity. He died, apparently of pneumonia, after surviving two months on his own and swimming about 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) to Norway.

Though the "Free Morgan Coalition" says it will continue to seek Morgan's release, they concede her transfer to Spain is a major blow to their hopes.

Experts agree that the less time the animals are exposed to humans the better their chances of survival in the wild.