Rescued bottlenose dolphins swim free from Indonesia sanctuary

The trio were rescued three years ago from a tiny pool at a resort hotel they were sold to after years of performing in a traveling circus.

BALI, Indonesia — Three bottlenose dolphins were released into the open sea in Indonesia on Saturday after years of being caged to amuse tourists who would touch and swim with them.

As red and white Indonesian flags fluttered, underwater gates opened off the island of Bali to allow Johnny, Rocky and Rambo to swim freely.

The trio were rescued three years ago from their tiny pool at a resort hotel to which they had been sold after years of performing in a traveling circus.

They regained their health and strength at the Bali Sanctuary, a floating enclosure in a bay that offered a gentler, more natural environment.

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Lincoln O’Barry, who worked with the Indonesian government to set up the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center, said dolphins are wild animals that should roam free.

“It was an incredibly emotional experience to see her go,” O’Barrry said.

The center was initiated in 2019 by the Bali Forestry Department and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. “Umah lumba” means “dolphin” in Indonesian.

After the gates opened, the dolphins gazed at the opening for some time, unsure of their next step. But after an hour or so they set off, sometimes jumping over choppy waves.

The Associated Press followed their release via an online live stream. O’Barry documents the release with drones and underwater footage for a film.

The Indonesian government supported the dolphin rescue and partnered with the Dolphin Project, which was founded by Lincoln’s father, Ric O’Barry, who was also involved in the release.

Ric O’Barry was a dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV show “Flipper” but came later to see the toll the animals were taking. Since then he has dedicated his life to releasing dolphins to the wild.

Center staff clapped as the dolphins swam out. Wahyu Lestari, rehabilitation coordinator at the center, said she was a little sad to see her go.

“I’m glad they’re free and going back to their family,” she said. “They should be in the wild because they’re born in the wild.”

The rescued dolphins will be monitored at sea with GPS tracking for a year. They can return to the sanctuary for visits, although it’s unclear what they will do. You can join another group, stay together, or go your separate ways.

Dolphins in captivity are carted 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, had teeth worn down to the gum line when he was rescued in 2019. Earlier this year, dentists fitted him with dolphin-style dental crowns so he can now tackle 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 rescuing dolphins from captivity in locations from Brazil to South Korea, and Saturday’s release in the US marked their first in Indonesia.

The Indonesian government’s decision to save the dolphins followed a decade-long public education campaign that included billboards, artwork, school programs and a campaign urging people not to buy tickets to dolphin shows.

A government minister stood by to open the gate at the shrine on Saturday.

Lincoln O’Barry said the Indonesian sanctuary will 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, appreciating nature doesn’t have to involve a zoo or a dolphin show, he said.

Nonetheless, dolphin shows are still popular in China, the Middle East and Japan.

In Japan, father and son drew attention to the dolphin hunt in the city of Taiji, documented in the Oscar-winning 2010 film The Cove. Every year, fishermen scare and corral dolphins in a cove, capturing some to sell to dolphin shows and killing others for food.

Whale and dolphin meat is considered a delicacy in Japanese culinary tradition. But Taiji has drawn protests from conservationists for years, including some Japanese.

The three dolphins released in Indonesia were soon miles (kilometers) apart in the waters. But before leaving, they circled the sanctuary.

“They turned and came back to us one more time, almost to say thank you and goodbye. And then they went straight out to sea and disappeared,” said Lincoln O’Barry.

“We don’t know where they’re going next. But we wish them a good long life.” Rescued bottlenose dolphins swim free from Indonesia sanctuary

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