Weekly Local Biography

  John Valentine

By: Elle Faraday

For the majority of people, ‘Free Willy’ was a heart-warming Hollywood blockbuster about a captive killer whale that was set free. For John Valentine, however, this was his reality – he was the man that literally freed Willy.
John began his career as a staff diver in 1963 in an aquarium in Philadelphia. In his own words, he literally ‘walked into the job.’ He stayed here for three years before moving into the training department. Today, 40 years later, he still works in the field of training and has worked in virtually every aquarium throughout America.
John spent over nine years with Sea World which is where he had his very first experience of working closely with killer whales, sea lions and dolphins. He worked as an in-house trainer at various aquariums for about 30 years, taking small breaks to work with guide dogs, big cats and even elephants.
With the vast majority of his life spent working with these animals, you would find it hard to believe that John had much time for anything else. In fact, he is a single parent and brought his only daughter up by himself. When I asked if she was following in her fathers footsteps, he told me that he used to take her to work with him, “She would come with me and boy would she work hard. She would fill bucket after bucket with fish but she was the only little girl that we knew who could feed sea lions one on one. She loves the animals.”
Despite his success and decades of experience with marine life, he has still come under criticism from people. He told me, “A lot of people are very quick to judge. They think because I train these animals, I can’t love them as much as they do. In fact it’s the opposite – I probably love them more. I will never work for anybody who doesn’t do the right thing by their animals. I never use force to train them and only ever reward with affection, as food reward programmes can cause obesity and many other problems. The key is to treat everything like a game, so the animals wait in anticipation for the next thing to happen. They love it.”
John first came to Chiang Mai in 1992 and fourteen years later, he’s still here. He arrived in Thailand to undertake some consultancy work as a marine biologist with a Thai safari and it has been his home ever since. He’s worked as a consultant in Costa Rica, China, Japan, Cambodia, Malaysia and India - if any aquarium anywhere in the world needs a trainer, they call on John.
John had only been in Thailand for one year when a film was released at the cinema that would have a major impact on his life. Free Willy sent mass hysteria around the world and called for the real life release programme to be started for the star of the show, captive killer whale Keiko. The ‘Free Willy Foundation’ was formed in 1994 with the aim of releasing Keiko. The whale was returned to its country of birth, Iceland, with the hope that he might be reunited with members of his family. Three years after the foundation was set up, Keiko was still living in captivity. Nobody could get passed the final hurdle of letting him go. John was brought in to help, “I became the bad guy,” he told me. “Everyone else was too emotionally involved and deep down, didn’t actually want to say goodbye. He had become their pet.” Not only that, Keiko was also bringing in a lot of money as thousands of tourists travelled to Iceland each year to have a view of the movie star and to watch history in the making.
John trained Keiko to follow his boat. He started taking Keiko out to sea and would take him a little further each day in the hope that Keiko would find his freedom. Keiko had other ideas though and refused to leave his life of captivity behind - he always came back.
During one of their many trips out in the ocean, John was in the water swimming with Keiko when he was surrounded by over 100 whales. Not one of them threatened him and eventually he managed to climb back on board his boat. That was an experience he will never forget and one that very few people will ever be able to lay claim to.
Finally, after three months, John found the break he was waiting for. He was out at sea with Keiko when a pod of whales turned up. It was a race against the clock as killer whales only migrate for three months every year to breed. John and a team of vets attached a satellite device to Keiko so that when he did finally leave, they would be able to track his progress. This was a completely pain-free operation with Keiko lying completely still for an hour allowing the satellite device to be attached. The countdown began.
With people all around the world waiting in anticipation, John led Keiko to the whales on a daily basis, each day trying to creep away in his boat but to no avail. One day, John got caught in a really bad storm which disabled all contact with Keiko and John was forced to come back in to shallow waters. The tracking device could not pick up a signal but it was assumed that Keiko had finally left his home in Iceland.
John had accomplished what he came to do and despite missing his friend, was extremely proud. By pure chance, Keiko was discovered on the coast of Norway after his new-found family had swum on. He was tired and could not keep up so Keiko made Norway his new home. He was not afraid of people and soon became a popular attraction with both visitors and locals. Sadly, in 2003, aged just 25, Keiko died. John mourned the loss of this great animal, but told me that, “In over 30 years of training animals, working with Keiko was probably the highlight of my whole career.”
Despite looking to retire in the near future, John has been asked to help with the setting up of an aquarium in Indonesia where he will be needed to train dolphins to interact with people. His work is far from over but once he does fully retire hopefully enthusiastic trainers can follow in John’s footsteps and continue to care and respect these wonderful animals.