International Marine Mammal Project

The 1993 hit movie Free Willy and its two sequels raised international concerns about the cruel practice of keeping marine mammals captive for human entertainment. As a result, the number of amusement parks and aquariums with captive orcas has declined everywhere in the world – except in Asia and South America. In 1998, the Nagoya Port Aquarium (a tourist attraction run by the city of Nagoya, Japan) announced its plan to acquire a captive orca from another Japanese aquarium to place in its new multimillion-dollar tank.

Hoping to change Nagoya’s plans, Nanami Kurasawa of the Ikura and Kujira Dolphin and Whale Action Network decided to educate the public about marine mammal captivity. Kurasawa organized a symposium on the captivity issue and invited world-famous orca expert Paul Spong and myself to present the argument for allowing these animals to remain in the wild.

While Paul focused on showing how orcas live in the wild, I related the details of the campaign to free Keiko, the orca star of the first Free Willy movie. Having been rescued from an exhibition tank in Mexico City, Keiko has been successfully returned to the cold waters of his native Iceland.

Taking a hint from Hollywood, I suggested that animatronic whales might provide an alternative to the display of live captive orcas. Three animatronic orcas (built by Edge Innovations of Mountain View, California) were used exclusively in the filming of both Free Willy sequels. If this technology could be used to duplicate the appearance and behaviors of real whales in exhibition tanks, this could open the gate for returning all captive orcas to the oceans.

Nanami found the use of robotics and animatronics very interesting and coined the phrase “Robo-Willy.” Although the Nagoya Aquarium officials never acknowledged the value of the Robo-Willy concept, Nagoya City Councilmember Saito Makoto has worked diligently to stop the orca captivity at Nagoya and expressed interest in the new high-tech concept of using robotics.

In January, a news story surfaced in the Jackson, Michigan Citizen Patriot announcing that a robotic orca was under construction by two local firms, The Machine Shop and Mannetron, Inc. The client was reported to be the Nagoya Aquarium. The story was a complete surprise to all of us who had been lobbying for just this type of alternative to holding captive live orca.

When Nanami received this information, she was ecstatic. On March 10, the aquarium officially announced that it planned to build and display a “Robo-Orca.” Because the aquarium still insists on displaying at least one captive orca, we will continue to pressure the officials to display only the robotic orca currently in production.

What You Can Do: Write a respectful letter supporting the use of robotic displays and opposing orca captivity to Mr. Itaru Uchida, Director, Nagoya Port Aquarium, Nagoya, Japan. Send the letter to Mark Berman at EII [300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133, (415) 788-3666] to be forwarded to Japan.

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