Honoring Sea Turtles

Sea Turtle at the Newport Aquarium
Sea turtle at the Newport Aquarium. Photo by me

Happy World Sea Turtle Day! Though these beautiful and important creatures deserve everyone’s attention year-round, I like to honor this day, June 16th, to acknowledge and bring awareness to their plight.

I found this video about sea turtles from the Newport Aquarium in Newport, Kentucky, which my family just visited this past April (2022):

The aquarium had a really great display with a cross-section of how a sea turtle nest looks under the sand:

My son pointing examining the sea turtle nest cross section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium.
My son examining the sea turtle nest cross-section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium. Photo by me.
Close-up of the sea turtle nest cross section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium.
Close-up of the sea turtle nest cross-section exhibit at the Newport Aquarium.

It is extremely important to protect these nests since hatchlings have a very low chance of survival to adulthood. Here’s a TED-Ed video explaining the struggles hatchlings face:

What You Can Do

The best thing you can do is to learn, and then educate others! Please read my article about the importance of sea turtles and what is endangering them and what actions you can take to help protect them.

You can also adopt a sea turtle nest! There are many organizations at every level –  global down to local communities – that take donations to protect a nest and educate their communities. I adopt one annually on Hilton Head Island through the Coastal Discovery Museum since that area is special to my family. There seems to be a program near most coastal communities in the United States, so just pick one!

Thank you for reading and supporting sea turtles, please share and subscribe! I’ll close with a video I took of a sea turtle swimming in the Newport Aquarium’s Coral Reef exhibit:

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “All About Sea Turtles,” World Wildlife Fund Wild Classroom, April 13, 2021.

Article, “How To Help Save Sea Turtles,” seeturtleweek.com.

FilmProtecting leatherback turtles – Blue Planet II: Episode 7 Preview, BBC One, December 8, 2017.

Endangered Species Day

Baby harp seal on snow, white and furry with big dark eyes.
Photo by Hotel Kaesong on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today is Endangered Species Day. This day is observed each year on the third Friday of May, a day to raise awareness about endangered species and celebrate those that have recovered through conservation efforts.1 But like me, I bet many of you probably already try to raise awareness when the opportunity arises.

When I was a child, I learned that baby harp seals – the adorable, white, fluffy ones – were killed solely for their fur. At 6 years old, I could not understand how people would kill these animals just for their coats. I believe this is what sparked the environmentalist in me at that young age. I would try to teach others about harp seal pup clubbing and I had a Greenpeace ‘Save the Seals’ button that I wore. A few years later, I learned about elephant poaching – again, shocked and dismayed that people would kill such a large, beautiful animal just for the ivory in its tusks. I wrote papers in school and even designed a t-shirt advocating for elephants.

Obviously, this has continued into adulthood.

Me at 6 years old holding my baby seal stuffed animals.
Me at 6 years old holding my baby seal stuffed animals.

Why Are So Many Species Endangered?

Most endangered species become endangered because of human activity. As our own population increases, other species experience the loss and degradation of habitat, mainly from deforestation. People overhunt and overfish, introduce invasive species, and contribute to climate change.2 Each of these actions slowly degrades the ecosystem of each species and they cannot survive. “Human activity has altered about 75 percent of the surface of the land, eliminating natural systems millions of years in the making and squeezing wildlife into fragments of their former ranges,” wrote Dr. Sylvia A. Earle.3

When we lose a species, we lose an important component in the intricate web of life. The loss creates a butterfly effect in the food chain and ecosystems. Scientists call this the decline of biodiversity. But when we lose a species forever, I feel like we’ve lost more than that – we are losing part of our humanity. We are losing something we can’t replace or reproduce. Technology can’t reverse extinction. (And even if it could someday, we don’t understand every single moving part of ecosystems. Have you ever seen Jurassic Park?)

“We are now causing the extinction of more species than have gone extinct in the last 65 million years.” -Rob Stewart, Revolution

Graphic of the world map with animals making the outlines of the continents.
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

How Many Species Are Threatened?

