Blog | Captive Korean Dolphins Released Back into Ocean

Captive Korean Dolphins Released Back into Ocean

July 25, 2013 by Laura Bridgeman

Captive Korean Dolphins Released Back into Ocean

Three dolphins now swim freely in the ocean after years in captivity

Three dolphins, named Jedol, Chunsam and Sampal, have been successfully returned to the ocean after years in captivity in South Korean aquariums.

“This successful rehabilitation and release project highlights the feasibility of returning cetaceans to their natural habitat after a time in captivity,” stated Ric O’Barry, Director of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project. O’Barry was one of the consultants aiding the Korean Animal Welfare Association and other groups that led the effort. 

The dolphins were transferred from aquarium tanks to a temporary sea pen in May 2013 for rehabilitation. After they were determined as being ready for release, on July 18 at 4:15 pm, the net of the sea pen was cut open.  Jedol, who spent years at the Seoul Zoo, left the pen at 4:28pm, and Chunsam, from the Pacific Land aquarium, followed at 4:40pm.

Sampal, also from the Pacific Land facility, had escaped on June 22 after a tear formed in the netting of the sea pen. Despite concerns that she was not adequately habituated to life in the ocean, the Cetacean Research Institute reported a sighting of her swimming with her original family group on June 27, indicating that her rehabilitation had in fact been complete.

The plan to rehabilitate the dolphins and release them back into their home range was initiated over a year ago after it was discovered that the dolphins were illegally captured from the waters surrounding Jeju Island. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon ordered the release of Jedol from the Seoul Zoo, and the Korean Supreme Court forced Pacific Land, an aquarium on Jeju Island, to give up Chunsam and Sampal. The dolphins were moved to the rehabilitation sea pen in May and after careful observations by a team of trainers and veterinarians were established as being fit for release.

Ric O’Barry assisted with the rehabilitation, using his proven protocol for releasing captive dolphins back to the wild. He observed that the dolphins rapidly adjusted to the natural rhythms of the ocean and were able to catch live fish, as opposed to the dead fish they were fed while in captivity. 

“The dolphins seemed ready to go – mentally as well as physically,” added O’Barry after learning of their departure. “Sometimes the dolphins will hang around the pen after they have been released, and sometimes they will beg for food from boaters and fishermen. But so far, none of these dolphins are doing that.”

Jedo and Chunsam were fitted with tracking devices before being released in order to monitor their conditions and ensure their safety as much as possible. Hyung Ju Lee is campaign manager with the Korean Animal Welfare Association, one of the organizations who spearheaded the rehabilitation project. She reports that each of the dolphins are faring well: Sampal remains with her original group; Chunsam has joined with two adult female dolphins and a calf, the adults reportedly from the Chunsam’s original pod; and Jedol had recently been spotted 1.6 miles away from the pen, still alone for the moment but showing natural, healthy behaviors.

Despite the initial success of the project, O’Barry cautions that the dolphins still face threats, some of which should have been addressed before they were released. “The fishing nets in the area present a huge problem,” says O’Barry. “These nets, called pound nets, are actually very large fish traps. There are fifty eight of them in the dolphins’ home range, and they have been known to drown dolphins before.” When O’Barry visited Korea, he spread the message that this project was the local community’s and the fishermen’s responsibility, and its ultimate success lay in their hands.

It remains to be seen whether Chunsam and Jedol will find their families, as Sampal quickly did. Follow Earth Island’s Dolphin Project on Facebook and Twitter for updates on these liberated dolphins and other campaigns to protect dolphins.

Please Donate to the Korean Animal Welfare Association to support their continued work with dolphins and animals. 

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