by Richard O'Barry


Though each dolphin is different and the return of captive dolphins to their natural habitat is perhaps more an art than science, there are, nevertheless, criteria for release. Over the past twenty-five years, I have been involved in the readaptation, rehabilitation and release of more than a dozen dolphins.

This is not to say that all captive dolphins can or should be returned to their natural homes. But all captive dolphins may be readapted to a more normal environment, to a natural sea lagoon, for example. This would provide the dolphin with the natural rhythm of the sea; the odes, the currents and exposure to living fish. All of this is therapeudic and improves the quality of life for the captive. At this point the dolphin may be a candidate for release depending on several factors:

1. Health and physical condition

2. Use of sonar

3. Ability to catch fish

4. Defensive skills against predators

Most dolphins born in what we call "the wild" are candidates for readaptation and release. But not all of them. Some dolphins have been in captivity too long and have forgotten or lost the skills needed to survive in what was once their home. Habitat dictates behavior. Captivity has destroyed something vital in their lives, something that, were they human, we would call "spirit." For them, it's too late.

Some years ago, for instance, I had occasion to study a dolphin in Nassau who had been in captivity for a long time and was now quite mad. They called him "Big Boy" and he spent much of his time ramming his head against the wooden entrance to his sea pen. On one side of the wooden gate was the area where he was protected, admired and watched with fascination, sometimes by hundreds of people. He was fed all he wanted to eat and was clearly master of his world. On the other was the sea, his natural home. And as I watched him banging his head against the gate one day, I wondered if it would be possible to readapt him to the wild again. What would happen if we simply let him go? In the old days at the Miami Seaquarium when we no longer needed a particular dolphin, we put him in a sling, carried him out to the seawall and simply dumped him into Biscayne Bay. In the industry this is called a "Dump and Run." This happened to Pedro, for instance, a huge male dolphin who became too hard to handle. How he fared in the waters off Miami, nobody knows.

But Big Boy was quite another problem dolphin. Captivity had turned him into a mental cripple. If we could readapt him, I thought, we could readapt any dolphin. But the longer I watched, the more I realized that we were too late. He'd had too much of it. I don't mean mistreatment. I never saw anyone deliberately mistreat Big Boy. In fact, I saw the reverse of that. What I saw was an excess of "love." Everybody wanted to be with him, to touch him and talk to him; in short, everybody wanted to "help" the big old dolphin. But nobody knew how. And so, day after day, always smiling but full of rage, the big dolphin banged his head as if to get free again; a stressed out dolphin who was uncooperative, unpredictable, suspicious and dangerous, a dolphin filled with so much hate that I knew I could never reach him.

What caused this to happen? Human intervention and stress. This always plays a leading part in the death of captive dolphins. Stress is the result of not enough space, too many people and having to play the fool too long. It is also the result of having to live in artificial world without tides, without the tastes and sounds of the ocean, and without anything that normally makes life worth living. When we try to turn dolphins into pets or "companion animals," it doesn't ever work. This is hard to realize when it's happening. The dolphin seems to want to be a pet. He's always smiling - seems to be laughing. He seeks us out to be petted and played with. And when we're not around, he seems lost. All this just like a real pet. But this is an illusion. Dolphins are forever wild, created by nature to play a role in nature, not to play silly games in a tiny pool for our amusement.

An apparent exception to this are dolphins born in captivity. There is no "returning" them to their natural habitat. They have none. A few of these so-called "battery dolphins" have been "trained" to act like wild ones and they've been released into the sea. But until this procedure has been carefully monitored over time, we should consider each case on its own merits.


The key to readapting and returning captive dolphins to the wild is knowing what a

dolphin is like in his natural habitat. If you know that, then you can recognize the dolphin's learned behavior in captivity.

What are some of these? Watch a dolphin show for five minutes and you'll see virtually all of it. When the trainer comes out with a bucket of dead fish, the dolphin gets excited and swims in circles. He leaps out of the water with excitement, comes down and lies on his back, paddling around with his flukes and flapping his pectoral fins as if clapping. When the trainer squats down to get a fish, the dolphin swims up and begs for food, making squeaky sounds and bobbing his head up and down, showing no fear even if there are hundreds of people watching.