More than 40,000 species are threatened with extinction!4 Today, there are 8,722 critically endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.5 The IUCN, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature, is the international authority on assessing the status and conservation of plant, animal, and insect species across the world. Here’s a short video about their importance:

“It amazes me that some of our most well-known species are the ones that are closest to extinction.” -Joel Sartore, the Photo Ark

The Endangered Species Act of 1973

This act is the main legislation in the United States aimed at conserving plants and animals at risk of extinction. “The act’s main directive is to recover threatened and endangered species to a state of health and stability in which they no longer require protected status,” Jeff Corwin wrote.6

“The act is easily the most important piece of conservation legislation in the nation’s history. Its most dramatic successes include the recovery of the American alligator, gray whale, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and eastern population of the brown pelican.” -Edward O. Wilson, Afterword of Silent Spring

Regardless of our political beliefs or affiliation, we must protect and preserve this act and its related legislation. We must stop allowing our representatives to strip away its protections, which they are consistently trying to do. Joel Sartore of the Photo Ark, wrote: “Legislators passed it almost unanimously in 1973. But it has not been reauthorized – given multiyear funding – since the late 1990s. As it stands now, funding for the [Endangered Species Act] comes from annual appropriations requested by the Department of the Interior – subject, of course, to the President’s agenda.”7

Rhinos and a giraffe in the background in a landscape.
Photo by Ken Goulding on Unsplash

Let’s Go Back

“People protect what they love.” -Jacques Cousteau

We can’t just toss a few of every species into zoos and then call it good. We’ve got to do more. Maybe we should go back to thinking like we did as kids. Animals were special, exciting to see and learn about, and important to protect. We all understood this so clearly as children! Even Walt Disney understood:

“How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?” -Walt Disney

So what can you do? Protect what you love. Teach others. Here are “10 Actions You Can Take to Conserve Endangered Species” from the Endangered Species Coalition:8

Infographic

Thanks for reading, and Happy Endangered Species Day!

Footnotes:

There’s DDT in the Ocean

DDT is good for me advertisement with a woman, cow, dog, chicken, apple and potato singing.
‘DDT is good for me’ advertisement. Detail of Penn Salt chemicals advertisement in Time Magazine June 30, 1947. AP2 .T37 v.49 pt. 2. Provided by the Crossett Library at Bennington College on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In late 2020, scientists discovered that up to 500,000 barrels of DDT, a highly toxic and banned pesticide, had been dumped in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island in Southern California. To make matters worse, the barrels are leaking. Some barrels, unbelievably, are leaking because they were deliberately punctured to make them sink easier. DDT is super toxic, so how did this happen?

Montrose Chemical Corporation

Montrose Chemical was the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT, located in Los Angeles. Starting in 1947 and continuing through 1961 (and perhaps even later), the company instructed its employees to transport barrels of DDT and acid sludge waste and dump them into the ocean. 

This is in addition to a DDT deposit of about 110 tons on the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, covering 17 square miles of ocean floor. From 1947 until 1971, Montrose discharged DDT into Los Angeles County sewers that empty into the ocean. It is the largest known deposit of DDT in the world and the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 1996. The fish found in the Palos Verdes Shelf area contain high concentrations of DDT as well as PCBs.

So for decades, Montrose Chemical dumped DDT and DDT acid sludge both down the drains and into the ocean. But the barrels likely caused far more damage. According to the Los Angeles Times, a sediment sample showed DDT concentrations 40 times greater in the ocean floor from the barrel dumpings than the highest contamination recorded at the Superfund site created by the DDT sewer discharges.1

Now back at that time, the common ‘wisdom’ was that the ocean was so big that it would dilute even the most dangerous poisons. It’s hard to believe now that ocean dumping was an accepted practice then, but laws protecting the ocean didn’t exist. “Federal ocean dumping laws dated back to 1886, but the rules were focused on clearing the way for ship navigation. It wasn’t until the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, that environmental impacts were considered.”2

There have been several lawsuits filed against Montrose and its successor company, Bayer Corporation. As of October 2021, the companies settled and have agreed to pay for the cleanup of contaminated groundwater at the Montrose Chemical Superfund sites in Los Angeles County. In May 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against Montrose and Bayer. It calls for the companies to take responsibility for the areas affected by the DDT barrel dumping.3

 But the damage is already done. 

The Los Angeles Times wrote a comprehensive and fascinating series of articles on the Montrose DDT ocean dumping. I’ve listed them under Additional Resources and I encourage you to read them.

