Three bottlenose dolphins were released into the open sea off Indonesia on Saturday after years of being confined for the amusement of tourists who touched and swam with them.
As the red and white flags of Indonesia flew, underwater gates opened off the island of Bali to allow Johnny, Rocky and Rambo to swim free.
The trio were rescued three years ago from their small swimming pool at a resort hotel to which they had been sold after spending years performing in a traveling circus.
They regained their health and strength at the Bali sanctuary, a floating corral in a bay that provided a more peaceful and natural environment.
Lincoln O’Barry, who worked with the Indonesian government to establish the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center, said dolphins are wild animals that should live free.
“It was an incredibly emotional experience watching them go,” O’Barrry said.
The center was started in 2019 by the Bali Forestry Department and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. “Umah lumba” means “dolphin” in Indonesian.
For some time after the doors were opened, the dolphins stared at the opening, not knowing what their next move would be. But after an hour or so, they were on their way, sometimes jumping over choppy waves.
The Associated Press viewed his statement via a live online broadcast. O’Barry is documenting the launch with drone and underwater footage for a film.
The Indonesian government supported the rescue of the dolphins, working with the Dolphin Project, founded by Lincoln’s father, Ric O’Barry, who was also at the release.
Ric O’Barry had been the dolphin trainer for the 1960s “Flipper” TV show, but later realized the toll being taken on the animals. Since then, he has dedicated his life to returning dolphins to the wild.
Center workers cheered as the dolphins swam out. Wahyu Lestari, the center’s rehabilitation coordinator, said she was a little sad to see them go.
“I am happy that they are free and that they return to their family,” he said. “They should be in the wild because they were born in the wild.”
The released dolphins will be monitored at sea with GPS tracking for one year. They may return to visit the shrine, although it is unclear what they will do. They can join another group, stay together, or go their separate ways.
Captive dolphins are transported from town to town, kept in chlorinated water, isolated, or forced to interact with tourists, often resulting in injury.
Johnny, the oldest dolphin, had his teeth worn down to below the gum line when he was rescued in 2019. Earlier this year, dentists fitted him with dolphin-style dental crowns so he can now clamp down on live fish. .
Johnny was the first of the three dolphins to swim out to sea.
Ric and Lincoln O’Barry have spent half a century working to save dolphins from captivity in places from Brazil to South Korea to the United States. Saturday’s release was the first in Indonesia.
The Indonesian government’s decision to rescue the dolphins followed a decade-long public education campaign that included billboards, artwork, school programs and a campaign asking people not to buy tickets to dolphin shows.
A government minister was on hand to lift the gate to the sanctuary on Saturday.
Lincoln O’Barry said the Indonesian sanctuary would continue to be used for other captive dolphins. Similar sanctuaries are in the works in North America and Europe, as more dolphin shows close. With virtual reality and other technologies, an appreciation of nature doesn’t have to involve a zoo or a dolphin show, he said.
However, dolphin shows are still popular in China, the Middle East, and Japan.
In Japan, the father and son have drawn attention to the dolphin hunt in the city of Taiji, documented in the 2010 Oscar-winning film “The Cove.” Every year, fishermen herd dolphins into a cove, capturing some to sell to dolphin shows and killing others for food.
Whale and dolphin meat is considered a delicacy in the Japanese culinary tradition. But Taiji has drawn protests from conservationists for years, including some Japanese.
The three dolphins released in Indonesia were soon miles (kilometres) apart in the waters. But before leaving, they walked around the sanctuary.
“They turned around and came back to us one more time, almost to say thank you and goodbye. And then they headed straight out into the open sea and disappeared,” Lincoln O’Barry said.
“Where they will go next, we don’t know. But we wish them a long life.”