Whale and dolphin advocates hope a new report chronicling the successful rescue, rehabilitation and release of two captive dolphins will provide a blueprint for others who want to see these animals returned to their rightful home in the wild.
Back to the Blue, a report released by the Born Free Foundation, tracks a two-year project undertaken to save Tom and Misha, two male bottlenose dolphins who were being exploited in substandard conditions in Turkey.
According to Born Free, Tom and Misha were taken from the wild off the coast of Turkey and used to perform and provide ‘swim-with‘ opportunities for tourists. The conditions they were being kept in, consisting of a small dirty swimming pool, led to heavy campaigning by Born Free, a network of local activists and other organizations who were concerned about their welfare and believed they would die soon without intervention.
In 2010, rescuers obtained custody of Tom and Misha and the two were promptly moved to a sea pen in southwest Turkey where efforts to return them home began as part of the Back to the Blue project, which was conducted jointly with the Turkish organization Underwater Research Society.
The report describes how they were returned to top physical condition, trained to hunt for themselves and encouraged to spend more time underwater on their own instead of relying on their human caretakers over a period of 20 months before they were finally set free.
“In captivity, we train the animals not to think on their own, to shut down their brains and do what we ask them to do. What we are trying to do when we release them into the wild is get them off autopilot and thinking again. If they can make it alive through a six-month period, then we know they have been successfully reintroduced. Within six hours of release, they were eating wild fish and swimming with another dolphin. It was fabulous,” said Jeff Foster, a marine mammal expert who led the rehabilitation team.
Born Free describes their final moments:
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 of Tom swimming through Misha joined him and hurriedly swam through the opening. They quickly rounded the corner of the small bay and raced excitedly around the area and out to sea.
Born Free believes this is the most comprehensively documented dolphin rehabilitation and release program that has been completed yet and hopes it will be used not only to set a new precedent for what’s possible, but also to raise awareness about the harm that continues to be caused by our desire to swim with dolphins and see them in tanks.
Rescuers note that while each individual is different, and not all may be good candidates for release, the efforts here add more scientific proof that this can be successfully done, despite arguments otherwise from the captivity industry.
“The rescue of Tom and Misha has made history. We now have the hard evidence that it is possible for these animals to be successfully and humanely returned to the wild. That is a dangerous concept for a multimillion dollar captive industry that profits from their very confinement, posing new ethical and moral challenges for the future of an outdated industry,” said Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation.
Tom and Misha’s story is thrilling, but they aren’t the only cetaceans who have been successfully released. More well-known cases involving orcas Springer (who was rescued, released and recently spotted with a calf of her own) and Keiko continue to show us we can do the right thing for these cetaceans and that if we choose to, they can thrive. All of these efforts also add fuel to calls to do the same for Lolita, Morgan and hundreds of others being kept in captivity, who should be returned to the ocean where they belong.