Dolphins Go Wild in Project to Free Captive Marine Mammals

The rewilding of two dolphins shows how animals kept at aquariums could roam free again.

Rewilded dolphins Misha and Tom. (Photo: YouTube)

Jun 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A new report on the successful rehabilitation and release of wild-caught dolphins could well become the how-to manual for other efforts to “rewild” marine mammals at aquariums around the world.

The paper documents in step-by-step detail the Born Free Foundation’s two-year project in which it rescued two dolphins from a squalid facility in Turkey, prepared them for life in the sea, and monitored them after their release.

“This report sets a new precedent that it is possible to rehabilitate and release former captive dolphins and ensure their survival in the wild,” Daniel Turner, programs manager for captive wild animals/policy at Born Free, said in an email.

He said the results demonstrate that even captive-bred animals can be retired from theme parks and retrained to live in enclosed coastal sanctuaries. “The example of Misha and Tom ensures a viable solution for the more than 300 captive cetaceans in Europe and the more than 2,500 animals worldwide,” Turner said.

Born Free also released a video describing the project.

Tom and Misha, male bottlenose dolphins, were captured off the Turkish coast and sent to various aquariums and “swim-with” tourist attractions. In 2010, the Born Free Foundation supported a campaign to retire them from a particularly subpar facility and place them in a sea pen for rehabilitation.

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The report describes how the dolphins were returned to peak physical condition and swimming speed, retrained to catch live fish and spend more time underwater, and retaught to optimize their hearing and echolocation abilities.

Prior to release, the rehab team had to confirm that Tom and Misha harbored no known pathogens that could endanger other dolphins. They also ran DNA testing to ensure that the animals were not imported from the notorious drives in Taiji, Japan.

Other challenges included ensuring a steady supply of live fish and dealing with local residents’ resentment over the use of “their” bay. The cost of the project was around $765,000, according to Turner.

On their release day, in May 2012, “Tom and Misha refused at first to swim through the gate,” the report says. “After about 20 minutes the team gave Tom the hand signal to swim through the gate and Tom slowly responded, swimming through the gate to freedom.”

Within seconds, Misha followed. The two of them split up soon afterward.

Scientists used satellite tags and radio transmitters to monitor the mammals for several months. Their movements and behavior, the report said, proved that the project was successful.

The idea of retiring captive dolphins, whether to the ocean or sea pens, remains controversial. The aquarium industry calls it cruel and impractical. Only a handful of captive cetaceans have been returned to the wild, with varying degrees of success.

The most famous case involved Keiko, the killer whale (and star of Free Willy) who underwent a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation program. Keiko spent three years in a cove in Iceland before swimming to Norway, where he died 18 months later.

Candidates for rewilding must be selected carefully, proponents say.

“Not every captive whale and dolphin are true candidates for release,” Courtney Vail, campaigns and programs manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said in an email. “It is important to note that each rehabilitation and release scenario has to be tailored to individuals and their circumstances, their unique history and provenance.”

Vail dismissed industry opposition to rewilding.

“Repatriating individuals to their natural environments is not unethical or dangerous if it is done correctly, carefully, and is motivated by the welfare interests of the individuals involved,” she said.

Born Free conceded that the project was a “considerable undertaking for these two dolphins” but said in a statement that it was more than justified, because it “highlights a practical way forward and offers a realistic alternative for dolphins currently condemned to life in concrete tanks.”