All of this behavior is learned. The wild dolphin never does these things in nature because they would be irrelevant and without purpose. Now, though, when we are readapting the captive dolphin, these learned behaviors are quite significant. Indeed, we should make note of them because in preparing the dolphin to live once more in his natural environment, we can watch and keep score as we extinguish these behaviors one by one.

When we talk about "extinguishing" a behavior learned in captivity, it sounds like we're throwing water on a fire. Actually we're simply no longer paying the dophin to do them. He learned to do these behaviors in the first place because we paided him to do them. When the dolphin swims up to the feeding station, sticks his head up and bobs it up and down while making

a squeaking noise, we paid him to do each part of that behavior by tossing him a fish. That's how you reinforce behavior in a dolphin. So now, if we want to stop that behavior, we stop paying him. And very soon he stops doing it. Because we no longer pay him, it is irrelevant behavior - irrelevant both here and in the world we want him to live in. Again, habitat dictates behavior. At the same time, behavior that has survival value in the wild is reinforced and the dolphin, over time, is ready to return to his natural habitat.


When I put a Team together to help me rehabilitate a dolphin. I tell them that our

basic job is to "empower" the dolphin. When the dolphin is captured, I tell them, he loses his power. He is like a prisoner. And now it is for us to return his power to him. I tell the Team that in restoring the dolphin to his rightful place there are three things they should keep in mind:

1. Assume that you know nothing

2. Maintain sustained observation

3. Consider the obvious

These are subtle and very difficuft instructions to follow, especially the first one and especially for former dolphin trainers. Before former trainers can step into the arena, they must strip away their own teamed behavior. This is especially difficult for former trainers because their whole experience with dolphins has been putting on a show, and now this, to them, is the "readaptation show." They want to be part of the act, and at times it seems as if they expect applause. This is just the reverse of how we prepare a dolphin for living in his natural world. We are not putting on a show. We're putting on a non-show, and the less we do the better.

There is no shortcut to the sustained observation phase. This is not research; this is a technique. One must eat with the dolphins, sleep with them, and be with them constantly.

We call this "dolphin time." How do you learn it? Not by merely reading about it. You have to experience it. Like anything else, whether science or art, you learn how to do it from someone who already knows. Then you know when you are in tune with them. You can feel it. If they gain ten pounds or lose ten pounds, you know it. We need to see exactly what is happening with the dolphins, not what we say is happening. This is not easy for people. It is like an exercise n Zen. It's non-verbal. It means we lose ourselves and become one with the dolphin. When I'm doing it, I live in a tent next to the dolphins and I can feel myself become part of the scenery, like one of the trees, a leaf floating on the water, or a heron who simply comes and goes. When I don't respond to the dolphins learned behavior, eventually they give it up. And everything I do is without words. I have to make reports, of course,; that and the few directions I sometimes give are the only exceptions. But living with the dolphins on the silent level gives you an insight into dolphins that I think is necessary to understanding them and helping them become who and what they are. We think we already know who these dolphins are, for example, because we have their names, we know where they came from, what they eat and how much they weigh. But none of this tells us who they are. In order to know them on that level, we must go beyond words. Beyond descriptions.

All of this is to eliminate false words and false theories about what we are doing. When we strip away our previous thinking, throw out our theories and substitute what we know for sure from our sustained observation, we can begin to see the dolphins as they really are and can better assess their survivability back in nature.



Before anything can be done, the entire Release System must be in place. The Release System is in five parts: (1) The Right People, (2) The Right Dolphins, (3) The Readaptation Process, (4) Transportation, and (5) Post-Release Tracking.


1. The Director of Readaptation and Release, a recognized authority, knows dolphins both in captivity and in their natural habitat. He or she needs to be an authority because much of the job is dealing with local and federal authorrties and the public through the media. He or she must also have hands-on experience in marine mammal husbandry (i.e. care, feeding and transporting of captive dolphins).

2. The Project Manager deals wrth the permitting process involved in scouting for locations, population studies of resident dolphins near the Half-Way House. He or she manages the Staff and daily affairs, which include record-keeping and documentation of the project.

3. Helpers and Volunteers will be hands-on in the population studies and the postrelease tracking of the dolphins. They will also be responsible for gathering suitable live fish for the dolphins.

4. The Veterinarian of Record, a qualified marine mamnal veterinarian, should assess the health and fitness of the dolphins, be present during the transport and available in case of emergency.