“DDT — the all-but-indestructible compound dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which first stunned and jolted the public into environmental action — persists as an unsolved and largely forgotten problem.” -Los Angeles Times4

DDT’s History

While many people have heard of DDT, and may even be generally aware that it is ‘bad,’ they do not know exactly what it is or how it was used.

DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was first concocted by a German chemist in 1874. But someone discovered it was powerful as a synthetic insecticide in the 1940s. “It was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and the other insect-borne human diseases among both military and civilian populations. It also was effective for insect control in crop and livestock production, institutions, homes, and gardens.”5

The military used DDT to treat and prevent lice in soldiers during World War II. “The U.S. Army’s chief of preventive medicine, Brig. Gen. James Simmons, famously praised the chemical as ‘the war’s greatest contribution to the future health of the world.'”6 After WWII, it was sprayed everywhere and sold in household products and in lice treatments. Companies even advertised it as safe for children.

"No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT - Black Flag" vintage advertisement with a photo of a baby
“No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT – Black Flag” vintage advertisement. Uploaded by Seth Anderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For decades, this chemical was used in neighborhoods, recreation areas, agricultural areas, and farms. Fogging trucks sprayed it in residential areas, such as neighborhoods and beaches, and airplanes sprayed over vast swaths of agricultural land. “During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, approximately 675,000 tons of DDT were applied to U.S. soil. The peak year for use in the United States was 1959 – nearly 80 million pounds were applied.”7

1962. TBM spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington.
1962. TBM plane spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington. Credit: USDA Forest Service, Region 6, State and Private Forestry, Forest Health Protection.

“During summers in New Jersey, I remember the fog machine – at least, that’s what we called it, the fog machine; we loved it because it spewed out this mist, and my sisters and I would go riding after it on our bicycles so we could get lost in the fog. I remember our mother screaming at us to get away from it, just screaming. These were exterminators, who came almost every evening in the summer when the sun was setting, to kill mosquitos…I cannot imagine how they sprayed pesticides like that every night, and that kids were allowed to be out there in it.” -Alice Waters, referring to DDT fogging trucks8

DDT spraying on Darwin's RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962, Australia,
“Photograph 0078 – Darwin’s RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962,” Australia, photo uploaded by Ken Hodge on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Banning DDT

Studies into the effects of DDT started as early as 1945, and scientists discovered fish, birds, and mammals died from exposure to it. Rachel Carson, a writer, scientist, and ecologist who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, wrote some of the press releases about these studies and proposed writing a story for Reader’s Digest to reach a wider audience. But the publication turned her down. The New Yorker released Silent Spring as a series, and then Carson published the book in 1962.9 It “exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement.”10

At the very end of 1972, the EPA banned DDT use based on its adverse environmental effects, such as those to wildlife, as well as being a human carcinogen. Carson, herself, died of breast cancer at age 56, in 1964. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

“We have seen that [pesticides] now contaminate soil, water, and food, that they have the power to make our streams fishless and our gardens and woodlands silent and birdless.” -Rachel Carson

Painted Sloss DDT advertisement on the side of a building, 6% DDT
“Sloss DDT advert[isement]” by Francis Storr on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

DDT is Extremely Toxic and Poisonous 

DDT is highly persistent in the environment and in the body, meaning it does not dissolve or wash away. After the use of DDT was banned in the U.S., its concentration in the environment and animals has decreased, but because of its persistence, it still poisons.1314 

DDT is absorbed by ingesting, breathing, or touching products contaminated with the chemical. But people are most likely to be exposed to DDT from eating meat, fish, and dairy products. In the body, DDT is converted into several breakdown products called metabolites. One of these includes the metabolite dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE). Both DDT and DDE are bio accumulators, meaning the chemicals accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues. In pregnant women, DDT and DDE can be passed to the fetus and both chemicals are found in breast milk.15

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” -Rachel Carson16

Brown pelican close-up, with ocean water in background.
Brown Pelican, photographed in La Jolla, California. Photo by Y S on Unsplash

Endangered Species

DDT completely infiltrates the environment and food chain. “When it rained, DDT would wash off the soil and into the waterways. There, aquatic plants absorbed it and animals ingested it. Fish ate the plants and animals, and then eagles ate the fish.”17 It works its way up the food chain.

