Free Willy! six years later
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1999:
OSLO, Norway––Responding on
four days’ notice to a Japanese plan to capture
four orcas in Norwegian waters, former
“Flipper” trainer Ric O’Barry recently scored
one of the biggest, quickest victories of his 30-
year crusade against marine mammal captivity.
Yet mass media and even Internet
animal rights forums scarcely noticed.
O’Barry was used to the silence.
Arrested on Earth Day 1970 for tryting to free
two captive dolphins, he campaigned virtually
alone for almost 20 years. Then the 1993 hit
film Free Willy! and sequels made opposition to
marine mammal captivity briefly the fastest
growing and most lucrative branch of the animal
In those days, the abrupt cancellation
of a proposed orca capture might have won
global note. But O’Barry was never a favorite
of the Free Willy! crowd, having pointed out
early in the saga that Keiko, the orca star of the
Free Willy! films, was actually a poor candidate
for successful release because of his
advanced age and many years in captivity.
Keiko has been out of sight in an
Icelandic sea pen since early September 1998.
He has become a much stronger swimmer and
driver, Kristin Gazlay reported on May 7 for
Associated Press, and is soon to be given the
run of a much larger holding area.
“But despite all his months in a natural
environment, Keiko still has not figured out
how to feed himself,” Gazlay wrote.
O’Barry learned from the Norwegian
Federation for Animal Protection on March 9
that representatives of the new Nagoya Public
Aquarium were due in Oslo on March 15 to
meet with a variety of government officials.
The Japanese reportedly hoped to hire notorious
whaling and sealing fleet owner Steinar
Bastensen to capture orcas, for display when
the aquarium opens in 2001.
The Norwegian Federation for
Animal Protection only learned of the Japanese
plan that morning, from the Norwegian newspaper
Nordlys. The plan apparently had strong
support from the Norwegian ministry of trade.
But the ministeries of fisheries, the
environment, and agriculture were said to be
opposed––not least because the capture effort
would attract activist and media attention, raising
the profile of the revived Norwegian whaling
and sealing industries.
That gave the O’Barry and NFAP an
opening. O’Barry arrived to help on March 13,
with his bride of a few months, Danish journalist
Rallying support via the Internet,
O’Barry, Hesselgaar, and NFAP confronted
the Japanese delegation two days later as they
arrived at the Norwegian fisheries ministry
office in Oslo for their first scheduled meeting.
The meeting ended with the plan suspended––though
O’Barry warns that the issue
isn’t over, that the Nagoya Public Aquarium
may now seek orcas from Russian or
Argentinian waters, and still has about 18
months to get them before the aquarium opens.
Apart from Keiko in his sea pen, the
most evident effect of marine mammal freedom
advocacy in the six years since Free Willy!
debuted is that for about five years it siphoned
funding and attention away from other marine
mammal issues––until a TV crew on May 17
shocked the world awake by videotaping eight
Makah men in the act of killing a young gray
whale. (See page 1.)
Overshadowed in the interim were
the annual Japanese escalation of “research”
whaling; the unilateral Norwegian resumption
of undisguised commercial whaling in 1994;
the resumption of the Canadian offshore seal
hunt in 1995; and the process by which the
Makah resumed whaling.
Japan and Norway are now trying to
use the Makah example to rationalize “cultural”
whaling in their own coastal waters––and
they don’t want any activists looking in their
Cumulative attendance at captive
marine mammal displays has only risen. If the
anti-captivity movement had any effect at all
on marine mammal exhibition, it was probably
just to help accelerate a trend already long
underway toward rerouting audience share
from smaller and older facilities to those which
can claim to be state-of-the-art.
Keiko’s departure to Iceland last
September upstaged the permanent closure one
day later of the Depoe Bay Aquarium in Depoe
Bay, Oregon. Owners John and Talley
Woodmark said they couldn’t afford the estimated
$200,000 cost of renovating the 72-
year-old aquarium to meet current legal
requirements and public expectations.
The Woodmarks bought the aquarium
in 1978, but gradually lost most of their
audience to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, 20
miles south, opened in 1984. The Woodmarks
began planning to leave the business in 1995,
after the Oregon Coast Aquarium was selected
as Keiko’s temporary home between his
removal from the substandard El Reino
Aventura aquarium in Mexico City, where the
first Free Willy! film was partly made, and his
exodus to Iceland. Their harbor seal went to
Sea World at Aurora, Ohio; their two sea
lions went to the Indiana Children’s Zoo in
Fort Wayne; and the building itself is being
turned into an art gallery.
