TOKYO — Three bottlenose dolphins in Indonesia were released into the open sea on Saturday after being imprisoned for years to entertain tourists who touched and swam with them.
As the red and white Indonesian flags fluttered, the underwater gates of the island opened. Bali To let Johnny, Rocky and Rambo swim free.
They were rescued three years ago from their small pool at a resort hotel, where they were sold after spending years performing in a traveling circus.
They regained their health and strength at the Balinese temple, a pen floating in a cove that provides a softer, more natural environment.
Lincoln O’Barry, who worked with the Indonesian government to establish the Umah Lumba Center for Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement, said dolphins are wild animals that should live free.
“It was an incredibly emotional experience to see them go,” O’Barry said.
The center was launched in 2019 by the Bali Department of Forestry and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. “Umah lumba” means “dolphin” in Indonesian.
Some time after the doors opened, the dolphins stared into the clearing, unsure of their next move. But after about an hour, they set off, sometimes jumping over the choppy waves.
The Associated Press followed their broadcast via an online livestream. O’Barry documents the evacuation with drones and underwater footage for a movie.
The Indonesian government has supported the rescue of dolphins by working with the Dolphin Project, which was founded by Lincoln’s father Ric O’Barry.
Ric O’Barry was the dolphin trainer for the TV show “Flipper” in the 1960s, but later came to see the animal toll. He has since devoted his life to returning dolphins to the wild.
The center staff applauded as the dolphins swam out. Wahyu Lestari, the rehabilitation coordinator at the center, said he was a little sad that they were gone.
“I am happy that they are free and will be back to their families,” he said. “Because they are in the wild, they must be in the wild.”
The released dolphins will be tracked at sea with GPS tracking for a year. They may return to the temple for visits, although it is unclear what they will do. They can join another division, stay together, or go their separate ways.
Dolphins in captivity are dumped from town to town, kept in chlorinated water, kept in isolation or forced to interact with tourists, often resulting in injury.
Johnny, the oldest dolphin, was eroded below the gumline when he was rescued in 2019. Earlier this year, dentists provided him with dolphin-style dental crowns so he can now pinch live fish.
Johnny was the first of three dolphins to sail.
Ric and Lincoln O’Barry have spent half a century rescuing dolphins from captivity from Brazil to South Korea, and the US released the first in Indonesia on Saturday.
The Indonesian government’s decision to save the dolphins comes after billboards, artwork, school programs and a ten-year public education campaign asking people not to buy tickets to dolphin shows.
A government minister was on hand to raise the door at the sanctuary on Saturday.
Lincoln O’Barry said the Indonesian sanctuary will continue to be used for other captive dolphins. As more dolphin shows draw near, similar sanctuaries are in the works in North America and Europe. With virtual reality and other technologies, appreciation of nature doesn’t have to include a zoo or dolphin show, he said.
Still, dolphin shows are in China, the Middle East and Japan.
In Japan, father and son drew attention to dolphin hunting in Taiji town, which was documented in the 2010 Oscar-winning film “The Cove.” Every year, fishermen frighten dolphins into a cove, catching some to sell at dolphin shows, and killing others for food.
Whale and dolphin meat is considered a delicacy in Japanese culinary tradition. But Taiji has sparked protests from environmentalists for years, including some Japanese.
The three dolphins released in Indonesia were soon in the waters miles away. But before they set off, they circled the sanctuary.
“They came back and came back to us once again, almost to say thank you and goodbye. Then they headed straight for the open ocean and disappeared,” said Lincoln O’Barry.
“We don’t know where they will go next. But we wish them a long life.”
Yuri Kageyama on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
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