AMSTERDAM -- A plane carrying a young killer whale has departed the Netherlands Tuesday afternoon heading for a Spanish amusement park after conservationists lost a legal battle to have her released into the open sea.
Around dawn Tuesday, the 1,400-kilogram (3,085-pound) female orca named Morgan was lifted from her tank by a crane, resting in a hammock that restrained her movement and protected her fins. Trainers kept her wet during the transfer into a blue-painted box on a truck, and her breath stood out in plumes as she exhaled through her blowhole from time to time while hanging several meters (yards) aloft in the cool morning air.
More than 50 trainers, handlers and other workers were involved in the operation moving Morgan onto the plane that left Amsterdam around 1 p.m. local time headed for the Spanish island of Tenerife. There Morgan will be transferred again onto a truck and finally hoisted into a much larger tank in Loro Parque by early evening, the Harderwijk Dolphinarium said in a statement.
The city of Harderwijk had issued an emergency ban blocking "Free Morgan" demonstrations during the transfer, though a coalition of conservationists who sought to have her released said they never planned to interfere with 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, they 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, and proposed a plan for reintroducing her to the wild.
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 the Blackstone Group L.P.
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 four orcas on loan from SeaWorld that Morgan will join. Though Morgan cannot be transferred to the United States, any offspring she has may be.
The Harderwijk Dolphinarium, which put Morgan on display after her rescue, has not disclosed financial details of her shipment to Loro Parque, though spokesman Bert van Plateringen said it will not make money 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, it concedes her transfer to Spain is a major blow to its hopes.
Experts agree that chances of a successful release into the wild decline the longer an orca is exposed to humans.