A Dutch court on Wednesday blocked the export of a young orca whale that had been rescued sick and emaciated a year ago off the Netherlands' northern coast.
The Amsterdam District Court ruled that Morgan, a killer whale 3 or 4 years old who was due to be shipped to a Spanish amusement park, 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 ruled that more research 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, who had filed the suit to block a government-issued export permit, 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.
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 of the Free Morgan Group 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 of the Orca Coalition of Holland, an ad hoc advocacy group.
"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 told The Associated Press from outside the courtroom.
About a dozen experts and scientists from both sides argued for more than three hours in judge H. Kijlstra's 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 frquently die before they reach age 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 2 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 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) and had lived for months in freedom by then.
"Morgan is a prime candidate" for release into the wild, said Ute Margreff, of Marine Connection, a British-based charity. "She comes from the wild ocean. She has only been in captivity one year. She knows her way. And the world's best researchers are there for her."