Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Back to the Blue

Project Report - Returning two captive bottlenose dolphins to the wild

In May 2015 the Born Free Foundation launched its ground breaking Back to the Blue report, outlining the efforts undertaken and methods used to rescue, rehabilitate and release two former captive dolphins back to the wild.  It is hoped that this report will provide the vital information to facilitate the rehabilitation and release of other captive cetacea.

Tom and Misha back to the blue
© M. Partica

Tom and Misha, two bottlenose dolphins, were originally captured from the wild off the coast of Turkey and were subsequently used to perform and provide ‘swim-with’ opportunities for tourists in captive facilities.  Following a campaign in 2010, spearheaded by the Born Free Foundation and a local network of concerned individuals known as the Dolphin Angels, Tom and Misha were rescued and re-homed to a specially constructed sea-pen, in partnership with  Turkish NGO, S.A.D., where they underwent an extensive programme of rehabilitation prior to their release on 9th May 2012.

The Back to the Blue project not only aimed to rescue these two individuals from an appalling situation but also to highlight the plight of captive dolphins and the repercussions of the increasing impact of ‘swim-with’ opportunities on the animals concerned.

Tom and Misha were caught from the wild and expert analysis suggested they retained some of the survival skills that they had developed in their wild environment.  Captivity had, however, undoubtedly not only eroded their fitness but also replaced their reliance on their wild behaviours with dependence on their trainers. 

Some of the key goals:

  1. Ensure optimal physical condition 
    A wild bottlenose dolphin’s average swimming speed is 1.5-1.7 m/sec with bursts of speed up to 8.3 m/sec. 
  2. Re-train to hunt, kill and consume live fish
    In the wild dolphins are independent, feeding whenever they need/want to.  They also feed opportunistically, based on prey availability, which is often scattered and mobile.
  3. Encourage a truly underwater existence
    Wild dolphins spend up to 80% or more of their time below the water’s surface, whereas captive dolphins spend over 80% of their time at the water’s surface.  
  4. Establish and encourage re-use of echolocation and hearing skills
    Without optimum hearing and echolocation it becomes more difficult for the dolphins to hunt and navigate through the water.  

On release day, being cautious by nature, Tom and Misha refused at first to swim through the gate and out into the sea.  After about 20 minutes the team gave Tom the hand signal to swim through the gate and Tom slowly responded, swimming through the gate to freedom.  Within seconds of Tom swimming through Misha joined him and hurriedly swam through the opening.  They quickly rounded the corner of the small bay and raced excitedly around the area and out to sea.

The first few weeks post release are the most critical.  It takes time to adjust to a new environment and to compete, both in terms of locating wild food sources and avoiding potential hazards. Through post-release monitoring it was determined that Tom continued on a journey west, rounding the Turkish coast at Bodrum and continued north towards Izmir.  Misha headed back eastwards along the southern Turkish coast line. Tom and Misha were subsequently tracked via satellite until 14th October 2012 and 29th November 2012 respectively. 

The successful rehabilitation and release back to the wild of Tom and Misha not only gave them their freedom back, it also lit a beacon of hope for other captive cetacean. Born Free's Back to the Blue project, with its detailed post release monitoring phase, proved what is possible. Tom and Misha were rescued from their tiny concrete tank where they had been languishing in filthy water and going downhill fast and, over a period of twenty months, transformed into the sleek, efficient  predators  they should be.  Their journey back to the blue was not without considerable challenges; however the rehabilitation team, led by Jeff Foster, worked with Tom and Misha every day, adjusting and developing the process to support their individual characters and skills.  A considerable undertaking for two dolphins - and worth it for that - but ultimately worth so much more if it can break down more concrete tanks and help get dolphins back where they belong - in the wild”. Alison Hood

You can read the full report here

The programme was developed and managed by Jeff Foster, a marine mammal expert from the US whose previous experience included the rescue, re-location and release of Springer, a young orca in Canadian waters who had become lost in Seattle’s Puget Sound. With additional thanks to: Derya Yildirim; Michael Partica; Amy Souster; Dr John A Knight; Dr Juli Goldstein; Stephen McCulloch; Jim Horton and Born Free’s former Director of Rescue and Care, Alison Hood.

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Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906

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