A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest in a tree at Bonita Bay, Florida
A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest at Bonita Bay, Florida, February 16, 2021. Photo by J Dean on Unsplash

DDT in Our Environment Today

DDT doesn’t go away. Past contaminations of waterways still linger, and it still affects many species, including ourselves. There are hundreds of cases related to DDT’s continued effects on humans and wildlife. Following are just a few of them.

Arizona

The sign from Maricopa County, Arizona (see below) is a good example. Fish and aquatic wildlife are dangerous to eat because of DDT contamination. Additionally, residues from the chemical have made their way into the milk people drink. “DDE routinely shows up in trace amounts in Arizona’s milk supply, transferred to cows through hay grown in contaminated soil,” according to a 2005 article in the Phoenix New Times.

In 1958 alone, 500,000 pounds of DDT were applied to farmland in that area to fight the cotton bollworm. By the 1970s, the Gila [River] was the most DDT-contaminated stream in the western United States. In the 1980s, federal wildlife officials found that DDE residues in birds collected in the Goodyear-Avondale area were among the highest in the nation.” The state began posting signs like the one below in the 1990s.

Don't Eat the fish, crayfish, turtles or frogs Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ
“Don’t Eat the Frogs, Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ.” Photo by Warren Lauzon on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Michigan

In St. Louis, Michigan, a Superfund site is still the likely culprit for dying birds. The Velsicol Chemical Corporation, formerly Michigan Chemical, manufactured pesticides until 1963. The EPA took control of the site in 1982 and the plant was demolished in the mid-1990s, but it left behind 3 Superfund sites in the small 3.5-square mile town. “Of most concern is the 54-acre site that once contained Velsicol’s main plant, which backs up to the neighborhood where residents have found dead birds on their lawns.”

Velsicol Chemical is infamous for a major chemical disaster in 1973, involving polybrominated biphenyls, or PBBs, a flame retardant compound it manufactured. The company accidentally mixed PBBs with a cattle feed supplement, poisoning thousands of cattle. This led to widespread contamination in Michigan.

There are still studies to monitor the effects of PBBs in the community. But not DDT, even though people find dead birds all the time. “The birds apparently have been poisoned by eating worms living in contaminated soil near the old chemical plant. No studies have been conducted to see whether the DDT has contaminated any vegetables or fruits grown in yards.” Beginning in 2006, the EPA began cleaning up homeowner’s yards to remove DDT and PBBs. But Velsicol was right on the Pine River, and its sediment was also contaminated with DDT and PBBs. “Traces of a chemical that is a byproduct of DDT manufacturing, pCBSA, have been found in the city’s water system, so new water mains will tap into a nearby town’s water supply.”

Aerial Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.
Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.

DDT Affects Grandchildren

Scientific American published an article in 2021 about the findings of Barbara Cohn, an epidemiologist at Oakland’s Public Health Institute, who studies the long-term effects of DDT. In a past study, she “found that the daughters of mothers exposed to the highest DDT levels while pregnant had elevated rates of breast cancer, hypertension and obesity.” But her newest study focused on the exposed women’s grandchildren and showed that the effects of DDT can persist for at least three generations. “The study linked grandmothers’ higher DDT exposure rates to granddaughters’ higher body mass index (BMI) and earlier first menstruation, both of which can signal future health issues.”23 Given that DDT is a persistent chemical, this makes sense. But humans used it all over the world for decades. How many people had or have long-term illnesses or poor health effects from it?

DDT around the World

Some areas of the world still use DDT today to control mosquitos that transmit the microbe that causes malaria, a disease that kills millions of people. The EPA has been participating in international negotiations to control the use of DDT and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) used around the world since 1996. Through the United Nations Environment Programme many countries negotiated a treaty, known as the Stockholm Convention on POPs, in order to enact global bans and/or restrictions on POPs, including DDT.24

The Convention allows an exemption for the control of the spread of malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) also supports the indoor use of DDT in African countries where malaria remains a major health problem. They believe that the benefits outweigh the health and environmental risks of DDT.25

