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
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 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.