Dolphins are one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth, capable of more complex communication and comprehension than nearly every other species. Their intelligence is one reason humans have captured dolphins and trained them for entertainment, but it’s also one reason why keeping them in captivity is seen as cruel.
According to The Korea Times, Bibong, a 23-year-old Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, has just been successfully released into the wild after 17 years of captivity in an aquarium in South Korea. He is the last of his species to be freed by the Korean government after being declared endangered in 2012.
The plans for Bibong’s release were announced in August and Bibong has spent more than two months training to adapt to life in the wide open ocean. Bibong is one of eight dolphins that had been kept in an aquarium on Jeju Island, but the other seven were released in 2013, 2015 and 2017. According to Korea Now, Bibong was seen refusing to obey his trainer’s orders during a performance last year, “possibly due to chronic stress and pressure.”
This summer, Bibong was moved to a transitional facility where he could learn to communicate with other dolphins and prepare for life in the wild. An estimated 120 Indo-Pacific dolphins live off of Jeju Island, where Bibong was originally captured in 2005.
Now that he’s been released, he will be monitored by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries daily for 30 days via a tracking device attached to his fin, followed by at least five consecutive days of monitoring per month for another six months. Updates on his progress will be provided to animal rights groups, marine mammal experts and government officials, according to the Times.
Both The Korea Times and Korea Now note that a popular Netflix show, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” helped bring the plight of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin into the spotlight when the show’s lead character said, “I want to see an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin near the coast of Jeju someday.”
In August, Korea Now shared footage of Bibong as he was moved from the aquarium to the training facility where he has spent 70 days preparing for life in the wild:
Oceans Minister Cho Seung-hwan told The Korea Times that the most important thing for the dolphin is to live a healthy and happy life after it returns to the ocean.
“We will fortify marine animal protection policies to improve their well-being,” Seung-hwan said. “The government will continue discussions with the aquarium industry to help a greater number of animals return to where they came from and belong.”
The ministry is also hoping to release a beluga whale named Ruby from an aquarium in South Jeolla Province sometime late next year.
Efforts to save marine mammals from extinction have shown great potential for success. Humpback whales, for example, have made a comeback and have been taken off of endangered species lists after industrial whaling nearly wiped them out in the 20th century.
But even whales and dolphins that aren’t in danger of extinction deserve to live freely in the wild whenever possible.