Rescued sailor resumes quest to save killer whales

Disappointed, but relieved — that is how Michael Reppy characterizes his state of mind. Disappointed because his bid for a single-handed trans-Pacific sailing record fell short, but relieved to have survived and be in Japan working to free five killer whales captured last February.

On May 23, after 30 days at sea, and with just 400 km remaining of the 8,000-km San Francisco-Japan voyage, Michael Reppy’s custom-made trimaran capsized. Approximately seven to eight hours after sending out a distress signal, he was recovered from his life raft by a ship transporting cars to Japan. “I am glad to be alive, but sorry I don’t have the record,” said the leathery-tanned 52-year-old physical therapist at a recent gathering in Tokyo organized by the Japan Environmental Exchange and the Dolphin and Whale Action Network.

Only about two days shy of his destination, Reppy decided to take a brief rest and inadvertently dozed off. When he awoke an hour later, the winds had picked up and he realized he needed to quickly douse his spinnaker or risk capsizing. He wasn’t in time.

“If I’d just come up 10 seconds earlier, I could have released the sail and kept the boat from capsizing,” he said. This would have helped him earn the solo trans-Pacific record, a feat Reppy has been shooting for since the construction of his boat five years ago.

However, Reppy’s failed attempt is only half the story. The other half involves his love of dolphins, which he says grew out of his experience swimming with them in Hawaii in 1991. This affection led him to seek out the Earth Island Institute, a San Francisco-based environmental group that was fighting to save dolphins from tuna fisherman and has been instrumental in the ongoing rehabilitation of Keiko (the killer whale that starred in the movie “Free Willy”) for return to the wild. Reppy offered to help the group gain publicity through sailing, which he spent the next five years doing.

“I was building this new boat and I wanted to do it for more than myself,” Reppy said. The boat was completed in 1992 and christened Nai’a, which means dolphin in Hawaiian. In this way, his voyages were not just a personal challenge, but also intended to help gain publicity for the dolphins, he said.

Last February, while preparing for his voyage to Japan, Reppy heard that five orcas were captured off the coast of Wakayama Prefecture and thought it was a serious case. The five whales, caught Feb. 7 and the first to be captured in Japan in seven years, were purchased separately by two aquariums and a museum. The capture was legal under a five-year-old government permit issued for the purpose of scientific research — specifically, to breed them and study their breeding habits.

However, activists contend that it is doubtful the whales will be used for research, noting that two or three of the five are babies that will not be capable of reproducing for years. Environmental groups express concern that another of the whales, which is believed to be pregnant, may not be receiving a proper diet, in terms of both type and quantity, and that this may be detrimental to her and her baby’s health. However, the aquariums and museum say things are going well and they intend to continue with their research. “We don’t intend to display them to the public and are putting our energies into breeding research,” said Koichi Igarashi, a spokesman for Adventure World, an aquarium and amusement park located in Wakayama Prefecture where three of the orcas are being held.