What began as a global outcry has now evolved into a work of international cooperation. And it came into high relief in Moscow as people of many nationalities gathered at the Ministry of Natural Resources to begin a long-term effort to return 97 illegally-captured orcas and beluga whales to the ocean.
A team of experts, brought together by Jean-Michel Cousteau of Ocean Futures Society and Charles Vinick of the Whale Sanctuary Project had been invited to meet with government officials and Russian scientists. And at the end of the meeting, Cousteau and Vinick sat down with the Minister of Natural Resources Dmitry Kobylkin for a press conference.
It would not be overstating what transpired to say that the day was a classic example of what happens when people of different backgrounds and cultures come together to cooperate on a greater mission: doing good for our fellow animals.
One of the highlights was when, in a gesture of friendship, Minister Kobylkin presented Cousteau with the remarkable gift of a stunningly beautiful ammonite fossil.
Cousteau told reporters that this mission is “the most exciting time of my life,” emphasizing that “we are not here to criticize; we are here to work together and find solutions.”
To which, Kobylkin replied that “We are being led by our science and by the vision that we have to run this work as openly as we can. We especially value the international experience.”
None of this is to say that what lies ahead will be easy. Vinick explained some of the challenges that the team will face.
“Each of the animals is an individual and has to be treated as an individual,” he said. “The challenge for rehabilitation and release is complex. And therefore, we need to work together to identify a strategy for rehabilitation and for reintroduction or release of as many of those animals, one by one, as is possible.”
Cousteau and Vinick both emphasized that this will be a long-term project that will likely take several years before all the orcas and belugas are rehabilitated.
And that will mean long-term cooperation among the many people involved. It also means that we all go into this with our eyes fully open as to not only the complexities of the work, but also the potential for differences and conflicts of opinion and personality. That’s human nature. But when we rise above these inevitable disparities and keep our focus on the animals who depend on us, then the outcome can be one that fulfills the vision that was laid out at yesterday’s gathering in Moscow.
After the press conference, the team departed Moscow for a nine-hour flight to Vladivostok, and then on to Srednyaya Bay, where they will visit the whales.
Here is some background to the mission to return the whales to the ocean
Last November, reports started to emerge that more than 100 orcas and beluga whales had been captured and were being held in small, crowded pens in Srednyaya Bay on Russia’s far east coast. Russian animal protection groups were calling it a “whale jail,” a term that quickly caught on in the national media.
A month later, animal advocate Anastasia Kovalenko launched a petition on Change.org that quickly drew hundreds of thousands of signatures, mostly Russian. When actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio promoted it on his personal and Foundation social media pages, more signatures poured in from around the world. (Right now, the petition has close to 1.5 million signatures.)
Meanwhile, winter had set in and temperatures had begun to plummet in Russia. During the long nights it had become a challenge for the whale captors simply to keep the sea pens free of surface ice so the whales could breathe. The situation was becoming an emergency.
President Putin steps in
Late in December, President Putin directed the new Governor of the Primorsky Region, Oleg Kozhemyako, to address the problem.
In January, a group of Russian scientists and government officials visited the whale jail, where they collected skin and breath samples and water samples from the pens. The video footage they took showed skin lesions on and around their dorsal fins, suggesting frostbite or a fungal or bacterial infection, or both, and a skin infection that was likely the result of rotting food being left in the pens.
A few weeks later, one of the orcas was no longer to be seen in any of the sea pens. The captors claimed that he/she had escaped, an explanation that was generally considered absurd.
Letters to President Putin prompts an invitation to Moscow
A few weeks later, four prominent whale experts, including Cousteau and Vinick, wrote to President Putin, offering to visit the whales and then advise the government on what could be done to return them to the ocean. Thirty-four marine mammal biologists also sent a letter to Putin, as did a group of global citizens including Queen Noor of Jordan, Dr. Jane Goodall, Sir Richard Branson, actor Pamela Anderson, along with other business leaders, actors and musicians.
Skin lesions, frostbite, and a fungal or bacterial infection or both.In response, Governor Kozhemyako of the Primorsky Region invited Cousteau to visit the whale jail” and Cousteau and Vinick began to gather a team of experts that would travel to Srednyaya Bay to assess the situation and advise the government.
At the beginning of April, the Whale Sanctuary Project received a formal invitation to meet with Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Dmitri Kobylkin and with Russian scientists and then to travel to Vladivostok and visit the whales at Srednyaya Bay.
At the end of this visit, the team will compile a report to submit to the Minister of Natural Resources, offering our best advice on a rehabilitation program for the whales with a view to their being returned to the ocean. We will also offer whatever help the government may ask for in the work that lies ahead.