In this November 2017 TEDx talk, Charles Vinick, Executive Director of the Whale Sanctuary Project, describes what he’s learned over many years about orca and beluga whales, in the wild and in captivity, about who they are and what it’s like for them to be kept in concrete tanks, and about the growing movement to bring an end to having whales on display in marine parks and aquariums.
“Whales,” he says, “should not have to live in concrete tanks.”
Whale and dolphin shows have been commonplace for the last four decades. But this story is changing. And today some of the most active whale advocates are former marine park trainers. Why? Because they know the animals and they love these animals.
“Whales should not have to perform for their supper and our entertainment.”
In the 1990s, Charles managed the pioneering effort to reintroduce to the wild the captive orca Keiko made famous through the Free Willy films. He describes how, on one of Keiko’s ocean outings from his sea pen off the coast of Iceland, he was approached by a group of wild orcas and how this experience reinforced his understanding that these animals are sentient beings.
“When the wild whales got about a mile from Keiko, they separated into three groups with five whales continuing toward Keiko, one group going wide to the east and one group going wide to the west. What I watched from the air looked like a classic military pincher movement.
“The five whales swam directly to Keiko, they all thrashed around for a few seconds and the five swam on while Keiko returned to our boat. Once the five were well past Keiko, the groups from east and west re-joined them and they all went on together.
“What had we witnessed? A plan to deal with something – or someone – unknown to the group, the execution of the plan to deal with the unknown while not risking the safety of the group, and communication among the team. We had hydrophones in the water the whole time and did not record a single sound from Keiko or the wild whales in advance of the actual encounter. Yet, they knew he was there and they dealt with it – as a group.”
It took more than four years for Keiko to truly spend extended periods of time with wild whales. In the summer of 2002, in the company of orcas, he left Iceland and swam more than 1,000 miles to a fjord in Norway, where he befriended local fishermen and townspeople. His caregivers from the Keiko Project came to the fjord to watch over and care for him, and he was free to come and go. But he never reunited with his family.
“We have always known that it is very easy to capture a whale, but what we learned is that it is very difficult to put one back.”
So, how can we give back to other whales who are still held in concrete tanks something of the life that we’ve taken from them?
“The best solution is to build natural seaside sanctuaries where captive whales and dolphins can live out their lives in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible.”
Charles describes the work that’s being undertaken by the Whale Sanctuary Project to create the first such sanctuary.
“It’s a bold vision, but these animals have raised tens of millions of dollars for their owners and entertained millions of people. Don’t we owe them something?”