Jean-Michel Cousteau up close with Keiko of “Free Willy” fame at the bay pen that was constructed for Keiko in Iceland, where he continued to be rehabilitated for release into the wild.
Ocean Futures Society

Jean-Michel Cousteau of Santa Barbara’s Ocean Futures Society sat down with The Independent on Friday to discuss this week’s death of Florida SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. Cousteau spoke about his extensive experience working with wild and captive orcas, and explained why freeing “jailed” marine mammals is not as easy as it may sound.

How did you feel when you heard that a trainer had been killed by an orca? What was your initial reaction?

Trainers spend an enormous amount of time with their whales, and I have a lot of respect for them. First of all, it’s a job, but they love what they do. They love those animals. It’s tragic that we get a wake-up call when someone gets killed. I’m shivering even as I say that, because I know some of those people very well. It’s so unfair — that’s why I’m so devastated for this lady. It’s not fair. She loved them, and it’s not like she was some nasty aggressive person.

What is your perception of what happened at SeaWorld? What, in your opinion, caused the incident?

When you take a wild cetacean (a whale or dolphin) and put it in a tank, its acoustic system is suddenly screwed up. Its sonar reverberates off of the concrete in its tank and, little by little, the animal becomes totally silenced. It’s like a person being blindfolded in a jail cell. The orcas are not used to borders or barriers, and that probably makes them very uncomfortable. Some of them don’t accept captivity and die, but others do and live like they are in prison.

Let’s pretend you’re a prisoner and a guy brings food every day to your cell. Pretend he is a very nice guy who talks to you, is gentle, and so on. One day, though, when you’ve had it, you’re going to punch him because there is no one else to punch. We as humans can’t totally control ourselves — sometimes we just lose it. It’s the same with orcas. We have to respect the fact that they have personalities and emotions. Who knows, maybe that whale is very sorry.

Jean-Michel Cousteau at the Ocean Futures offices in Santa Barbara
Paul Wellman (file)

Just like us again, the orcas have their good days and their bad days. This horrible accident that took place, which is not the first one (there have been three deaths related to this whale and I think 26 accidents worldwide), is an indication that they have individual characteristics.

But I don’t think that they intentionally kill or hurt people. They don’t realize that we’re not very good at holding our breath for more than 1-2 minutes. A lot of the people who have been killed were drowned because the animals were possibly trying to play with them. The orcas don’t chew on them or eat them. They don’t feed on humans; we probably don’t taste very good.

What do you think should be done with the orca?

I don’t think it can be released. It’s been in captivity for too long. However, if someone wants to come forward with $50 million to properly rehabilitate and release it, fine.

I can’t say we need to kill it. You can’t do that — I won’t do that. So they’re going to have to be very, very careful with it. Obviously it has a temper, just like some people do. He had been with [his trainer] many, many times, and what exactly happened, I don’t know. I don’t think it was nastiness, though. I really don’t believe that.

I know you have a lot of experience working with orcas. What is your impression of the species?

I have had the privilege — and I mean privilege — of working with orcas for many, many years. To me, they are to the ocean what we are to the land. They’re the most sophisticated creature on the planet next to humans. Nothing eats them, and they can team up, kill, and eat anything on the planet. They have a very complex social life — or society, if you prefer — and live in “pods” that have different dialects. Sometimes the pods join forces to hunt, and sometimes they join forces to play.

When looking at the disbursement of their locations, you can see that some pods are “resident” and some are “transient.” Some travel great distances; we’ve seen the same orcas in Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Antarctica as water temperature is not that big of a deal for them. In fact, they are scattered all over the globe.

What they feed upon is also very interesting because some of them focus on fish while others prefer marine mammals. They are not unlike us — they have their choice food. For example, there is what we’d call an “open ocean pod” that comes to California waters when gray whales are migrating north with their babies. When the whales pass Monterey Bay, they have two choices: They can go straight across the bay for a shortcut, or they go all the way around the bay.

The difference is that if they work their way around the bay, they are somewhat protected and they can hide in the kelp. If they take the shortcut, however, and the orcas are out there waiting, the orcas will separate the gray whale mother from its calf and eat the calf. But they will only eat their favorite parts including the fat (the blubber) and the tongue, which is very fatty also. Sometimes when they are well-fed, orcas can be extremely wasteful, just like us.

When the adult orcas, which are 20-25 feet long, decide to kill a whale, which can be 60 feet long, they team up. Because they are a matriarchal society, the females make the decisions of how and where to attack first, then the males follow.

But switching from one type of food to anther is not that easy for them. For example, in the Pacific Northwest orcas have been having a hard time because the salmon they normally feed on is disappearing. Since the pods there are resident populations, they don’t tend to travel to other locations. So in order to find the food they’re used to, they travel all the way down here to California, but eventually go back. It’s so similar to how our society functions. You may travel, but you like to go back home. But, like some free-spirited people, some orcas don’t mind constantly traveling.

(By the way, we call them killer whales, but they are dolphins. They’re the biggest of the dolphins. The reason they’re called killer whales is because they kill whales. Most people don’t realize that.)

What is your most memorable experience of observing or interacting with orcas?

