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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Pilot whales pooing © Christopher Swann

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A spinner dolphin leaping © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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WDC team at UN Ocean conference

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Sometimes they can go free

Last week we received news that two of the three former captive bottlenose dolphins that were rehabilitated and released back into the wild last July near Jeju Island were sighted alive and well off the coast of South Korea.  Captured from a local and vulnerable population of Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins and then sold illegally to Pacificland on Jeju Island, these three dolphins were eventually separated when one (Jedol) was sent to the Seoul Grand Zoo and then reunited for rehabilitation and eventual release under court order in the spring of 2013. This is good news for the dolphins and even better news for those of us who seek a similar future for captive dolphins worldwide.

The development of permanent dolphin rehabilitation and sanctuary solutions is challenging and requires the collaboration and patience of individuals within and outside the captivity industry as public sentiment against confining whales and dolphins continues to grow. It is not only expertise and money that are required to rehabilitate, release, or retire dolphins to sanctuary homes, but also collaboration between all parties and stakeholders involved in the insidious cycle of supply and demand that sustains this industry.

The transitional process from captivity to either freedom or an alternative life of provisioned care can be messy, as has been evidenced by the criticism directed at Merlin Entertainments recently in light of three beluga whales being maintained at one if its acquired facilities in Shanghai. Merlin is stuck in the middle of a protracted process of developing a permanent dolphin sanctuary, while working to improve conditions for dolphins and beluga whales being held in some of the facilities it has acquired. It is difficult for the public to accept that the siting, development, and funding of a suitable and permanent sanctuary is a very complex process. Beyond this, there is great risk involved in relocating any individual or social group of captive dolphins to a new location, whether the move is temporary or permanent. The question of ‘what’ to do with these individuals still in captivity waiting for sanctuary, including how much interaction and enrichment is needed to maintain their health and wellbeing, weighs heavy on caretakers and bystanders alike.

Thankfully, Jedol and Sampal were confined in facilities that were fairly close to their original capture locations, and were able to be rehabilitated locally and successfully released within about a year’s timeframe. Jedol, Sampal, and Chunsam had been captured in 2009 and 2010 and spent over three years in captivity before their release. Similarly, Tom and Misha–two bottlenose dolphins that were also successfully rehabilitated and released–were captured in the Aegean Sea, housed in a facility that was relatively close to their original capture site, confiscated in September 2010 and successfully returned to the wild in May 2012 after approximately six years in captivity in Turkey. In both of these cases, the dolphins had been in captivity a relatively short period of time. For dolphins born in captivity, or for those that have spent decades languishing in a tank, their return home may not be as straightforward, or possible.

It is wonderful to reaffirm that it is possible to successfully release some captives to their wild homes, and that is indeed one of the motivations for exploring relocation to rehabilitation and sanctuary facilities. The other is to provide a more humane, dignified, and natural quality of life for those captives that cannot be returned to the wild and will inevitably have to live out their lives in a confined environment, albeit a more natural one.

For those individuals that are fit to return to the wild and can readapt to their natural homes, freedom is possible. The rehabilitation and release of dolphins in temporary seaside facilities is just one step in a larger process of permanently phasing out captive whale and dolphin programs. Prohibitions on breeding, a commitment to not source dolphins from the wild, and the development of facilities that can reliably and sustainably provide for an alternative and permanent lifetime sanctuary for the majority of dolphins that have been shipped around the globe thousands of miles from their original captures or birthplaces in captivity, are all necessary parts of a story to ensure a successful ending in our quest to abolish captivity. We must be realistic, deliberate, and practical in our pursuit and development of these permanent sanctuaries, as the health and welfare of the individuals caught in the middle of this dying industry is in the balance.

Congratulations to those involved in building the ongoing track record of successful releases of former captive dolphins into the wild, proving that yes, some can and will go free. And that is reason enough to keep trying.