In 2009, off the coast of South Korea, a dolphin was accidentally caught in a fishing net. But rather than being freed and released (as required by law), she was illegally sold to the Pacific Land aquarium.
Named Sampal, the 10-year-old dolphin was forced to perform in the aquarium’s shows. Along with two other dolphins, she lived in a small pool and was kept hungry, forced to perform tricks every day to earn her food.
Over the course of four years, Sampal’s plight garnered attention. Activists, biologists and the mayor of Seoul all called for the dolphin’s release, citing the injustice of her confinement.
A year ago, facing mounting pressure, the Korean High Court finally ordered that Sampal and her two companions be set free. Rehabilitation specialists began to prepare the animals for release, but feared the dolphins had lost their survival skills, and would therefore need training before returning to the wild.
Several organizations, including the Korean Animal Welfare Association, Ewha University and the Cetacean Research Center teamed up to help with the rehabilitation process.
Ric O’Barry, director of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, even visited the cetaceans to assess their condition. He was pleased with their progress, though at the time he noted, “They need to be un-trained what they learned at Pacific Land and retaught how to live in the ocean.”
This is where the story gets really good.
According to Treehugger, Sampal and the others were placed in a netted sea pen as part of her preparation. But months before the planned release, which was scheduled for later this summer, Sampal took matters into her own fins.
On June 22, the netting in the pen tore, and she managed to escape by squeezing through the small hole, an amazing feat considering that dolphins generally avoid swimming in tight spaces. At first she hovered outside the pen, but as handlers arrived to investigate the situation, she swam into the open water and did not return.
Concerned about her welfare and whether she still knew how to survive in the wild, the rehab crew worked to locate Sampal. