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Without question, ripping wild dolphins away from their friends and families to put them on display for “entertainment” purposes is a cruel, and unnecessary practice. But once animals are held in captivity for a long period of time, there is a concern that these animals will no longer be able to thrive back in the wild.

While the number of wild captured whales and dolphins that appear in marine parks is less than it was at one time, this practice is not by any means a thing of the past. Morgan, the orca whale, was captured from the wild and recently two wild caught orcas from Russia were transported to a marine park in China. Although these incidents have garnered much outrage from animal rights and anticaptivity activists, the question remains, can wild caught animals be safely released back into the wild after years of captivity?

I am sure SeaWorld would tell you “no,” and that whales and dolphins actually live LONGER, happier lives in captivity, but in reality, the answer is plainly, “yes.”

The Scoop on Dolphin Release

Ric O’Barry, marine mammal specialist and director of the Dolphin Project, has participated in the successful release of many formerly captive dolphins. According to O’Barry’s findings, there is no “prescribed” recipe for releasing dolphins because captivity affects every dolphin differently.

Much like humans, dolphins are highly social and intelligent creatures that thrive when allowed the freedom they deserve. O’Barry explains the behaviors he has observed in dolphins, “I have worked with dolphins who, when reunited with the sea, very quickly remembered who and what they were before their capture. Others needed more help, more time.”

This is not to say that every single dolphin that has been held in captivity “can or should” be released back into the wild. However, “all captive dolphins may be re-adapted to a more natural environment, to a natural sea lagoon, for example. This would provide the dolphin with the natural rhythms of the sea, the tides, the currents and exposure to live fish. All of this is therapeutic and improves the dolphin’s quality of life.”

Some dolphins may have “received too many human imprints” or perhaps they have forgotten or lost skills that are necessary for survival in the ocean. As O’Barry explains, “[for these dolphins] Captivity has destroyed something vital in their lives, something that, were they human, we would call ‘spirit.’ For them, it is too late.”

What Makes a Dolphin Eligible for Release?

To assess whether or not a dolphin is eligible for release depends on a set of basic factors, such as their health and physical condition, ability to use sonar and catch live fish, as well as their defensive skills against predators.

For dolphins that have been born into captivity, however, returning them to the wild is not an option. Having been born into an artificial environment, these dolphins never learned how to survive in the wild. Without proper “training” to act like a wild dolphin, these creatures could not possibly survive in the open ocean.

To begin a successful release back into the wild, all the learned behaviors they picked up in captivity — clapping and begging for food, performing for humans, etc. – need to be “extinguished.” This process involves removing the reward system from a dolphin’s behaviors. Once the dolphin realizes they won’t get a treat for squeaking and swimming in circles, they will stop.

Of course, getting this process to work requires the “right people,” years of experience, and a deep understanding of dolphin behaviors, but when it is successfully completed, then the dolphin can begin the release process.

Where can Dolphins be Released?

Whether or not a dolphin needs to be released in the exact spot they were captured from is up for debate. While it is not absolutely necessary, it is “desirable.”

O’Barry’s piece on the topic explains, “If a male dolphin is captured at a very young age and removed from his family pod, he cannot be expected to rejoin this pod several years later. Even if he had not been captured, he most likely would not remain with his original pod, because male dolphins at maturity normally join a new pod or form their own pod, sometimes a bachelor pod, with groups of females and their offspring, or both males and females traveling together.”

Water pollution also plays a factor in whether or not a dolphin can return to their original home. If an area has become poisoned over the years, it would not make sense to release the dolphin there.

Success Stories

Working with the Korean Animal Welfare Association, Ric O’Barry assisted in the release of three dolphins, Sampal, Chunsam, and Jedol, from a marine park in South Korea. These dolphins had been illegally captured from the wild and put on display at Pacificland Aquarium and the Seoul Zoo.

In the words of O’Barry, “These three dolphins lived in the wild very successfully for about ten years before they were abducted by aliens and forced into a life of show business inside a building.”

The dolphins were weaned off dead fish and rehabilitated in sea pens. Sampal was the most eager to return to the wild and escaped her sea pen before the official release. She rejoined her original pod quickly after. It took Jedol and Chunsam a little longer to adjust back to the wild, but they eventually all found their way home!

Below, you can find a video of these returned dolphins swimming along with their pod. Seeing these recovered dolphins back where they belong in the ocean, you can’t help but remark at how much better this is than going to SeaWorld!


Image source: Ricardo Liberato/Wikimedia Commons

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