International Marine Mammal Project, IMMP, Keiko, Mark Palmer

The Truth About Free Willy, Whales and Dolphins

In 2002 the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) made waves when they rescued Keiko, the orca, seen in the movie Free Willy. This month Parvati Magazine spoke with Mark Palmer, Associate Director of IMMP, about their accomplishments and how to make a difference in marine protection.

Parvati Magazine: Tell us about International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP).

Mark Palmer: IMMP is one of the oldest projects under the banner of Earth Island Institute (EII). It works to protect whales and dolphins around the world and their ocean habitats. IMMP actively opposes whaling, supports restrictions on fishing to protect marine mammals, and opposes captivity for whales and dolphins. IMMP [also] established the Dolphin Safe label for canned tuna in 1990, which saves the lives of 80,000 to 100,000 dolphins annually.

PMAG: When you rescued and released Keiko the orca whale from “Free Willy”, how did everyone at IMMP feel?

MP: I think all of us felt very good about the entire process as it went forward, with hitches— but nothing that could not be fixed. His death, of course, was a sad shock to us. Likely, his years in captivity lowered his immunity enough that he caught pneumonia and died very quickly, despite administration of antibiotics. Keiko was one of the sickest whales in captivity when we got him — we rehabilitated him to be able to swim across the Atlantic Ocean by himself from Iceland to Norway! It was a great achievement.

PMAG: What do you feel are some of the best ways to advocate for marine mammals and ocean health? What do people respond well to?

MP: One of the strengths of IMMP is that we have a lot of experience in lobbying, legal action, and in using media and social media to address our aims. We recently produced our own short video “The Lives of Dolphins” to show how captivity harms both dolphins and whales, not just orcas. We hope it will help educate the public to consider their support of aquariums like SeaWorld.

PMAG: You are campaigning to stop the trade of dolphins and whales in circus performances. Businesses that host these performances are often geared toward a younger audience. How do you educate younger audiences to understand why it’s not great to see a dolphin doing tricks?

MP: It is not easy, as the excitement and razzle-dazzle of these circus tricks certainly encourage young people to want to become dolphin trainers themselves. But many young people can connect with the size and sterility of the orca and dolphin tanks, and wonder why so big an animal is in such a small area with so little of interest. Captive dolphins have been removed from their families and their homes to live forever in small tanks with strangers, doing tricks for dead fish — not because they want to, but because they are hungry — and children understand all that and why it is wrong. Our task is to figure out ways to get to these children with the truth about captivity. Social media and the documentaries help, but more needs to be done.

PMAG: What are you seeing today in ocean conservation and species protection that has improved over the last 30 years?

MP: There has been a lot more concern in the US for the health of the oceans and the protection of endangered species. Environmentalists need to do a better job of supporting candidates and getting out the vote. The commercial fishing industry, by and large, understands there are serious problems in overfishing and so often we can work with that industry to fix problems, as we have done successfully with the tuna/dolphin issue. Still, the threats to wildlife seem overwhelming at times. We did not have to face the problems of global warming, the myriad toxic pollutants, plastics, and other threats to the world’s oceans that are now consuming us. But I think we are making progress in many areas.

Mark Palmer

Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, focusing on protecting whales and dolphins, with emphasis on strategic planning, legislative advocacy, legal research, grassroots organizing, and media relations.