In yet another bad press item this summer for SeaWorld, a young beluga, “Bella,” died after a brief and unknown illness. This sad and premature death reflects the unhappy fate of many belugas held in oceanariums around the world. Belugas, like orcas, are a highly social and intelligent species, and do not fare well when confined to small tanks. Although recent media buzz has focused on “Blackfish,” “Death at SeaWorld,” and captive orcas in general, belugas face similar issues – they are a social species that have remarkable site fidelity (individuals return to the same areas year after year), amazing echolocation skills, and an enormously diverse vocal repertoire; and are thus very sensitive to sound. They are also top-level predators that play important roles in the overall health of their environment.
In captivity, they experience shorter lifespans, boredom, sensory deprivation, and disruption of their social structure. Instead of naturally occurring associations and groups, they are put into whatever assemblages are created by the oceanarium industry. Attempts to breed belugas in captivity have been unsuccessful, as shown by the death of Bella at the young age of 4 – the loss of young belugas means that facilities have to continuously import belugas from the wild to replenish their displays. While captive orcas are now rarely taken from the wild, the desire to replenish the tanks means belugas are still captured from wild populations.
NOAA recently denied a permit to import 18 wild belugas to oceanariums across the US, citing the fragility of the northern stock and the unknown impacts to the species as a whole. These belugas were from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, an area that has not been well-studied where the beluga population dynamics are unknown. When animals are taken from the wild, the individuals who are forced into captivity are not the only ones who suffer – family members and social consorts left behind must deal with the sudden change in their population structure and significant loss from their group. The permit was denied because the effects of removing 18 individuals – a little more than the starting lineup of a soccer team (including substitutes) – could have detrimental effects on the entire population, just like removing all the starters from a team would do. Not enough is known about the Sea of Okhotsk population to predict exactly what could happen, though there is no doubt that removing 18 potential contributors to the gene pool greatly reduces the overall genetic health of the population
While orcas are the recent poster-faces for the anti-captivity movement, it is important to remember the other animals that suffer from captivity. Belugas, pilot whales, porpoises, and dolphins are all held captive in stressful and traumatic situations that reduce their quality of life. WDC’s mission is a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free, and that includes all individuals held in captivity, even the ones that are sometimes overlooked.
In a heartwarming tale of flippered perseverance, a dolphin captured and held for several years in captivity is back with her family this week after escaping from her pen and seeking out her old pod.
The dolphin, named Sampal, was first caught by fishermen off Jeju Island, near South Korea, according to environmental blog Take Part, which has been following the dolphin's story.
Fishermen then illegally sold Sampal to the Pacific Land Aquarium, where she spent years being forced to perform tricks in order to eat. Ten other dolphins were also at the facility.
"These dolphins are being kept in abysmal conditions, with barely enough room to dive in their cramped tank," Ric O’Barry, director of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, previously told Earth Island Journal. "They are good candidates for release and so they should be returned to the ocean.”
O’Barry, who had been asked to observe the dolphins by the Korean Animal Welfare Association, helped push the aquarium to give up the dolphins, which were then sent for rehabilitation.
"[The surviving dolphins] are now back in their home range, in a temporary sea pen, and I have every reason to believe they know exactly what to do once they are released back to their original water," O'Barry said in June, according to the Dolphin Project.
Apparently impatient to rejoin the open sea, Sampal escaped her temporary sea pen on June 22 ahead of her scheduled release.
Although her abrupt departure worried some, on June 27 members of the Cetacean Research Institute spotted her with swimming the very same pod of dolphins from which she was taken four years before.
“I think the others will do fine once they are released too,” Ric O'Barry told Take Part. “They know exactly what to do; they just need the opportunity to do it.”
Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project Liked · 6 hours ago Taiji: Opening day of the dolphin hunting season. Japanese activist stood strong showing their support for an immediate end to the slaughter. We fully support their efforts. 9/1/13 Taiji Japan Unlike · · Share Top CommentsYou and 2,726 others like this. 1,500 shares Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project I have been waiting for this day for ten years. Japanese activists stepping up and taking over. Only they can solve the problem. Like · Reply · 158 · 4 hours ago via mobile 7 Replies · 38 minutes ago Douaa Dhahri This guy had a break down as soon as he put his head under the water because he could hear the dolphins crying and screaming...very emotional moment on live streaming...RESPECT Like · Reply · 114 · 6 hours ago via mobile 7 Replies · about an hour ago Tracy Michelle Halstad Come on Japan activists the change must come from you x x Like · Reply · 56 · 6 hours ago via mobile 2 Replies · 5 hours ago Yoshi Ko I made this poster with advised from my friend. We chose each word carefully. And he drew the dolphin art!! So it is in entirely created by the spirit of Japanese dolphin lovers !!Like · Reply · 32 · 3 hours ago8 Replies · 3 minutes ago Marita Koelsch Brave guy! we all must encourage the Japanese people to support tje protest.Like · Reply · 26 · 6 hours ago via mobile Janey Jayne Well done to those people. May they be safe.Like · Reply · 11 · 6 hours ago 6 of 159 View more comments
After four years in captivity, the wild dolphin is once again live life as nature intended -- free.
In 2009, along the waters off Jeju Island in South Korea, a ten-year-old female dolphin was mistakenly captured in a fishing net. But instead being released back into the wild as law requires, she was sold to a local aquarium and given the name Sampal, bound to a life a world apart from the one she had known.
Over the next four years, the wild dolphin was housed in a small pool, forced perform tricks as part of a dolphin show -- treatment many believe is inhumane.
Yet as word spread of Sampal's plight and the injustice of her captivity, folks across the country began to call for the dolphin to be set loose back into the wild. Animal rights advocates, biologists, and even Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon added their voices to the once-wild dolphin's cause, spurring the Korean High Court to finally deliver orders that Sampal be returned to the open ocean.
But before her keepers had the chance to set her free as was planned for later this summer, Sampal managed to find her own way home.
While undergoing rehabilitation in a netted sea pen to ready her once again for life in the wild, Sampal apparently decided she'd waited long enough. Months before her planned release, the dolphin somehow managed to swim through a narrow tear in the pen's netting to freedom in the vast ocean beyond -- ending her four year ordeal in captivity.
Winner of the 2009 Academy Award for best feature documentary, The Cove follows a high-tech dive...
The Cove shared Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project's photo.13 hours ago.
Amazing volunteers from around the World have joined Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project in Japan this year! #Tweet4Dolphins #JDD2013 Some of our amazing volunteers from around the World that have joined us in Japan this year. #Tweet4Dolphins #JDD2013
OFFICIAL PAGE. Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project is an Earth Island campaign which encompasses Ric's work around the world as he saves dolphins from slaughter and exploitation.