During the filming of “Call of the Killer Whale,” Jean-Michel Cousteau and the Ocean Futures Society team assisted in the successful rescue in New Zealand of a stranded orca, which they named Rakey. It has been shown that orca who strand and are quickly treated and released can survive in the wild and even thrive.
Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED

My general experience with orcas, both in the wild and in captivity, has been the most diverse experience I can report on. I don’t know a lot of other people who have had that honor. In October 1988, we were going to do a film in Papua New Guinea on blind fish that lived in a cave. In the entrance of the cave, before we started filming, we encountered a male and a female orca.

We spent 10 hours with them. Or, to be correct, they spent 10 hours with us because they could have left anytime they wanted. They did a show for us: They would go and catch a live shark, bring it to us, release the shark and catch it again in front of us. Eventually, they would take each end of the shark and destroy it. Then, very carefully, they’d take the liver, eat it, and abandoned the rest of the carcass. They would do it again and again and again. They were showing off and eating their choice food.

We eventually became so exhausted that we had to return to the ship. We started drinking champagne and celebrating because it was such an amazing experience.

I know you and the Oceans Future Society had a hand in the rehabilitation and release of Keiko from Free Willy. Tell me about that.

Keiko was captured when he was less than two years old. He was sold to Canada, then to Mexico, and lived at a marine park in Mexico City for 20 years. He breathed the most polluted air on the planet, lived in artificial salt water, and was fed frozen fish. He was alone most of the time and never saw another orca. He was also underweight and had major skin disease.

Hollywood was able to film there because all other public marine parks (SeaWorld and company) wouldn’t support a movie that depicted a captive whale being released into the wild. Immediately after filming finished, because they knew the orca was having problems, they donated it. Fortunately, Craig McCaw was convinced by his ex-wife to do something. So he invested a lot of his money — and all the money that was put into Keiko was private money, none of it was public — to help build a major tank in Oregon for Keiko.

After rehabilitating Keiko — by ridding him of his skin disease and teaching him how to catch live fish — the scientists and trainers decided that he was ready to be moved back to Iceland, where he was originally captured. Private money, still, paid for the transport of Keiko in a U.S. Air Force airplane, which cost $375,000. The plane was refueled twice in the air so we wouldn’t waste time. He was in a freshwater tank the whole time — because the Air Force didn’t want salt on board their plane, which I totally understand — and he was eventually transported by barge to a protective cove.

He was monitored for a year in that spot to make sure that he was recovering and that his immune system would be able to handle all the “stuff” in the environment. When they felt comfortable, they allowed him to swim into a bay (that was blocked by a net at the end), which was a big discovery process for him. It was the first time he saw the ocean floor. He would stare at crabs moving; he was like a kid. By then he was catching large fish because he knew that was food.

When the trainers and scientists thought he was ready, they starting taking him on “ocean walks.” They would lead Keiko into open water by a boat he was accustomed to so he could meet other orcas. (Remember, he hadn’t seen another orca for 20 years.) For him, it was scary; sometimes he would hide behind the boat or he would want to go back to his protected area. This went on for two years.

Jean-Michel Cousteau

Eventually Keiko became comfortable swimming with certain orcas, but we were never able to confirm that he was reunited with his original pod. We could never make that a reality. We had a team of scientists from Cape Cod take blood samples from the orcas in order to trace the lineage, but none of them ever matched up with Keiko’s DNA.

I was there on July 7, 2003, and that morning the scientists had changed the battery on Keiko’s satellite tracking device. At 5 p.m., we could see him from our boat with other orcas, but there and then he decided to take off. It took four and a half years to get to that point. We could track him every day and we saw that he went all the way to Norway.

Our mission was accomplished, and we passed Keiko on to the Humane Society. We were done. We had proven Keiko was free and could live free. But, the reality was that he was still very attached to humans, and whenever he had the opportunity he would pick humans [to interact with] over other orcas. When he was in Norway he loved to be with kids and other people; he never integrated into a pod. Whether it was because he was never reunited with his family, we don’t know. But he was free — that was the objective.

What about the other orcas in captivity. Is it unrealistic to think that one day they might be released back into the wild as Keiko was?

It is financial nonsense. You have to be extremely lucky to be able to properly rehabilitate these animals before you release them after they’ve been in jail for 10, 20, or 30 years. I don’t think they’d be able to make it [if you released them] unless you have those kinds of resources, which is very rare and complicated. We know how difficult and expensive it is and how painful it is on both sides. Could we say that we totally succeeded [with Keiko]? No. Had Keiko disappeared with a pod or his family and we could film him today and say Keiko is doing very well, then yes. But I can’t say that.

What is your stance on capturing cetaceans in the first place for display in marine centers like SeaWorld?

My point is that we’ve learned enough with captive animals today that we need to leave them in their environment and stop capturing them and putting them in jail. For what? For our pleasure and profit. It’s all about making money. [Marine entertainment centers] are in the business to make money; let’s not argue about that. Is it educational? No.

I know there are excuses: The businesses explain the importance of the supposed education and research they’re performing. I’m not going to argue with them — I just disagree. I don’t think it’s fair to pretend that someone who doesn’t know anything about cetaceans and goes to a circus — because it is a circus — is learning something. I don’t think it’s fair to us. I don’t think it’s fair to people.

If they want to make money, there’s a lot of money that can be made if they focused on taking people whale watching. If it’s properly done, like it is here in Santa Barbara, I have nothing against that. I think that’s a lot more educational and is where that industry needs to focus.

We’re not being emotional here. We’re being real. Our concern is about us: What are we passing on to the young people? What are we telling them? Are we deforming reality? Is that fair? In the end, it’s an issue of us.


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