How Do You Transport a Whale?


The orca that tragically killed Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando last month was previously kept at a now-defunct aquarium in British Columbia. How does something so large—"Tilly" weighs close to 12,000 pounds—get from Point A to Point B?

First, you have to decide who is going to be doing the moving. Aquariums and zoos will sometimes take care of their own animal transport needs. Other times, they might charter the equipment from a private company or the government, or just hand the whole job over to someone else. The people in charge of logistics then need to decide whether the move will use wet or dry transit.

In wet transit, which can be used for either fish or marine mammals, the animal is kept in a (huge) tank of water. In dry transit, which is used for marine mammals only, the animal is secured in a padded sling and kept calm, wet and cool by human companions. For marine mammals, the wet or dry decision is usually made based on travel distance and the size of the animal.

In 1998, SeaWorld San Diego released J.J., a young female gray whale they had found beached a year earlier and nursed back to health, back into the wild. While under SeaWorld's care, J.J. had grown to 31 feet and 19,200 pounds. She would become the largest mammal ever transported. SeaWorld opted for dry transit—J.J.'s size, the size of the tank she would have required, and the combined weight of whale, tank and water (a gallon weighs a little over 8 lbs.) would have been too much to handle. J.J. was instead fitted into a custom-made transport sling, lifted from her SeaWorld tank by crane, and placed on a 40-foot foam-padded trailer. A truck pulled the trailer to a harbor, where she was loaded by crane onto the USCGC Conifer, transported to an area off Point Loma—San Diego's westernmost point—and released. You can see photos of J.J.'s journey back to the ocean here.

Special Delivery

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Specially designed trailers and a police escort got the sharks to the airport, where they were loaded on a UPS B-747 jet for the 60-hour flight to Atlanta (with a brief layover in Anchorage, Alaska). The plane's interior had been reconfigured to fit an onboard lab, where Aquarium veterinarians could monitor the sharks, and two custom-made, foam-lined tanks in which the sharks were secured with reinforced canvas slings. The environmental conditions on the plane were also adjusted to ensure the sharks' comfort. The plane's temperature, usually kept at 69 degrees, was boosted to 75 degrees to reflect the fish's habitat. The pilots, meanwhile, were instructed to make long, shallow takeoffs and landings and slow, gradual mid-air turns to avoid stressing their special passengers.

The move went off without a hitch and took only six weeks to plan. UPS had had a little practice, though, since they had transported roughly 50 tanks of fish and mammals to the Georgia Aquarium the previous year.

For more on whale moving, check out this video from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, which explains how they moved seven beluga whales and four Pacific white-sided dolphins to a temporary home at another aquarium: