Keiko Experts Offer Help to Free Russian Orcas and Beluga Whales

February 6, 2019

Keiko Experts Offer Help to Free Russian Orcas and Beluga Whales

By Charles Vinick

The following letter was sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, offering the expertise of several leaders of the Keiko/Free Willy Project that successfully returned the orca Keiko to his home waters in Iceland. There are currently 11 wild orcas and 87 wild beluga whales that were caught last summer for sale to China languishing in sea pens in the east coast Srednyaya Bay. The Russian government determined the permits to catch the orcas and belugas were issued illegally and barred their sale to China. The government has also announced that no permits will be issued in 2019 for more catches. We are hopeful the Russian government will work to release the orcas and belugas back to the ocean where they belong, but the task of doing so is daunting.

January 31, 2019

President Vladimir Putin January 31, 2019
Russian Federation
23, Ulitsa Ilyinka,
103132, Moscow, Russia

Russian Federation Embassy
2650 Wisconsin Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20007

Dear President Putin:

We want to thank you and the Russian government for blocking the export and sale of live orcas (killer whales) and beluga whales caught last summer in the Sea of Okhotsk.

We have extensive expertise from studying whales in the wild and in captivity, including having spearheaded the successful return of Keiko, an orca featured in the Hollywood movie “Free Willy”, to his home waters in Iceland in the 1990s. We believe, based on our expert review of the science, that orcas and beluga whales simply cannot be kept healthy in captivity, even under the best of circumstances.

During that process, we worked closely with the governments of the United States, Mexico, Iceland and Norway in our care for Keiko.

Having conducted the successful return of a captive orca to his home waters, we would like to offer the Russian government and the Russian scientific community our expertise and help in restoring the current captive orcas and beluga whales, now being held in series of sea pens in Srednyaya Bay, near the east coast city of Nakhodka, to their home pods.

We of course defer to the Russian government and scientific community in heading up a rescue operation for these cetaceans. We are not seeking to replace your expertise, but rather to augment it with our real world “hands on” experience with Keiko and other cetaceans.

We also wanted to lay to rest some claims we have seen that America somehow will benefit from your policy to block captures of wild orcas and beluga whales: The United States currently bans any wild captures or export of orcas and beluga whales under the provisions of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. In fact, such captures in US waters ended more than a decade ago, and there are no plans to revive such captures.

Rest assured that if someone asked for permits to capture wild cetaceans in US waters for captivity, our organizations would vigorously oppose such captures. Again, these cetaceans do very poorly in captivity, and we strongly oppose any efforts anywhere to put them into captivity.

In closing, let us emphasize our concerns:

We appreciate the Russian government’s denial of new permits to capture orcas and belugas from the wild in 2019, and encourage your government to permanently end such captures.

We further encourage the Russian government to lead in returning the current captives (11 orcas and 87 beluga whales) to their home waters and family pods. We are pleased to offer our expertise to this effort in any way that can be useful to the Russian government and scientific community.

Thank you again for your efforts and feel free to contact us at any time.


Jean-Michel Cousteau
Chairman & President
Ocean Futures Society

David Phillips
Executive Director
Earth Island Institute

Charles Vinick
Member of the Board
Ocean Futures Society

Roger Payne, PhD
Ocean Alliance

Contact: Charles Vinick, Ocean Futures Society, 513 De La Vina St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101
David Phillips, Earth Island Institute, The Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Suite 460, Berkeley, CA 94704