Animal rights activists - including a New Zealand orca expert - have succeeded in blocking the export of a rescued killer whale to an amusement park, in a landmark ruling.
Morgan, a young orca found sick and emaciated off the Netherlands' northern coast a year ago, was due to be shipped from the Netherlands to Spain to be kept as entertainment.
Activists argued she should be released back into the wild, filing a suit to block the whale's export permit.
In a landmark decision the Amsterdam District Court ruled today that Morgan would remain in the Harderwijk Dolphinarium for now, but would be moved from her small cement tank to a larger enclosure with other animals.
The court said that more research should be conducted to find a solution for Morgan, and ordered the dolphinarium, the government and the animal rights activists who filed the case, to work together.
The activists hailed the ruling as an unprecedented victory, even though they failed to win immediate approval for their plan to gradually reintroduce Morgan back into the ocean.
A Free Morgan Group, reminiscent of the popular 1993 film "Free Willy," began gathering an international following soon after the black-and-white whale was caught in the Wadden Sea in June 2010.
New Zealand orca expert, Dr Ingrid Visser, was one of those leading the "Orca Coalition" and had been working flat out to get the decision reversed, even quitting her job to work on the case.
A spokesman for Visser – who is still in the Netherlands – said the decision had the potential to change the game not only for cetaceans in captivity, but for environmental issues in general.
"Keep in mind that less than one per cent of cases lodged against a government ministry in Holland actually rule against the ministry," the spokesman said.
Scientists disagreed about Morgan's survival chances if she returned to the wild.
Orcas are highly sociable animals, and scientists arguing on behalf of the dolphinarium said she would soon die unless she found her original pod, or family.
Experts from the advocacy groups said Morgan would face the same prospects of rejection if she were to be sent as planned to the Loro Parque on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, which has four other orcas.
"This is a massive victory," said Wietse van der Werf, another member of the Orca Coalition.
"This is the first time in history that the export of an orca has been blocked by a judge. It exposes the international trade among dolphinariums as a very lucrative industry," he said outside the courtroom today.
About a dozen experts and scientists from both sides argued for more than three hours in a crowded courtroom, all claiming to represent the best interests of the whale.
Highly endangered, orcas live between 50 and 90 years in the wild and bear only up to four calves. In captivity they frequently die before they reach 10.
Van der Werf said the decision was a "good first step" that would remove Morgan to a tank five or six times larger than the enclosure where she has been on public display since last March. She would join a group of dolphins with whom she has been communicating but has been unable to see, the activist said.
The Free Morgan scientists outlined their plan in court to move the whale to an artificial bay near Rotterdam, where she could be "rehabilitated" and get used to being in the open sea again. She would be electronically tagged and trained to follow a boat and return to the boat when called. If the researchers find that she has linked up with a pod of orcas, they would leave her but continue to monitor her movements.
Orcas have rarely been returned from the wild after being in captivity.
The most famous example was Keiko, the star of the "Free Willy" film who was caught at age two and released under lengthy supervision after 20 years in various marine parks. Although he died in 2003 at age 26 — apparently of pneumonia — he had swum about 1400 kilometres and had lived for months in freedom by then.
-Stuff and Associated Press