Please Help Us Save the Russian Whales

April 4, 2019

Please Help Us Save the Russian Whales


I’m onsite in Russia right now with the unprecedented opportunity of helping save 10 orcas and 87 belugas that were illegally captured for sale to China.  I’m participating in a Press Conference in Vladivostok, Russia as I’ve received a formal invitation to visit and work with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, as well as Russian scientists to assess the condition of these whales.

There are many animals in the sea that captivate me, but none more than the magnificent and stunning cetaceans, marine mammals, the whales and dolphins of our oceans. No matter how many times I come across their grace and play in the water, I find myself filled with a sense of awe and majesty for our counterparts in the sea.

Whales and dolphins have fascinated me throughout 80 my years on this blue planet. 

One of my first vivid memories came as a child when my father, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and his team caught a group of dolphins from the Mediterranean Sea. The team wanted to study these animals and learn more about their remarkable abilities so well adapted to life underwater. From the beginning, my young mind deeply questioned the purpose of such captures. How could it be okay to take dolphins that thrived in the ocean and make them prisoners in a tiny pool, separated from their families?

There was one dolphin in particular I will never forget. Every morning before school, I would walk to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco where the dolphins were held. This one young female dolphin seemed exceptionally sad, she was not eating nor interacting with others, and was separated from the larger group for further investigation. Day after day, I’d come to her small pool and plead with my father to release her and the other dolphins. One morning, I came to greet my friend as usual, and found instead that she had died: she had rammed her head against the side of the tank, presumably taking her own life out of the agony she felt being separated from her family in the sea. This moment forever changed my perception about these intelligent, sentient beings with whom we share our planet.

Almost seventy years have passed since that first encounter with the young dolphin in Monaco. While many things have changed in the world, there are still many things that have not. Today there are still cetaceans being held in swimming pools and being forced to do circus tricks as entertainment for people and profit for amusements parks.


Wild Orca off the coast of New Zealand. © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

We have reached a point in our human evolution where people are realizing that cetaceans, including orcas and dolphins, are far too intelligent, sophisticated, and socially and behaviorally complex to be kept in concrete prisons. IIn captivity, they suffer from mental distress, physical illness and shorter lifespans than they would live in their natural ocean homes. Sound is their primary sense used for communication, socialization, and hunting. When confined in concrete tanks, orcas cannot fully utilize this highly evolved sense to understand the world around them.

TODAY we are at a new crossroads.  I have been invited to be part of the team of whale experts brought together by The Whale Sanctuary Project, a nonprofit organization for which I am a Special Advisor, to visit Srednyaya Bay on Russia’s Far East coast. Our mission there will be to assess the condition of the 10 orcas and 87 beluga whales who are being held in sea pens and to advise the government on their health and how they can be returned to the open ocean.

The whales were captured illegally last year by a consortium of four companies whose apparent intention was to sell them to marine entertainment parks in China.  They have been languishing in icy water throughout the bitterly cold Russian winter, and there are conflicting reports on their condition. When a recent inspection concluded that “there is no threat” to the health of the whales, the national newspaper Izvestia noted that these conclusions “raise questions among some scientists, [who] do not trust the organization conducting the survey.”


Jean-Michel Cousteau with Keiko during his rehabilitation and reintroduction to his home waters in Iceland. © Tom Ordway, Ocean Futures Society

Together with The Whale Sanctuary Project team led by my long-time colleague Executive Director Charles Vinick, who in the late 1990s through 2002 managed the reintroduction of the orca Keiko to his home waters off the coast of Iceland as Vice President of Ocean Futures Society. It has been the privilege of a lifetime for me and Ocean Futures Society to have been invited to be involved with reintroducing Keiko to the wild. We were part of the crew that watched him daily, fed him, agonized over creating protocols that encouraged him to be a normal, wild whale again, and debated the ethics of what we were trying to do. All this effort led to clear goals: restoring Keiko to health, providing him to live in freedom, and we all learned together on the journey of a lifetime.

Other Project team members include Jeff Foster and Ingrid Visser, whom I have had the pleasure to work with previously and who are among the leading experts in whale and dolphin rehabilitation and release. The team is also working with Russian veterinarian Tatyana Denisenk, a professor at the Moscow-based Academy of Veterinary Medicine and Biotechnology.

The Russian press is now reporting that an investigation has been launched into the illegal capture and abuse of “aquatic animals.” Russian law allows for whales to be held for scientific and educational purposes, but the whales in Srednyaya Bay were clearly destined for neighboring China, where there are already at least 76 dolphinariums and Theme parks, and at least 25 more planned for construction over the next few years. Approximately 954 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), of at least 12 species, are currently on display in China. Most of them were captured from the wild and imported, primarily from Japan and Russia.


Russian President Vladimir Putin has tasked the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture with determining the future of the whales.

PLEASE LET’S KEEP IN TOUCH as our expedition is in one of the most remote parts of Russia. My team at our global office at home in Santa Barbara will be keeping you updated in real-time as much as possible.  I will be reporting on a daily basis so please continue to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or sign up to receive our newsletters.

Thank you for your interest in this project to help these captured orcas and belugas.  Let’s all work together to help reduce their suffering and to help find a way to return them to their families.

WE NEED YOUR HELP NOW.  PLEASE DONATE TO SAVE THESE WHALES.  This mission is happening now with enormous efforts to spread awareness of all the captive cetaceans & marine mammals. Please see and follow The Whale Sanctuary Project.

“Protect the Ocean and You Protect Yourself”

Ocean of Thanks for your continued support,


Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society

The Whale Sanctuary Project is supporting this mission and has created a special fundraising campaign to meet the costs of this initial visit. Your tax-deductible donations to this fund are greatly appreciated. Please click here.

You can also make donations to Ocean Futures Society to support this mission and our ongoing efforts in spreading awareness about marine mammals in captivity. Please click here.

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