Last captive walruses in Canada moved to new SeaWorld in Abu Dhabi

Canada's three remaining captive walruses have been moved to a new marine park in Abu Dhabi.

Smooshi and her baby, Koyuk, from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., along with Boris, a male walrus from the Quebec Aquarium, moved to a new SeaWorld park in the United Arab Emirates city on Tuesday.

"We are pleased that Boris will be able to benefit from the new environment in Abu Dhabi where he will live in a social group with other walruses, in a habitat designed specifically for them," said Marie-Pierre Lessard, director of conservation at the Quebec Aquarium.

SeaWorld said it is bringing in a number of walruses from zoos and aquariums for its massive new park in Abu Dhabi that is set to open sometime this year. The indoor facility consists of five levels and will be the first of its kind in the Persian Gulf.

"Their brand-new, state-of-the-art habitat is designed specifically for the species, enabling the walruses to live in an enhanced social structure within a dynamic ecosystem that includes fish and other marine animals," SeaWorld wrote in a statement.

Marineland did not respond to questions, but pointed to its comments in the local paper, the Niagara Falls Review, that its walruses left the park with veterinary staff and the move was done "calmly."

"We are confident that they will be in great hands at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi," Marineland told the paper.

Details of the transaction weren't disclosed, but Marineland's export permits obtained by The Canadian Press show their walruses were not sold to SeaWorld, but leased for at least one year.

Marineland's walrus move was sparked by the settlement of a decade-long legal battle with former trainer Phil Demers.

In 2013, Marineland sued Demers, alleging he trespassed by storming the park with other activists in October 2012. They also claimed he was plotting to steal Smooshi and threatening employees.

Demers denied trespassing and plotting to steal the one-tonne walrus. He countersued for defamation and abuse of process. Marineland denied those claims.

Last September, the two sides settled shortly before a trial was set to begin. As part of the settlement, Marineland agreed to move the two walruses to another facility to be with other animals of their kind.

Demers, who has long called for Smooshi to be removed from Marineland, called news of the move a "mixed bag."

"She gets to leave and go to a brand new state-of-the-art building where money and budget is rarely a question," he said. "So there's elements to being really happy."

But he said he is also sad.

"I'm quite emotionally overwhelmed," he said. "It weighs a bit heavy because this has been a long pursuit – a decade – for a dream to get her out. And now there are no more captive walruses in Canada."

As part of the agreement, Smooshi and Koyuk had to be moved by March 21.

The deal also included a final visit with Smooshi for Demers. The pair received national attention in 2008 because Smooshi had such a strong bond with the trainer and would follow him around the park. Demers said he wasn't allowed to be close to Smooshi when he went for that final visit in September.

The agreement also said the walruses had to be moved to a facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The new Abu Dhabi facility is not accredited by the association, although SeaWorld's facilities in California, Florida and Texas are.

"The walruses will receive specialized care from trained experts based on Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards," SeaWorld said in a statement.

Marineland has been home to walruses since 2001. The animals came from Russia, some of them orphans while others were in poor health, Marineland has said.

Seven of the walruses have since died – only Smooshi and Koyuk, who was born in 2020, have survived.

Boris was the last walrus at the Quebec Aquarium. The park transferred three walruses last year to an American marine park.

They transferred his two calves, Lakina and Balzak, in November because the pair were reaching sexual maturity, which "required us to separate them in order to avoid unwanted reproduction."

The Quebec Aquarium said the move was "masterfully orchestrated by our team and other specialists."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2023.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press