4 min read

Don't Believe SeaWorld's Hype: Once-Captive Dolphins Can Thrive In The Wild

<p><a class="redactor-added-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/101951515@N07/">Michele W</a></p>

It's been almost a year since Chunsam, Jedol and Sampal -- three dolphins held in illegal captivity in South Korean aquarium tanks -- were set free in the Korea Strait. And, as photos from earlier this week show, these bottlenose dolphins have taken to life in the sea with open fins.

Kim Byeong-yeup, a professor at Jeju National University who spearheaded the animals' release, snapped pictures of Jedol and Sampal off the coast of Jeju Island two days ago:

Jedol and Sampal can be identified by the markings on their fins.

The photos are "absolute proof of our success in the rehab and release of Jedol and Sampal," says Ric O'Barry, the director of the Dolphin Project who was a consultant on the animal's rehabilitation. "They are making it in the wild ocean again."

SeaWorld, however, has long denied that dolphins accustomed to captivity will survive without the help of humans. In an interview with "Frontline" in 1997, for example, SeaWorld veterinarian Jim McBain says: "We're not going to release any of the animals in our collection because they have been in our collection for long periods of time and we're not gonna put them at risk where they can die."

But, as these photos show, once-captive dolphins can flourish -- not perish -- in the ocean. Of course, "not all captive dolphins can or should be returned to their natural homes," O'Barry points out in his protocol for releasing dolphins. "But all captive dolphins may be re-adapted to a more natural environment, to a natural sea lagoon, for example."

For the trio of Korean dolphins, rehabilitators had planned to coax the animals back to the wild ocean after a few weeks in a sea pen. But the dolphins were even more eager for their return to the sea -- Sampal escaped through a hole in the pen before the official release date. Five days after she slipped through the pen -- four years after her capture -- Sampal was spotted swimming with her original pod.