“While it’s illegal to use DDT in this country, it’s perfectly legal to manufacture and export it. Eventually, it finds its way back to us in foods grown abroad that have been treated with the chemical. So in addition to endangering animals around the world, we’re also poisoning ourselves.” -Jeff Corwin

Knowledge is Key

We have to protect ourselves from these chemicals. But it’s not as simple as staying away from contaminated areas, assuming you even know where they are and have the means to live elsewhere (not everyone does). Knowing the facts about DDT and other persistent chemicals is important. We have to fight for remediation and cleanups while protecting our health, children’s health, wildlife, and our own habitats. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “L.A.’s coast was once a DDT dumping ground: No one could see it – until now,” The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2020.

Article, “Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected,” The Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2021.

Announcement, “Montrose Chemical Corp. Agrees to $77M in Consent Decrees in 31-Year Lawsuit Over DDT Pollution,” The Recorder, Law.com, October 04, 2021.

Press Release, “EPA Reaches $56.6 million Settlement for Groundwater Cleanup at Los Angeles Area Superfund Sites,” Environmental Protection Agency, August 14, 2020.

Parody, “The Desolate Year,” Monsanto Magazine, October 1962, accessed January 3, 2022.

Article, “Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer,” The New York Times, April 15, 1964.

Article, “Signs Warn Shore Anglers of Contaminated Fish,” Patch.com, June 3, 2011.

Footnotes:

What They Learned From Keiko, the Star of Free Willy

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, viewed from underwater.
Keiko at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc. on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

When it was released in 1993, the huge success of the film Free Willy was unexpected. Financially, it earned $77 million ($149 million in today’s dollars) at the domestic box office and spawned sequels. More importantly, it created a movement. Some marine biologists, scientists, and animal rights activists had already been advocating for the end of captivity for cetaceans. But Free Willy brought the notion home to children’s minds.

So, what happened to the orca who starred in the film? Keiko was freed from captivity within marine amusement parks. He spent the last years of his life swimming in the open ocean. I’ve put together a short version of his story in this article. But if you want to learn more, there are books and documentaries detailing his story.

Free Willy movie cover

Keiko’s Capture & Sale

“Free Willy and its fantasy of an orca simply leaping over a breakwater to freedom notwithstanding, returning orcas to the wild is not a simple thing.”1

Keiko was captured as a very young whale off the coast of Iceland in the late 1970s. He was too young to be away from his mother. Sædýrasafnið, an aquarium in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland (closed in 1987), housed him and trained him to perform tricks.2 In 1982, MarineLand Canada purchased Keiko (and Kiska) from Sædýrasafnið.

MarineLand sold him in 1985 for $350,000 to Reino Aventura (now Six Flags México). This park put him in a tank designed for dolphins, so it was small and shallow. When he was at the surface, his flukes touched the bottom of the pool. His mental health suffered as his only company was sometimes a few dolphins, no other orcas. He wore his teeth down by gnawing the concrete around his tank. He was underweight and had little muscle tone from not having space to swim and dive. His physical health continually declined under their care. After all, this was an Icelandic orca living in Mexico City – an extremely different climate. A veterinarian estimated that if Keiko was kept at the Reino Aventura, he would probably die within a few months.3

Black and white newspaper photo of a trainer standing on top of Keiko and Kiska at Marineland in the early 1980s.
A trainer standing on Keiko and Kiska at MarineLand Canada in the early 1980s. Credit: Photos provided by HaH, from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).
Photo of the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura.
This is the small pool at Six Flags Mexico City, formerly Reino Adventura. Keiko could hardly swim in this dolphin pool. Photo by Rodrigo SanSs on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A Film Project

When Warner Brothers and the producers began looking to audition killer whales for Free Willy, they ran into roadblocks. Twenty-one of the 23 orcas in the United States belonged to SeaWorld, and they declined to allow any orcas to be in any films. “No doubt th[e] villainous portrayal of marine-park owners, as well as the storyline depicting the freeing of a captive orca, had a lot to do with why, when the film’s producers first approached officials at parks such as SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, they were turned away.”4 Any marine amusement park that took on Keiko would have had the line of conversation about freeing orcas permanently opened up.

