BALI, 9/3/22: It was a perfect morning: The sea was calm, the sky was filled with the warmth of the rising sun, and a chorus of birds sang in the background. On the dock, the poles were painted red and white, representing the colors of the Indonesian flag.
At approximately 8:00 a.m., the Minister of Forestry and Environment for the Republic of Indonesia, Dr. Ir. Siti Nurbaya, M.Sc and her delegation arrived. She officially opened the gate of the foraging pen, allowing the dolphins to move from the foraging pen (where they had remained overnight), into the main pen, from which the far end facing the opening of Banyuwedang Bay had been completely removed. Over the next 90 minutes, Johnny, Rocky and Rambo remained in the main pen, despite being fully aware that the netting separating them from the bay was down. They would make their way to the opening and hover there, without crossing over. To us, going through that opening represented freedom, but to the dolphins, going through represented a journey into the unknown.
Finally, at 9:33 a.m. local time, Johnny was the first to go out, leading the way for the other two dolphins to follow. This ‘elder statesman’ swam a few yards into the opening, and then swam to the side of the main pen, where he began communicating with Rocky and Rambo. Within moments, they too swam out of the pen. All three dolphins dove down, popping up about 20 yards away. Logging on the surface of the water, they were definitely looking back at us. Then, in unison, they dove down again, this time, popping up about 150 yards away. They were heading towards the open ocean. When the dolphins reached the mouth of the bay, they turned around, coming back towards the center of the bay. They swam by the sea pen, turned again, and then swam into a straight line towards the open water. Once they crossed the threshold where the bay met the open ocean, they were gone.
“They turned back around and came back to us one more time, almost to say thank you and good-bye. And then they headed straight out to open ocean and disappeared.” ~ Lincoln O’Barry, Campaigns Coordinator of Dolphin Project
When the global pandemic hit in 2020, just a few months after the dolphins were rescued from the Melka Excelsior Hotel in North Bali, the world went into an unprecedented lockdown. With three dolphins rehabilitating at the newly-formed Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center in Banyuwedang Bay, West Bali – the first and only permanent dolphin rehabilitation, release and retirement facility for formerly performing dolphins – our team did the only thing they could do: they stayed behind, ensuring that the dolphins received 24/7 protection and care.
At the time of rescue, Johnny, Rocky and Rambo were underweight, malnourished, and were suffering from a number of serious physical injuries. Gradually, under the care of our dedicated team, they began to come back to life. They regained their weight, strength and color, displaying their wild characteristics as nature intended it to be. During the past, few months, the dolphins had largely been catching their own fish, using sonar to hunt and capture prey. In the foraging pen, they spent hours engaged in cooperative hunting, and eating live fish. 90% of their time had been spent underwater, as opposed to captive dolphins who spend 90% of their time on the surface of the water. In essence, they successfully extinguished behaviors learnt in captivity, reflecting 30 million years of evolution.
For the past 40 years, all readaptation and release projects we have worked on took between two and four months. However, in the case of Johnny, Rocky and Rambo, their readaptation took much longer. With a combination of lockdowns, travel restrictions and gathering limitations, Indonesia stopped issuing permits to release animals into the wild. This continued until the spring of 2022, when we were finally able to get a permit to release the three dolphins.
“This project reflects an immense amount of pride for the Indonesian people. The country created the first permanent dolphin rehabilitation, release and retirement facility for formerly performing dolphins; it was the location for Johnny’s groundbreaking dental surgery. Even though our foreign vet developed the technique, the procedure was done by an Indonesian veterinarian. The foraging pen where the dolphins hunted and captured fish was designed by an Indonesian team. We are going to take the model of the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center and use it to build dolphin sanctuaries in both North America and Europe.” ~ Lincoln O’Barry, Campaigns Coordinator of Dolphin Project
While the release day remained clear and beautiful, strong winds prevailed. The team was able to follow the dolphins at a safe distance, but when the waters darkened due to chop, it became more difficult to visually see their dorsal fins.
Post-release, the next phase of the dolphins’ journey is only beginning. The first 90 days are crucial as the dolphins adjust to their new lives. As such, multiple contingency plans have been put in place for any possible scenarios. Our boats will be going out daily, observing the dolphins’ condition. Educational training has been conducted with local fishermen and boat operators, instructing them not to approach or feed the dolphins, should they come near. A hotline has been established, should the dolphins be sighted, and signage has been erected in multiple villages.