Ironically, the seal and sea lions
were temporarily kept at the Oregon Coast
Aquarium, whose staff face lean times themselves
after losing their star attration.
Keiko’s former tank is now being
renovated into a $4.8 million, three-tank series
of recreations of reef, ocean bottom, and open
sea habitats. It is doubtful that they will draw
even half the crowd that Keiko did.
Depoe Bay was only one of at least
three U.S. marine mammal exhibition venues
that closed forever within the past 18 months:
• The 14-year-old Maine Aquarium
in Saco, out of business since mid-1997, was
finally dismantled in January 1998, after relocating
two harbor seals, four penguins, and a
sea turtle, along with fish and invertebrates.
• Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio,
in March 1998 closed its 18-year-old Oceana
Marine Life Stadium, after three dolphins died
there in barely two years, and sent the last surviving
dolphin to the Dolphin Research Center
swim-with facility in Florida.
• Knott’s Berry Farm in May 1998
announced that it would discontinue dolphin
and sea lion exhibits after the 1998 tourist season.
Marineland of Florida declared
bankruptcy in April 1998 with debts of $9.7
million, and almost went under after closing
to visitors in November 1998. It reopened on
March 27, 1999, however, after reaching
agreement with the USDA on a schedule for
Built in 1937 as an underwater film
studio, and opened to the public in 1940,
Marineland is generally considered the first
modern oceanarium. Older facilities, such as
the former Depoe Bay Aquarium, built in
1926, exhibited animals in tanks, but lacked
the performance venues characterizing
Marineland and successors.
The Pittsburgh Zoo closed its sometimes
controversial Aqua Zoo in September
1998, but is building a $12.5 million replacement,
scheduled to open in April 2000.
New and improved
Offsetting the closures, all of small
and old facilities, are a host of improvements
and expansions at big and new facilities:
• Marine World Africa USA, in
Vallejo, California, enjoyed a 65% rise in
attendance in 1998, after losing money for
five years in a row and changing ownership.
The new owners, Premier Parks Inc., operators
of the Six Flags amusement park chain,
retitled the facility Six Flags Marine World
and put $40 million into new rides and site
improvements. A 10-story roller coaster
debuted in March 1999. The spending didn’t
particularly benefit the resident orcas, dolphins,
walruses, and sea lions, but Premier
Parks has denied that the addition of more nonanimal
attractions herald a shift away from
• The John Shedd Aquarium in
Chicago on May 15 opened Caribbean Reef, a
new exhibit that replaces a 27-year-old artificial
reef. A $16.5 million Amazon exhibit and
a $37.2 million Philippine coral reef exhibit
are to open in 2000 and 2002, respectively.
Built in 1930 and repeatedly expanded, Shedd
was target of intensive protest, 1991-1994,
after capturing beluga whales and Pacific
whitesided dolphins from the wild to stock the
marine mammal pavillion that was opened in
1992, but has not been targeted in recent
years. The Shedd was the only U.S. institution
to capture cetaceans other than stranding cases
from the wild during the 1990s.
• The Monterey Bay Aquarium
opened a unique $5 million deep-sea exhibit in
November 1998. The Monterey Bay
Aquarium has never exhibited cetaceans, but
California sea otters rescued from various distress
situations remain the most popular animals
• The 10-year-old Texas State
Aquarium in Corpus Christi is undergoing an
$11.5 million expansion to add a dolphin
exhibit. Local dolphin tour boat operator Erv
Strong has tried to build protest against the
expansion, without notable success.
• Colorado’s Ocean Journey, costing
$93 million to build, is to open to the public
on June 21. Among the menagerie will be
two California sea otters, three river otters,
and two swimming Indonesian tigers, but no
dolphins, in keeping with a 1993 promise to
Robin Duxbury of Animal Rights
Mobilization, whose “No dolphins in Denver”
campaign was one of the few clear victories of
the marine mammal freedom movement.
