Johnny, Rocky, and Rambo were originally captured from the wild, in the Java Sea, and then forced to perform in one of the world’s most abusive shows – the (now defunct) traveling dolphin circus. Following this, they were sent to the Melka Excelsior Hotel in North Bali, where they were confined inside a small swimming pool, and made to perform for paying tourists. Living in deplorable conditions, they spent years as show dolphins. In 2019, the three dolphins were rescued, and brought to the 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.
No one could have guessed that mere months after the dolphins were rescued, a global pandemic would cause the world to come to a standstill. Plans were put on hold, new challenges needed to be met, and escalating stressors would befell the planet. With three dolphins in our care rehabilitating at the newly-formed Umah Lumba Center, our team did the only thing they could: they stayed behind, ensuring the dolphins received 24/7 protection and care.
Gradually, all three dolphins healed and regained their strength, while enjoying the natural rhythms and sounds of the sea. They began to catch fish efficiently on their own. And, with a revolutionary procedure to give Johnny new teeth, he was now able to join his mates in capturing, grasping and swallowing his prey. Their bloodwork and weights were perfect, and they preferred to spend their time underwater, as nature intended. After careful assessment, the decision was made to give the dolphins the option to return to the wild.
What is Dolphin Project’s role in the release of Johnny, Rocky and Rambo?
The creation of the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center represents a partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia, BKSDA Bali, Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Karimunjawa National Park, the West Bali National Park and Dolphin Project. The project followed Dolphin Project’s Protocol for the Rehabilitation and Release of Captive Dolphins. We are consultants, along with being the sole financial sponsor of the project. As such, we can only make recommendations, with all final decisions made within the Department of Forestry.
What type of rehabilitation did the dolphins go through?
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 and a robust rehabilitation prohram, they began to come back to life. They regained their weight, strength and color, displaying their wild characteristics as nature intended it to be. Along with readapting to the natural sounds, sights and rhythms of the sea, the dolphins were gradually reintroduced to live fish. Over time, they came to chase and catch live fish on their own in a specially constructed “foraging pen” which has special netting that the fish cannot swim through.
During the final 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.
Will the dolphins be tracked?
A combination of State-of-the-art Argos satellite data and handheld VHF receivers 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, 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, as well as tracking are projected to cost between $7500 and $10,000 monthly.
How long will the tracking tags last?
We are optimistic that the battery life of the tags will last around 8 to 10 months with our current settings. Tag retention depends on individual behaviour and how well the tags were attached plus many other variables. Without trying to sound silly, the answer could lie somewhere between several days to 10 months.
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 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 unknown unknown
Why was Bali chosen as the release location?
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.
“We aren’t actually setting Johnny, Rocky and Rambo free. Freedom is about choices and decisions. A portion of the fence will be removed by government officials and the dolphins will have a choice: if they choose to stay we will take care of them for life. If they choose to go we will monitor them via satellite. If they get into trouble we can find them and bring them back.” ~ Ric O’Barry, Founder/Director of Dolphin Project
Is Johnny blind?
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 nil impact on his daily life.
Will all three dolphins stay together after release?
While Johnny, Rocky and Rambo spent time together during their rehabilitation at the Umah Lumba Center, it is uncertain if they will choose to stay together after the release. We will leave that up to the dolphins to decide.
What happens to the Umah Lumba Center after Johnny, Rocky and Rambo are released?
Your Help is Needed
For one year following their release, state-of-the-art Argos satellite data 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, 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, as well as tracking are projected to cost between $7500 and $10,000 monthly. Please consider Adopting a Dolphin today as much work still needs to be done.
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.