Buck and Luther were captured originally in the late 1980's and, unlike most captive dolphins, have never lived in an artificial habitat. They are both males and have always lived in an environment that included live fish, tides and currents. During their captivity, minimal demands were made of them as show animals. And both were about eight years of age when captured. This means that when they were captured they had already developed skills needed to survive in the wild, including the avoidance of predators.


Is it necessary to return captive dolphins to the very place they were captured? It is often desirable, perhaps, but not always necessary. The readapted captive male dolphins cannot be expected to rejoin their original family pod. Even if they had not been captured, they probably would not remain with their pod because male dolphins at maturity normally find or form their own pods, sometimes bachelor pods, with groups of females and their offspnng, or both males and females traveling together. We also sornetimes find singular dolphins who have either chosen to be alone or were ostracized from their pod.

So it's a mistake to think that we must return dolphins to the very place they were first captured. In fact, if the water in which they were captured had become polluted or poisoned during their absence or if fish they normally ate were no longer plentiful, we would not want to return them there. A search of the literature indicates that there is no empirical scientific documentation to substantiate the claim that dolphins must be returned to the exact spot of capture.

Dolphins are quite adaptable and can readily accommodate themselves to a new home range if it is similar to the site where they were captured - similar in terms of tides, currents, extremes of water temperature, food supply and potential predators.

Our team will arrange for capturing enough local prey fish for them to practice catching and eating. Water quality tests of the region have also been conducted and are available.

One of the most important functions in rehabilitabng Buck and Luther is to maintain a proper feeding regimen. The main objective is for them to maintain proper body weight by foraging and eating only live fish. This is a gradual process which may be viewed in four phases:

1. Encouraging the dolphins to eat with their heads underwater and the introducton of live fish.

2. Eliminating interaction with the feeder by varying feeding times and locations.

3. Dolphins eating only live fish.

4. And once again becoming opportunistic foragers.

In Phase 1, all activities are done from a regular feeding station, both live and dead fish to be offered only when the dolphins' heads are underwater. We continue feeding them dead fish but include live ones just to acquaint them, tossing the fish randomly at short distances, gradually increasing the distance and discouraging the dolphins from feeding with their heads out of water.

In Phase 2, we gradually wean the dolphins from their usual feeding regimen by tossing both dead and live fish from different locations and at different times. By now we are behind a blind to keep the dolphins from seeing us. We don't want them to associate feeding with the feeder.

We always toss live fish toward the center of the pen so the dolphins have a better chance to catch the fish before it escapes through the fence. Sornetimes it is necessary, initally, to trim the fins of the fish so that the fish will not escape.

Feeding becomes more random and uncertain. We now toss dead and live fish from behind a blind at all hours, including early morning and after dark. In the water we have a hydrophone so that we can rnonitor the dolphins' use of sonar in finding fish, especially live fish. We can compare audio recordings of confirmed catches during the day with night feedings.

We increase the number of feeding sessions, decreasing the quantity of fish per session. Short, quick feeding sessions from varied locations and at all hours will discourage the dolphins from searching for the feeder.

In Phase 3, which is to reach and maintain a diet of only live fish, we must first make sure we can provide enough live fish for the dolphins. We need a good source of fish species indigenous to the release site. We analyze these for nutritional value and, in figuring the dolphins' total diet, allow for the energy used in chasing live fish.

While continuing to feed the dolphins at various times and from various places, we now increase the proportion of live fish. When the dolphins are eating mostly live fish, we introduce them in groups of 10 or 15, creating a "school" of fish, which adds realism and forces the dolphins to select the prey they will chase down.

Finally, in Phase 4, we eliminate the human element from feeding and encourage the dolphins to forage on their own. We constantly introduce live fish into the pen and keep track of the dolphins' rate of consumption, finally replacing dead fish in their diet with live indigenous fish such as mullet. When the dolphins are ready to venture out of the pen they make it very clear to those who can read their body language.


Transportation of the dolphins will follow guidelines established by the U.S. Navy.


The dolphins will have been freeze-branded during the readaptation stage. Buck's freeze-brand will be in the shape of a heart and Luther's freeze-brand will be in the shape of a fivepointed star to aid in visual identification. Radio-tracking devices have been determined to be invasive and provides sites for future infection. Radio telemetry devices have not proved to be reliable in the past.

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