For up to one year following their release, state-of-the-art Argos satellite tracking will monitor the dolphins. While we hope they will return to their natural life as wild and free ranging mammals, our floating seapens will always remain open and be fully staffed, should they choose to return for a short while, or decide to make the Umah Lumba Center their permanent home. Work also needs to be completed so that the Umah Lumba Center will be ready to accept more dolphins in need. Costs are actually greater post-release than the readapation work itself. While monies are not being spent for feeding (approximately $3000 monthly), gasoline for the boats monitoring the dolphins, along with digital tracking costs are projected to be between $7500 and $10,000 monthly. For more information about the post release tracking, visit our Release FAQ page.
Under ideal conditions, dolphins should be released into their home range, as documented in the Protocol for Releasing Captive Dolphins. There were two release sites recommended: Karimun Jawa island or West Bali National Park. While our team of experts advocated for the former, the latter was selected by the Indonesian government.
The team is deeply grateful to our partners, including Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia, BKSDA Bali, Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Karimunjawa National Park and the West Bali National Park, without whom, none of this could have happened. Special thanks to: Minister of Forestry and Environment for the Republic of Indonesia Dr. Ir. Siti Nurbaya, M.Sc, Secretary General of the Ministry of Forestry and Environment Dr.Ir.Bambang Hendroyono M.M., Indra Eksploitasia Director of Biodiversity Conservation of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Head of BKSDA Bali Agus Santoso, Benvika Iben. Femke Den Haas, the entire team at Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Manohara Odelia, Martha Rogers, Paolo Martelli and Karthiyani Krishnasamy, Paula Murphy, Sulara James and Dr. Genesis Young, Inka Williams, Camille and Christopher Bently, 4Ocean, Yusuf Arief Rahman and the staff of Plataran Menjangan Resort, Green School Bali, Cressi Sub, Cardolphins and the thousands of donors and supporters. A very special thank you to the government and people of Indonesia.
Captured in the Java Sea, Johnny was carted from town to town, and forced to perform in a plastic pool in Indonesia’s traveling circus. His next stop was a heavily chlorinated swimming pool in the Melka Excelsior Hotel in North Bali, where, for many years, this older dolphin was held in isolation. Johnny’s captivity caused him great suffering, including skin damage and an injury to his right pectoral fin. His teeth were worn down to below the gum line, and he was also underweight. In 2019, we rescued Johnny and transported him to the Umah Lumba Center. He has since gained weight and strength, and in the summer of 2022, after careful planning and evaluation, Johnny was given new teeth in a first-ever technique. With the success of the procedure, Johnny is now able to catch, grasp and manipulate live fish.
Johnny suffered a severe cornea injury of his left eye in the remote past. The initial injury is not recorded in his history but a common cause of eye injury in dolphins is traumatic rubbing against the stretcher fabric or nets during capture or transport. These two events were common in the previous life of Johnny as part of the traveling dolphin circus. The cornea is thickened and permanently opacified as a result of healing. The eye globe is intact and the eye is visually functional as ascertained by close examination of the eye itself and his behaviorally accurate response to hand signals visible from that side only. It has no impact on his daily life.
Imagine being captured from the wild, then forced to perform in one of the world’s most abusive shows – the traveling dolphin circus. That’s what happened to Rocky. But it didn’t end there. After spending years as a circus performer, he was then sold to the Melka Excelsior Hotel in North Bali, where, for 10 years, he was confined to a small swimming pool interacting with an endless stream of tourists. Since we rescued Rocky in 2019, in the crystal clear waters of the Umah Lumba Center, he has gained weight and strength, and enjoys the natural rhythms and sounds of the sea.
It’s hard to envision the suffering endured by Rambo, violently captured from the ocean and forced to perform in Indonesia’s notorious traveling dolphin circus. If that wasn’t enough, this young dolphin was then confined inside a small swimming pool in the Melka Excelsior Hotel in North Bali, and, day after day, was forced to perform for paying tourists during loud theatrical shows. Since his rescue in 2019, Rambo has rehabilitated at the Umah Lumba Center, transforming into a highly energetic individual that is full of life.
The Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center and Camp Lumba Lumba Readaptation and Release Center form an incredible partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia, BKSDA Bali, Dolphin Project, Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Karimunjawa National Park and the West Bali National Park. Together, we built the Umah Lumba Center, the world’s first and only permanent dolphin rehabilitation, release and retirement facility for previously captive dolphins and Camp Lumba Lumba, the world’s first permanent facility dedicated to the readaptation and release of dolphins in Kemujan, Karimun Jawa. Ric O’Barry, Founder/Director of Dolphin Project has pioneered readaptation for captive dolphins and has released a number of dolphins into the wild.