Releasing Captive Cetaceans Back Into The Wild: A Potential Death Sentence!

Rocky was one of three bottlenose dolphins that were part of a "return-to-the-wild" project in the 1990's. His fate remains unknown

In 1991, the UK-based Animal Rights group Born Free Foundation, and it’s two group partners, the Switzerland-based  Bellerive Foundation , and the US-based World Society for Animal Protection, began running a “return-to-the-wild” campaign called “Into the Blue”. This campaign focused on rehabilitating long-term captive dolphins for release into the wild. The campaign involved the use of three bottlenose dolphins from British aquariums. One dolphin named Rocky, was collected from the Florida panhandle in 1971. The other dolphin named Missie, was collected off the coast of Texas in 1969. And the last dolphin, named Silver, was collected off the coast of Taiwan in 1978. The three animals were moved to a sea-pen in the Turks and Caicos in February and March of 1991. There, their “rehabilitation” began. Over a six month period, the animals were simply “taught” how to eat live fish. On September 10th, 1991, all three dolphins were released after being freeze-branded. Although the three animals were seen the day after their release, Missie and Rocky would never again be seen project staff members. Since then, all sightings have been made by fishermen and tourists who were unfamiliar with the dolphins.

Silver was sighted by project staff members only a week after being released.

About less than two weeks after being released, Pacific bottlenose dolphin Silver, was sighted by project staff members. However, when he was sighted, he had already lost some weight and had a series of health problems, including an infection on his rostrum. Silver was also given both sixty pounds of food, and antibiotics by the project staff in the wild. At the same time, he had also began to associate with a “wild-friendly” dolphin named Jojo. Still, Silver was only seen from September 16th, to September 29th of 1991 and has not been sighted since then. Meanwhile, a photographic competition to produce photographic evidence of the animals continuing to survive. Therefore, the fate of the three UK aquarium dolphins Rocky, Missie and Silver remain unknown.

Even the release of "Free Willy" star Keiko was a complete failure....Why? Because no one knew what Icelandic pod did Keiko come from...Therefore, Keiko had no pod to begin with.

The release of Free Willy star Keiko is well documented. In the late 1990’s three marine animal rights groups lobbied and attempted to release Keiko back into the wild. This release project coast $20 million in tax-free donations and produced several TV documentaries. Although it’s been documented that Keiko swam all the way from Iceland to Norway, the scientific reports made by both Greenland and US officials concluded that the release of Keiko was NOT successful.  About only a few weeks after being on his own, Keiko began to seek out human companionship and started to follow boats around and looking for handouts. Keiko died podless from pneumonia in 2003.

Dolphin at the now closed Atlantis Marine Park in Western Australia in the 1980's.

In 1990, seven Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins were released from Atlantis Marine Park in Western Australia after being in captivity for a decade due to lack of public funding. Three of the seven animals were born at the facility and were already accustomed to human care.  Prior to the release, some effort was made to “train” the dolphins for their release in March 1991. However, three dolphins were recaptured after the release due to rapid and severe weight loss. It was believed that the animals did not know how to hunt despite, being taught to eat live fish. They were also seen begging for food from boats. Just to make matters worst, a young calf was presumed dead and it is not known what happened to the two other dolphins.

The video you are about to watch focuses on an illegal release conducted by a former Miami Seaquarium employee named Ric O Barry and several members of his organization, Dolphin Project Inc., a group that claims to release captive dolphins back into the wild.

Keep in mind, many issues have to be addressed when considering a marine mammal to be a candidate for release back into the wild:

* Can they be returned to their former range?: This is the aspect of how important to the genetics of the population and species.

* How old were they when they were first collected from the wild or were they born in captivity? In other words, are they capable of surviving in the wild? Did they learn how to hunt, communicate with their species, migrate, evade predators, ect.?

* How accustomed are they to humans? Will that cause problems either putting them at dangerous risk or the safety of the people?

* Do they have the proper immune system for wild survival? Wild cetaceans have immunities to disease that captive specimens don’t and as I mentioned earlier in this topic, captive marine mammals could also expose a wild stock to diseases and viruses that has never been exposed by the population.

In the US, NOAA fisheries is the agency that issues permits for “return to the wild” projects. They require two simply stated but crucial contingencies. The marine mammals must not be a threat to wild populations, and it must be currently healthy at the time of release and likely to survive. Another requirement under this permit is that all marine mammals released into the wild must also provide a monitoring system to track the animal and plan to rescue it if it is not adapting well to life in it’s wild environment.

Echo and Misha's release is the only one of three known cetacean releases that has been documented to be successful

A return to the wild project that was conducted by a well-respected marine mammal scientist named Dr. Randall Wells in the 1980’s is considered to be one of the very few documented releases of dolphins that is considered to be successful. But, even he would later state that he would never attempt to do such a project like that again due to the stress it causes the dolphins.  These two dolphins were collected off the coast of Tampa Bay, FL for scientific purposes in Florida. However, Dr. Wells had plans to release them a year later. After the completion of an echolocation project at a California Marine Biology Institute, Misha and Echo were re-located to a sea-pen in the same sight where they were first collected. There, they were retrained to re-adapt to life at sea. They were released in 1990 and have both been sighted numerous times over the years. Here are some of the reasons why their release was considered successful:

  • they were released as a natural functional social unit. Male pairs are common in bottlenose dolphins.
  • the two dolphins were fairly young. They were approximately 6-7 years old at the time of their capture. This means that they had extensive experience in fending for themselves in the wild prior to their capture. At they time of their release, they were 8-9 years old (sub-adults).
  • they were released back into their native waters, close to their capture sites.
  • they were released after relatively short period of time in captivity (2.2 years)
  • they were acclimatised in a sea pen near the release site prior to the release.

It is safe to say that the two only acceptions for releasing animals back into the wild are rescued animals that are releasable and to re-populate endangered species.


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