Former Orca Hunter Faces Temptation to Capture Killer Whales for Big Money

Jeff Foster once hunted orcas for SeaWorld; now he works to free the marine mammals.
Dec 1, 2014· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Last week on CNN’s AC360 With Anderson Cooper, viewers witnessed never-before-seen footage of killer whales captured in the 1980s off the coast of Iceland. The images were disturbing and heartbreaking. The marine biologist who took them, Jeff Foster, once captured orcas for SeaWorld and other marine parks; today he works to free them, turning down multimillion-dollar offers to resume the hunt.

In some videos, Foster speaks in the background as boats corral orca families into a net and remove the youngest ones—wailing in panic—from the water in a sling. Other videos show juvenile whales in concrete pools, apparently crying out for their mothers.

Over the past decades, Foster has undergone a gradual transformation from hunter of orcas to prominent opponent of keeping them in tanks.

Foster, 59, grew up in the Seattle area, the son of a prominent zoo and aquarium veterinarian. “My father was noted for being the first veterinarian to push for naturalistic exhibits for multiple species, so I kind of grew up with that kind of animal background,” he said in a phone interview. “My interest has always been in the water. I started diving at a very young age and collected octopus and fish for the Seattle Marine Aquarium.”

At 15, Foster was offered a job by the aquarium, where he quickly moved up through the ranks. Before long, in the 1970s, he was taking part in the infamous roundups of Southern Resident killer whales in Puget Sound. Between 1972 and 1976, Foster took part in “about a dozen” captures, he said.

Many of the animals taken during that period were sold to marine parks; only two—Corky at SeaWorld San Diego and Lolita at Miami Seaquarium—are alive today.

In 1976, the state of Washington sued SeaWorld for violating its permit to take orcas from local waters. That didn’t stop the company—Foster and other orca hunters simply moved their operations to Iceland, where Foster shot his videos.

The newly caught animals were given Icelandic names, most of which were changed after they were purchased by aquariums, so he is unsure if any orcas now in captivity were taken by his operations.

But one whale he caught, Gudrun, captured in 1976, retained her name after going into captivity.

Gudrun died a miserable death at SeaWorld Orlando in 1996 during a stillbirth. The unborn calf was winched from her body with a cable. Gudrun began hemorrhaging, her dorsal fin collapsed, and she died four days later.

By 1990, Foster had had enough of whale hunting. The cries of young orcas being separated from their mothers and the thought of large predators confined for life to small pools was too much to bear.

“There was no aha moment,” he said. “But I came to realize that when you take an animal that’s highly intelligent and social, like a killer whale, it’s difficult to meet their needs in a captive situation, and it just took a long time to finally recognize that.”

Foster began his transformation from a hunter of whales to a champion for their release. He worked on the Free Keiko project, an eight-year, multimillion-dollar effort to rehabilitate and return the orca, the star of the hit movie Free Willy, to the ocean. After 18 months of living at sea, Keiko died in Norway in 2003 of unknown causes. The project remains controversial to this day.

Foster later began work in animal conservation. Today he is a contractor for private and governmental research outfits, helping to tag animals for scientific study, among other activities.

He has worked to free other captive marine mammals, including two dolphins at a Turkish aquarium who were successfully released into the Aegean Sea two years ago.

Foster also worked on the international effort to free Morgan, a female orca who was found alone and disoriented off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010. Morgan was sent to the SeaWorld-affiliated Loro Parque, in the Canary Islands, where she remains.

Foster testified in two court hearings in Europe to win Morgan’s release. Judges in both cases said she was best off at Loro Parque.

Morgan’s saga inspired Foster to offer his videos—which he had never viewed—to CNN.

“I wanted to raise awareness for Morgan,” he explained. “She has a really poor quality of life. She’s in the most dysfunctional group of killer whales that have ever been around, and she doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t fit in. She’s not going to live long, the way things are going.”

Despite Foster’s anti-captivity credentials, the industry still beckons. He recently received a $7 million offer by a Chinese company to capture orcas in the Sea of Okhotsk. After much soul searching, he rejected the job, leaving it to others to catch Russian whales, two of whom are now being prepared for display in Moscow.

“It took a couple of months to make a final decision,” he said. “When somebody offers you a huge chunk of money that you know you could be set for life, you have to think about it. But I looked at myself in the mirror one day and realized that I just couldn’t take these highly intelligent animals and turn them into circus clowns.”