TOKYO (AP) – Three bottlenose dolphins were released into the open sea off Indonesia on Saturday after years in captivity for the entertainment of tourists who will touch and swim with them.
As the red and white flags of Indonesia flew, the underwater floodgates opened on the island of Bali to allow Johnny, Rocky and Rambo to swim free.
The trio were rescued three years ago from their small pool at a resort hotel to which they had been sold after years spent performing in a traveling circus.
They regained their health and strength in the Bali sanctuary, a floating pen in a bay that provided a gentler, more natural environment.
Lincoln O’Barry, who worked with the Indonesian government to set up the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Liberation and Retirement Center, said dolphins are wild animals that should live freely.
“It was an incredibly emotional experience to see them go,” O’Barry said.
The center was launched in 2019 by the Bali Forestry Department and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. “Umah lumba” means “dolphin” in Indonesian.
For a long time after the gates opened, the dolphins stared at the opening, unsure of their next move. But after about an hour, they were on their way, sometimes jumping over choppy waves.
The Associated Press watched their launch via an online live stream. O’Barry documents traffic with drones and underwater footage for a film.
The Indonesian government supported the rescue of the dolphins, working with the Dolphin Project, founded by Lincoln’s father, Rick O’Barry, who was also in the release.
Ric O’Barry was the dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV show “Flipper,” but later saw the animal bill. Since then he has dedicated his life to returning dolphins to the wild.
Center workers applauded as the dolphins swam out. Wahyu Lestari, rehabilitation coordinator at the center, said she was a little sad to see them go.
“I am happy that they are free and returning to their family,” he said. “They should be in the wild because they are born in the wild.”
The released dolphins will be tracked at sea with GPS tracking for one year. They may return for visits to the shrine, although it is not clear what they will do. They may join another pod, stay together, or go their separate ways.
Dolphins in captivity are transported from city to city, kept in chlorinated water, kept in isolation or forced to interact with tourists, often resulting in injuries.
Johnny, the oldest dolphin, had teeth worn down to below the gum line when he was rescued in 2019. Earlier this year, dentists fitted him with dolphin-style dental crowns so he can now squeeze 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 working to save dolphins from captivity in locations from Brazil to South Korea, and Saturday’s US release was 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 an effort asking people not to buy tickets to dolphin shows.
A government minister was all set to raise the gate at the shrine on Saturday.
Lincoln O’Barry said the Indonesian sanctuary would continue to be used for other captive dolphins. Similar sanctuaries are under construction in North America and Europe as more dolphin shows approach. With virtual reality and other technology, appreciating nature doesn’t have to involve a zoo or a dolphin show, he said.
However, dolphin shows are still popular in China, the Middle East and Japan.
In Japan, a father and son have drawn attention to the dolphin hunt in the city of Taiji, documented in the 2010 Oscar-winning film “The Cove.” Every year, fishermen scare and strand dolphins in a cove, capture some to sell in dolphin shows, and kill others for food.
Whale and dolphin meat is considered a delicacy in Japanese culinary tradition. But Taiji has drawn protests from environmentalists for years, including some in Japan.
The three dolphins released in Indonesia were soon found miles (kilometers) away in the waters. But before their departure, they circled around the shrine.
“They turned around and came back to us one more time, almost to say thank you and goodbye. And then they headed straight out into the open ocean and disappeared,” said Lincoln O’Barry.
“Where they are headed next, we don’t know. But we wish them a good life.”
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama