BALI, 11/5/22: Our partners at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia, BKSDA Bali, Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Karimun Jawa National Park, the West Bali National Park and the entire team at the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center are devastated to report that Johnny passed away here, at the Umah Lumba Center in the early morning on November 1, 2022.
A necropsy was performed by our staff veterinarian, Deny Rahmadani DVM and his veterinary team. The preliminary findings revealed that Johnny developed a fatal respiratory infection. Laboratory tests are underway to identify the causative agent(s) of the infection, including bacterial cultures, histopathology and molecular investigations.
A history of suffering
Johnny was originally caught from the wild in Karimun Jawa, destined to be used as entertainment. At the time of his capture, his age was unknown, however, he spent a number of years carted from town to town, performing in plastic pools in Indonesia’s now-defunct traveling dolphin circus — notorious for its inhumane mistreatment of marine mammals.
In 2005, Johnny was purchased by the Melka Excelsior Hotel in North Bali. At the time, he was believed to be an older dolphin. For the next 14 years, he existed in a heavily-chlorinated swimming pool, much of this time spent 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.
On August 7, 2019, two of Johnny’s tank mates, Rocky and Rambo, along with many other animals suffering in appalling conditions, were successfully confiscated from the Melka Hotel. One dolphin, Gombloh, passed away just days before the rescue. Nine weeks later, the final two dolphins — Johnny and Dewa — were removed from the facility, and the hotel’s dolphin exhibit closed.
Johnny’s condition was deplorable from years of abuse. Dewa did not fare much better: covered in cuts from repeatedly jumping up against the broken tiles on the concrete edge of the swimming pool, multiple times he was observed exhibiting bizarre behavior, common in captive dolphins. Rocky and Rambo were underweight, but the latter was the youngest and the most likely to recover from his injuries.
In September 2019, created from an idea initiated by BKSDA Bali Forestry Department and the Ministry of Forestry, and working with local partners Jakarta Animal Aid Network to supply the manpower and Dolphin Project to provide the financial support and consultation, the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center in Banyuwedang Bay, West Bali, Indonesia — the first and only permanent dolphin rehabilitation, release and retirement facility for formerly performing dolphins — was built. (“Umah Lumba” means “dolphins” in Balinese.)
In the calm waters of the Umah Lumba Center, the dolphins began gaining weight and strength. They played, dove and ate their fill under the sun and stars, slowly healing in the natural, saltwater currents of the bay. Our expert team consisting of caregivers, security and a full-time staff veterinarian ensured that Rocky, Rambo, Johnny and Dewa received the very best of care.
Six months later, a global pandemic shut the world down. Despite the unprecedented nature of the emergent COVID-19 virus, our team continued to provide 24/7 care to the four rescued dolphins. Tragically, Dewa, while his condition initially improved, was still plagued with several health problems, including chronic pneumonia infections developed from ammoniac toxicity as pointed out in his autopsy results. On March 11, 2020, he succumbed to his longstanding illnesses.
With COVID-19 restrictions firmly in place, no permits would be issued for the release of the rescued dolphins. Initially, Rocky and Rambo were the first to be evaluated for release. However, Johnny’s health and progress were also carefully monitored for a possible release.
In April 2022, after careful planning and assessment, Johnny was given new teeth in a first-ever technique developed by Paolo Martelli DVM and conducted by Deny Rahmadani DVM who placed a total of 22 artificial crowns over a period of three days — 14 on his bottom jaw and eight on his upper jaw. As the drilling was done in a part of the teeth that no longer had nerve endings, Johnny experienced no pain. In fact, during the procedure, Johnny willfully came to us, and required the use of neither sedation nor restraints. With the success of the procedure, Johnny was able to catch, grasp and manipulate live fish — and now, he too, was given the green light to be released back into the wild.
On September 3, 2022, three years since Rocky, Rambo and Johnny were confiscated from the horrific conditions of a hotel swimming pool, a section of the netting at the Umah Lumba Center was removed, and the dolphins swam out towards the open ocean. The release technique used is referred to as soft-release, meaning that the dolphins can choose if and when to return to the release site for supplemental feeding or shelter.
Johnny was the first to go out, leading the way for the other two dolphins to follow. Within moments, Rocky and Rambo too swam out of the pen. All three dolphins dove down, popping up about 20 yards away. Briefly on the surface of the water, they were definitely looking back at us. Then, in unison, they dove down again, this time reappearing 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 facility, turned again, and then swam in a straight line towards the open water. Once they crossed the threshold where the bay meets the open ocean, they were out of sight. When a dolphin is released, it becomes a wild animal, which is a protected species. Any intervention requires government permits and approval, and forestry enforced a hands-off approach.
Post-release, to ensure the dolphins’ health and safety, our boats went out daily, observing their condition. Educational training was conducted with local fishermen and boat operators, instructing them not to approach or feed the dolphins, should they come near. A hotline was established, should the dolphins be sighted, and signage was erected in multiple villages. Finally, state-of-the-art Argos satellite tracking allowed us to triangulate the dolphins’ general location.
It is a dolphin’s birthright to make its own choices and decisions
On day one, the group remained together. However, on day two, the dolphins split up: Johnny and Rambo stayed together, exploring the immediate area while Rocky swam in another direction, traveling great distances to another part of Indonesia. This was not a surprise to us as a) Rocky was always somewhat independent, and b) three adult males would be less likely to join the same pod, however, a single dolphin might.
Satellite tracking for marine mammals is far from a perfect science and presents many challenges. Rocky lost his signal from the morning of September 3 to the evening of September 5. His last GPS signal transmitted on September 16. Rambo’s tracking stopped working from September 24 to October 15, believed to be due to bioaccumulation. Johnny’s tracking stopped transmitting from September 23 to October 16, likely, for the same reason.
There are many potential variables that could affect how long the physical tags last:
- Battery life, and factors that affect the battery (weather/temperature, number of transmissions, etc.)
- Physical damage from animal behavior
- Excessive biofouling (accumulation of microorganisms) on the tag
- Attachment failure, the tag naturally migrates or the pin corrodes after a period of time due to mechanical and/or chemical stresses
- Adverse weather and sea conditions
- Damaged antenna preventing successful transmissions
- Natural (predation) or anthropogenic mortality such as boat strikes or entanglement in nets by commercial or recreational fishermen
- Any other unknowns
For the first two weeks, Johnny and Rambo were busy exploring a nearby bay in the National Park. However, during the past month, they returned to the bay in which the Umah Lumba Center is located, choosing to spend their time inside or around the facility. With a large section of netting remaining down, the two dolphins slept in or near the facility each night. Johnny and Rambo were seen to consume fish daily. Rambo continues to investigate the area adjacent to the facility and regularly takes off to explore the whole bay.
An elder statesman
Based on physical appearance, known time in captivity and a post-mortem examination of the cross section of his teeth, Johnny was estimated to be 30+ years old or possibly 40+ years old at the time of his passing. His teeth have been sent off for a more detailed examination by cross-sectioning for GLG counts. The teeth can have rings similar to trees that can provide insight to a more approximate age range, but not an exact number. Johnny’s rings were so tight that a visible count with the naked eye is not possible.
While the news of Johnny’s passing is heartbreaking, we remain committed to helping the countless dolphins still suffering in the name of entertainment.
Featured image: Johnny, Umah Lumba Center, Bali, Indonesia. Credit: Pepe Arcos
Update on Released Bali Dolphins
Free at Last!
Rescued Dolphin Johnny Gets New Teeth
Indonesia’s Traveling Dolphin Circus Shut Down
Bali Dolphins Confiscated; New Sanctuary Established
Dolphins Confiscated from Melka Hotel
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.