But when the producers found Keiko and Reino Aventura, which was not in great condition, they asked the owners about auditioning Keiko. Reino Aventura’s owners agreed as it was an opportunity to profit from Keiko. But they may have also hoped that this would get him into a living better situation and prevent his likely slow death. But “none of them were quite prepared for the film’s overwhelming success.”5 

The Impact of Free Willy

Numerous articles and TV news stories followed the film’s success, highlighting Keiko’s poor health and living conditions. His tiny pool at Reino Aventura could not even filter out the orca’s daily waste. His skin lesions, caused by papillomavirus, were worsened by the small pool, swimming in his own waste, and from the polluted air of Mexico City.

At the end of the film, the producers had included a message directing those interested in saving the whales to call 1-800-4-WHALES, a number that belonged to the environmental group Earth Island Institute. The overwhelming number of calls from people and the thousands of letters from children surprised everyone. While people cared about whales, many were more interested in saving ‘Willy’ specifically. But no other park or aquarium would take him as a transfer because of fears that his virus would spread to other orcas. But it also could have been bad for public relations.6 

“Warner Brothers called us and said—“Oh my god, we’re getting hundreds of calls and thousands and thousands of mailgrams and telegrams and letters from people saying—‘This whale jumped to freedom at the end of Free Willy, but what about the whale in real life?’” -David Phillips7

The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation

In 1994, David Phillips of the Earth Island Institute, with the support of the movie’s producers, formed the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation.8 The mission was to rehabilitate and release or “free” Keiko.

The owners of Reino Aventura agreed to let Keiko go as long as the expenses of relocating and continued care of him could be met. For this, more than a million people came together. People raised money through bake sales and children collected small donations. UPS flew Keiko free of charge. Warner Brothers and New Regency, perhaps under pressure, donated a million dollars. The Humane Society of the United States donated a million. Last, a private foundation donated another million.9

“While not all captive orcas may be viable release candidates and not all captive orcas may ever be released back into the wild, we owe it to them to try and at the very least, retire them and improve their current captive conditions.” -Corrine Henn10

Relocating An Orca, Twice

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

“Keiko was a trailblazer for the reintroduction of marine mammals.” -Dave Phillips, Director of the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation11

Keiko was rehabilitated at the Oregon Coast Aquarium from 1996–1998. His health greatly improved and he gained over a thousand pounds. The aquarium’s attendance greatly increased. Though he was on the path to release, there was still controversy. There were some who felt he would not survive in the ocean. There was even “a conspiracy theory circulating in the most radical anti-captivity ranks that Sea World might actually be behind the free-Keiko efforts, knowing that they would fail, thus inoculating amusement parks around the world from an upwelling of liberationist sentiment.” Even in Iceland, there were entities against moving Keiko and others that saw no benefit to having Keiko in a pen in there since it would not be for tourism.12 But Icelandic waters were the right area for him to go. The Icelandic government had to be convinced, as did the U.S. Congress, and eventually, they both approved the project.

In 1998, Keiko was relocated to his new sea pen in a bay in Iceland, with the help of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. The costs of moving him, building the sea pen, and caring for him were astronomical. There are some who criticized the project, then and now, simply because of the high financial costs. But this was always the right thing to do for this orca. As writer Susan Orlean wrote:

“If anyone thought that the money being spent on his rehabilitation was an insane extravagance, they didn’t blame it on the whale: it wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico. It wasn’t his fault that he became a ten-thousand-pound symbol of promises kept (or not) and dreams achieved (or not) and integrity maintained (or not) and nature respected (or not). It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to blow a bubble-net and trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they viewed him as a bit of a freak.”13

Freeing Willy

Keiko spent a couple of years learning to hunt fish and communicate with other whales, under the supervision of humans. In 2002, Keiko left his sea pen for the final time and swam to Norway, eventually settling in the Taknes fjord. While he never reconnected with his original pod, he lived for another full year before succumbing to pneumonia in December 2003. But he never completely stopped desiring human contact. His human caretakers were there until the end, as Keiko viewed them as his companions rather than other orcas. Some look back at this experiment and consider it a failure. However, it was a success story in that Keiko swam freely outside of the confines of a concrete tank for the last years of his life. He swam in the ocean for almost 5 years after more than 20 years in captivity.

