As the public becomes more aware of the ethical issue involved with keeping dolphins and killer whales captive, and public sentiment about captivity changes, the question of whether captive dolphins and killer whales can successfully be released back into the wild is increasingly relevant.
While there have been many releases of captive dolphins, there have been relatively few releases of long-term show dolphins, and even fewer that were fully documented. In recent years, however, two bottlenose dolphins (named Tom and Misha) were successfully released back into the Aegean, and three bottlenose dolphins (Jedol, Chunsam, and Sampal) were successfully released off Jeju Island, South Korea. All had spent years in marine parks, yet managed to learn what they needed to learn to survive again in the ocean.
Both releases were carefully documented, during and after release, and show what can be achieved, even with dolphins that have suffered greatly in captivity. My story about these dolphins, and the question of captive release, was just published at National Geographic.
Here’s the start:
In early January 2011 Jeff Foster, a 55-year-old marine mammal expert from Seattle, arrived on the stony shore of a pristine bay near the small village of Karaca, situated in a corner of the Gulf of Gökova on Turkey’s southwest coast. Just offshore was a collection of floating pens used to farm fish. In one of them, which had been modified and measured about a hundred feet across and 50 feet deep, two male bottlenose dolphins swam in slow circles.
Tom and Misha, as they were called, were in lamentable condition. As far as anyone could tell, they’d been captured in the Aegean sometime in 2006, and almost nothing was known about their lives in the wild. After starting their captive lives at a dolphin park in the seaside town of Kaş, they’d been trucked a short distance inland in June 2010 to a crudely constructed concrete pool in the mountain town of Hisarönü so that tourists could pay $50 for the chance to grab their dorsal fins and get a ten-minute tow. Hisarönü consists mainly of cheap hotels and bars with suggestive names like Oh Yes! and thumping late-night music. It would be hard to imagine a more incongruous or disorienting location for two ocean-born dolphins. An inadequate filtration system quickly left the bottom of their pool carpeted with dead fish and dolphin feces.
Within weeks, an outraged grassroots and social media campaign organized by dolphin-loving locals had forced the place to close. In early September, amid fears that the dolphins would soon die, the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, which is dedicated to the protection of animals in the wild, stepped in and took possession of Tom and Misha. The two dolphins were bundled into a refrigerated meat truck lined with old mattresses and transported to the pen off Karaca. Foster was hired to help Born Free attempt something truly ambitious: restore Tom and Misha to peak physical condition, teach them what they would need to know to live as wild dolphins again, and release them back into the Aegean. “It is extremely high risk with a creature that is not predictable and easy,” says Will Travers, Born Free’s president. “But we realized that there were very few options for them, and they were likely to die unless somebody did something.”