This is the story of a dolphin named Sampal.
Sampal is a creature that spent the first decade of her life in the waters around Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Sadly, abuse and exploitation have featured heavily in her life. But her story also has a happy development, one that should give us pause when considering how we treat these beings of the sea.
When Sampal was about ten years old, she was accidentally captured in one of the numerous fishing nets in the waters around the island. Rather than being released, she was illegally sold to the Pacific Land Aquarium, where she spent roughly three years confined to a tiny subterranean pool. Kept hungry, she was forced to perform daily by doing tricks that would be rewarded with food, as is routine practice at captive dolphin facilities.
About a year ago, thanks to the efforts of individuals such as Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, Sampal and her two companions at Pacific Land were ordered by the Korean High Court to be returned to their home waters. The dolphins were transferred to a temporary sea pen this May for rehabilitation and an eventual release, which was officially scheduled for sometime later this summer.
The rehabilitation and release project, facilitated by a group of organizations and institutions such as the Korean Animal Welfare Association, Ewha University and the Cetacean Research Center, was going according to plan.
Ric O’Barry, director of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, was invited to Korea in order to assess the physical and psychological state of the dolphins and was pleased with their progress.
“They need to be un-trained what they learned at Pacific Land and retaught how to live in the ocean,” said O’Barry, while predicting that the dolphins would fare well once they were returned to their home range.
However, on June 22, about a month into the rehabilitation, the netting of the sea pen tore open, resulting in a gap large enough for a dolphin to swim through. Sampal took advantage of the situation and left the pen. She hung around after her escape, but as a group of people gathered at the pen to ascertain how to get her back inside, she swam for the open ocean and did not return.
While there was great concern for her wellbeing, with some fearing that she was not ready to be returned to the ocean, the Cetacean Research Institute reported a confirmed sighting of Sampal on June 27. She was spotted 100 kilometers away from the sea pen, swimming with a pod of about 50 dolphins—the very ones from whom she was taken all those years ago.
Ric O’Barry was not surprised to hear of Sampal faring so well. “I think the others will do fine once they are released too,” he commented. “They know exactly what to do; they just need the opportunity to do it.”
All too often, dolphins are not given this opportunity. Dolphins represent millions of dollars in annual revenues for any facility, like Pacific Land, that can get their hands on these oceanic beings and manage to keep them alive in captivity. The captivity industry claims that rehabilitation and release projects, such as Sampal’s, are doomed to failure and are dangerous for the dolphins themselves. Some surmise that these concerns are not for the dolphins, however, but for the negative financial impact on companies that profit from exploiting innocent lives.
While Sampal’s release is certainly not the first of its kind (Turkey released two dolphins just last year, and O’Barry had been involved in more than half a dozen successful rehab and release projects for dolphins before this), it is another good example of why it makes sense to return dolphins to their rightful homes.
We will never know precisely what went on in Sampal’s mind when she broke for freedom last week, but we can infer that she made a conscious decision to leave the sea pen, which is particularly compelling given that dolphins tend to avoid swimming through narrow passages. She then travelled to her home range, which suggests she remembered it from her life before captivity. She met up with her own pod, her family, who apparently welcomed her, suggesting that they too remembered her. These seemingly simple intellectual feats—having memory and decision-making abilities—suggest that Sampal and other dolphins are much more than stimulus-response machines running on instinct alone.
Sampal’s story suggests that dolphins may be more like us than not. While we cannot scientifically prove that Sampal longed for her family and they for her, the burden of proof should rest upon those who attempt to explain these events as being a collection of coincidences driven by instinct. With mounting scientific and anecdotal evidence, it is no longer possible to assume that dolphins are not cognitively complex, self-aware beings. And it remains likewise impossible to justify keeping these beings confined for our amusement.
Sampal’s story is not over, but she has been reunited with her family due to the efforts of people who understand and respect dolphins. We must hope that Sampal avoids further interactions with humans, lest she fall prey to greed once more. But each of us can help her and others like her if we begin to see dolphins in a new light—one that demands their fair treatment and allows them the basic rights to simply exist, unharmed, in the oceans with their kin.
They deserve our respect. And we owe it to them.