“In terms of giving Keiko a better life, it was 100 percent successful.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose14

Today, David Phillips, who organized Keiko’s rehabilitation and release, is the Treasurer of the Whale Sanctuary Project. He was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Earth Island Institute, and he also directs the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Here is his reflection on the Keiko project:

“Most people ran for the hills and wanted nothing to do with Keiko. ‘Are you kidding? We’re going to have to try to convince the Mexican government to give us this 8000 pound orca, and then figure out a way to fly him, and build him a whole new facility for rehab, and then we’re going to have to bring him out of there and try to get him into Iceland? You’d have to be out of your mind. Who’s going to pay for all this? It’s never been done before. Maybe he’s going to die—maybe in transit. Why would the Mexicans give him to us, and why would Iceland let him come in?'”

But for Phillips, Keiko was a success story even though there are still doubters. “We didn’t get to hand pick the best candidate for release. We had Keiko. And his rescue was a big intractable problem where we had to accommodate a lot of risk, and there were going to be people who wouldn’t like what we were going to do at every stage along the way. And that’s part of the deal.”15

Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland.
Keiko jumping out of the water in his sea pen in Iceland. Photo by KE Wiley, reposted from Inherently Wild (https://inherentlywild.co.uk/keikos-gallery/).

What They Learned From Keiko

Keiko was the first captive orca to use a sea pen for his successful rescue rehab and release effort. The obvious, most important thing they learned from Keiko was that it could be done. Captive cetaceans can be rescued, rehabilitated, and retired.

Scientists and marine biologists learned a lot from Keiko. The orca was able to regain its health in natural seawater after spending years in chemically treated water. He relearned the skills necessary to feed himself and he learned how to interact with wild orcas in his native waters. As noted by the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP): “Evidence shows that keeping orcas in captivity is inhumane and shortens their lives. During the years in which Keiko was rescued, regained his health and returned to his home waters, seventeen other orcas died in captivity, along with many more captive dolphins and whales. We are proud to have given Keiko the opportunity to live out his life in his home waters.”16 At the time of his death, Keiko was the second longest-lived male orca ever held in captivity. He lived much longer than the average lifespan of male orcas held at SeaWorld.

“Keiko taught us how difficult it is to put one back.” -Charles Vinick, Webinar from The Whale Sanctuary Project17

Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Keiko the orca at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Photo by “Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.,” Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Keiko’s Importance

Some say the money spent on setting Keiko free might have been better invested in conservation programs to protect whales and their habitat. But Keiko likely would’ve died shortly after the releases of the Free Willy movies. So the money was worth saving his life. I also believe that what scientists, marine biologists, and other experts learned from Keiko’s experience helps set us up for a better future.

The Whale Sanctuary Project uses Keiko’s story to explain how captive cetaceans can be retired from marine amusement parks. They also view the orca’s journey as a learning platform. This project is made possible because of Keiko’s legacy.

In 2019, Canada banned the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity and outlawed breeding, trade, possession, and capture of cetaceans. The Canadian media colloquially named it the “Free Willy” bill. While the legislation does not cover cetaceans already in captivity, including Kiska at MarineLand Canada, it is apparent that Keiko’s story extends far beyond the success of Free Willy. Keiko will always be loved, cherished, and remembered. That was his superpower and it is now his legacy.

“The time has come for us to see orcas in captivity as a part of our past – not a tragic part of our future. Let’s end the show now and retire these intelligent, social, complex animals to sea pen sanctuaries.” -Jean-Michel Cousteau18

 

Additional Resources:

Keiko The Untold Story of the Star of Free Willy Film CoverFilm, Keiko: The Untold Story, 2010.

 

 

 

 

Webinar, “Reintroducing Keiko (the “Free Willy” whale) to the Wild,” Whale Sanctuary Project, August 7, 2020.

Webinar, “What Is Keiko the Orca’s Legacy?” Whale Sanctuary Project, December 18, 2020.

Article, “Truth About Killing Keiko: What SeaWorld Doesn’t Want You To Know About Freeing Killer Whales,” International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), April 7, 2015. This article reviews the book, Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons, which scientists argue is biased and not fully factual. The author helped establish Ocean Embassy, a company aimed at catching wild dolphins and selling them to aquariums all over the globe.

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