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Conservation Opinion

Keeping Orcas Wild

Jean-Michel Cousteau discusses the situation with members of The Whale Sanctuary Project Team. Photo: Harry Rabin, Ocean Futures Society

By Jean-Michel Cousteau and Holly Lohuis

I have written extensively about my fascination, respect, and love for orcas. I believe they are our counterparts in the sea. Orcas are intelligent, they live in culturally rich families known as pods, speak different languages and dialects, and express feelings of empathy and depression when their loved ones are hurt or pass away. I’ve had the privilege of interacting and working with orcas throughout my life. While producing a two-hour PBS documentary special about these amazing animals, my team and I worked with fourteen orca biologists in five different countries, filming orcas in the waters of New Zealand, Norway, Canada, and in my home state of California. We documented the fascinating lives of these complex orca societies, learning how each group possesses unique characteristics specific to their geographical locations, which can range across oceans of the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Like people, orcas have adapted to survive in different places all across the planet.

Also like us, much of an orca’s social structure is based on learning behaviour from their families and other orcas around them. During our documentary, we shared what scientists have been learning about these complex orca societies and highlighted the questions scientists are still trying to answer. One of the biggest questions remains: can these different populations, made up of complex societies, adapt fast enough to survive in our ever-changing and warming oceans?

As a result of the research we gathered and shared while producing the television special Call of the Killer Whale back in 2008, I believe we have only scratched the surface when it comes to the understanding these intricate societies and the strong social bonds of orca families. There is no doubt we have learned a tremendous amount of new information from important field research led by biologists who are passionate and dedicated to their work. Through this research we continue to learn that in order to protect individual orca populations, we must protect their entire critical habitattheir ocean homeas well. 

One consistent theme we’ve learned from all the orca experts we’ve worked with is that we will only be able to answer these complicated questions by researching wild populations as they exist in their natural homes, and not from studying captive animals living lonely lives in concrete tanks, separated from their families and trained to perform entertainment in exchange for food. It is why I am constantly saying that the time has come for orcas in captivity to be a part of our past, not a tragic part of our future.

A critical time

I have been honoured to be a part of a team of dedicated people working to keep orcas and other marine mammals out of captivity through the Whale Sanctuary Project. This past April, we were invited by the Russia’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to assess the health of ten orcas and eighty-seven belugas who were illegally captured last year in the waters of the Sea of Okhotsk and have been held in small pens in Srednyaya Bay, Russia. The apparent intention of this very lucrative, illegal catch was to sell the animals to marine entertainment parks in China. The Animal Welfare Institute estimates that China has at least 76 dolphinariums and marine parks, with at least 25 more planned over the next few years. It is said that each individual orca is worth over $7 million US dollars.

Fortunately, our visit was instrumental and we arrived in time to help save these extraordinary animals. For months, they have been swimming in very small enclosed pens in a bay located in the far east of Russia where the harsh winter weather has made it a challenge to keep the surface waters ice-free for the air-breathing marine mammals. In these tiny pens, all the animals were very distressed.

The international news highlighted this historic visit with what I hoped would be a very positive outcome. And indeed it was. The Whale Sanctuary Team and I shared our findings from our initial visit to Russia: “preliminary results of the behavioural analyses conducted by the Team show that all orcas and belugas in the holding facility at Srednyaya Bay can be rehabilitated and released. The Team has not identified any scientific reasons why any individual animals cannot be rehabilitated and released.” By the end of April, the Deputy Director of the Consillium of the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) stated that the captive whales should all be released. It was a wonderful moment to know that these animals would be returned to their homes.

I am honoured and very proud to be a part of this team of orca experts that has been pioneered by my dear friend and colleague for decades, Charles Vinick, Executive Director of The Whale Sanctuary Project. I believe this is a critical time in the history of our species. It is time for us to change. Changing our perspective of keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity is just the beginning of a global change in how we understand our connection to all life on this planet and our realization that the future of our species depends on the abundance and health of the planet that sustains us. Even though we are continuously bombarded with negative environmental news stories of doom and gloom, we have to remain hopeful that we can create a better future for life on our water planet.

A landmark report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was released in early May. It warns us once again of a deepening planetary threat from the continued loss of biodiversity and the impact this will have on human societies. At least one million plant and animal species, out of the estimated eight million known, are now at risk of extinction. And humans are the species at fault, causing this mass destruction. We have been witnessing and documenting this environmental degradation for decades, and now it is finally getting the international news coverage reminding us of the interconnectedness of all of nature. The natural systems of the oceans and the land work together and support the diversity of life that keeps everything in balance. Everything is connected.

Power of the positive

With all of this depressing news, we cannot let feelings of hopelessness slow our momentum of protecting all of the wildlife and wilderness that remains. We still have a lot left on our planet to save. We need to focus on what positive narrative can come out of stories of distress. We must learn from our mistakes and make better choices. When the 97 orcas and belugas were captured illegally, people around the world rose up to the environmental distress call and international support came together to help the Russian government realize these animals need to be returned to their ocean home. 

We are at a critical turning point, a turning point where we can use positive psychology to create a hopeful vision for the future. We can create a future where we all feel empowered and inspired to do our individual part to support conservation, environmental protection, and sustainability. We need to be a collective voice, especially we divers, who see so much more of the world than the average citizen, and remind everyone around us to be proactive and take actions every single day to make this a better world for us and the generations still yet to come.

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