• The Indianapolis Zoo in March
1999 announced a proposed $20 million
expansion of its present Dolphin Pavillion and
World of Waters into a new facility, to be
called the Indiana State Aquarium. The old
facilities were subject of numerous complaints
and several public protests by the Animal and
Environmental Defense Association between
1989 and 1994, especially following the 1992
death of a pseudorca named Tsuki, about a
year after her import from Japan. Tsuki was
reportedly captured during a “drive fishery,”
in which most of her family were killed. The
confrontations ceased in 1994, after AEDA
blocked an attempt by the zoo to import four
more pseudorcas from Japan.
• The Vancouver Aquarium in
October 1998 announced a $10 million expansion
of facilities for fish and educational activity,
but has not been able to overcome opposition
orchestrated by the Coalition for No
Whales in Captivity, Period and Lifeforce to
expanding tanks occupied by beluga whales
and an orca, who shares her space with a
Pacific whitesided dolphin. The anti-captivity
organizations argue that if the aquarium is
allowed to give the whales more space, it may
also acquire more whales. The aquarium––the
first ever to exhibit an orca––had two orcas
until last year, when the male died. The
white-sided dolphin, their longtime companion,
came to Vancouver with a reputation for
pugnaciousness after clashing violently with
dolphins at other facilities.
• The often embattled 43-year-old
Miami Seaquarium, actually located at Key
Biscayne, was at last report still seeking ways
and means of undertaking a $70 million expansion
despite community opposition and courtroom
defeats of attempts to overturn decisions
of the Key Biscayne village council. The fight
has gone on for nine years. Local activists
remain hopeful that the Seaquarium will eventually
be forced to close, and that the aging
resident orca, Lolita, will be returned to her
home waters in Puget Sound, where she was
captured in 1973.
Meanwhile, on April 28, 1999, the
Seaquarium began fundraising to build a new
manatee hospital and rehabilitation
facility––not sounding much like an institution
that anticipates folding soon.
Dolphins or manatees
Just being new is no guarantee of
success. Opened in 1996, Underwater World
at the Mall of America in Minneapolis flopped
so severely that it spent most of 1998 enduring
bankruptcy. The Camden Aquarium, in New
Jersey, has struggled since opening in 1992,
and the Florida State Aquarium in Tampa has
lost money since opening in 1995.
Industry observers ascribe all three
failures, in part, to the absence of charismatic
marine mammals. Camden attendence has
picked up in recent years, however, after the
addition of penguins and exotic fish to the
original focus on species native to New Jersey.
Adding marine mammals would be a
bigger draw, but acquiring them is increasingly
expensive. Bottlenose dolphins are plentifully
available from captive sources, but
building facilities that the public will accept as
adequate tends to take more land, incur more
debt, and create more public relations liabilities
than many aquarium directors care to risk.
Yet matters pertaining to parking and noise, as
at Key Biscayne, seem to raise more enduring
opposition than marine mammal captivity.
In addition, opposition to captivity
is easily avoided if the animals acquired are
manatees. Like bottlenose dolphins, captive
manatees are readily available. Unlike dolphins,
manatees don’t perform, or even interact
much with viewers. But they don’t seem to
mind intensive close-up viewing, they don’t
need as much space as dolphins, and most of
those in captivity have scars from power boat
propellers that clearly show why they cannot
be released––whereas even a captive-bred dolphin
who has never known the open seas tends
to evoke concerns about captivity with displays
of speed and leaping ability.
A year-old manatee exhibit is among
the more popular attractions at Sea World San
Diego; the Cincinnati Zoo opened a manatee
exhibit on May 22, and the Columbus Zoo
plans to open a manatee exhibit on June 21.
As Lolita is among the longest surviving
of all captive orcas, and may not be
replaced, the increasing emphasis on manatees
at the Miami Seaquarium, which has long had
some, may reflect a growing feeling even
among the executives of facilities traditionally
focusing on cetaceans that manatees are the
captive marine mammal of the future.
The most recently announced new
facility which is to keep cetaceans is a proposed
$5 million marine mammal hospital and
rehabilitation unit, to be added to the Harbor
Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort
Pierce, Florida. Harbor Branch began
fundraising for the project in April 1999, after
housing recovering stranding victims for about
a year in a temporary holding pool.
Harbor Branch got into keeping
marine mammals on behalf of the Marine
Mammal Stranding Network in 1998, after
Sea World at Orlando withdrew from a similar
housing arrangement to protect its own animals
from marine morbilivirus, a deadly disease
related to German measles and canine distemper.
Morbilivirus had been discovered in
some wild dolphins off the Florida coast.
Neither the existing Harbor Branch
facility nor the proposed hospital and rehabilitation
unit are intended to become exhibition
venues, but inevitably wildlife rehabilitation
centers acquire some animals who cannot be
returned to the wild. Usually these animals are
eventually exhibited to help raise funds in support
of the treatment programs.
Among the remaining older captive
marine mammal facilities in North America,
Marineland of Niagara Falls, Ontario, may
have drawn more protest than any other in
recent years. Not associated with Marineland
of Florida, Marineland of Niagara Falls is a
longtime reputed conduit for marine mammals
coming to U.S. institutions from abroad. It
also breeds marine mammals for sale to other
aquariums. Owner John Holer has mostly successfully
resisted activist pressure, but lost a
round in August 1998 when the threat of a
lawsuit from the Animal Alliance of Canada,
the Bear Alliance, and Zoocheck Canada
forced Marineland of Niagara Falls to relinquish
two orphaned bear cubs, who were to be
returned to the wild after rehabilitation by the
Ontario Natural Resources Ministry.
The marine mammal freedom movement may be strongest in Europe, though the appeal of marine mammals seems undiminshed: a three-week-old sea otter named Rosa was easily the top draw when the $70 million Oceanario de Lisboa aquarium opened in May 1998. The last British cetacean exhibition
venues closed some years ago. Relatively few marine mammal exhibition sites persist on the European continent, and many of those with dolphins are among the older, smaller variety that are easily targeted for protest.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America, by contrast, marine mammals often appear in traveling circuses. O’Barry has recently joined protests against such shows in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Peru, and Venezuela, as well as in Turkey. The traveling shows often originate from Russia or former Iron Curtain nations, typically featuring animals originally trained for use by the Soviet military.
Opposition to marine mammal exhibitions led by Maneka Gandhi, minister of state for social welfare and empowerment, has kept dolphin shows out of India. But her opposition rose independently from the Free Willy! hoopla. Maneka has often stated that she favors zoos and aquariums if they do not take animals from the wild and can at least match the animal care standards and educational quality of the best zoos and aquariums she has visited in the U.S.––and she has made plain that no facility now existing in India in her view even comes close.
One new Indian location, Dolphin City in Chennai, did import and exhibit three dolphins from Bulgaria during September and October 1998. They all died within less than a month, possibly due to transport shock.
The Asian economic crisis of the past two years has slowed the development of dolphinariums in several nations, but China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam all reportedly still have one or more major marine mammal exhibition sites either under construction or in planning.
“Asian development spells bad news for wildlife,” Earth Island Institute marine mammal program associate Mark Berman declared in the Spring 1999 edition of the American SPCA magazine Animal Watch.
Yet before American and Canadians met Flipper and other live marine mammals at captive sites in North America, only a few dissident marine scientists opposed whaling and sealing; there was no public opposition to netting tuna “on dolphin”; and there was very little opposition of any sort to bombing and strafing orcas and belugas––a common U.S. and Canadian military practice until the 1970s, as the whales were generally believed to be competing with humans to catch fish.
Wild marine mammals, from clawed otters to great whales, are in desperate trouble, especially in southeast Asian waters. It may be that worse news than captivity for their species would be that charismatic representatives are never introduced to the public.
Quality exhibition venues, where the animals are well looked after, would be far preferable to sites like the one in Qingdao, China, where fireworks set off to mark the Chinese New Year on March 28 reportedly made nervous wrecks of four sea lions.
Yet it is noteworthy that the government-run Xinhua news service cited the trauma to the sea lions first in warning citizens that “Several major Chinese cities have banned firecrackers, which have caused numerous deaths, injuries, and fires.”
The sea lions also rated four paragraphs more prominence than the single-sentence mention that “Beijing authorities have continued to ban firecrackers from the capital.”
What that means, in official Chinese media parlance, is that authorities trying to curb a public hazard think citizens will respond more positively on behalf of four formerly unfamiliar but now popular
exotic animals, than just to a government order––which is, nonetheless, held in reserve.
Not long ago, government orders came first. Animals didn’t rate attention at all.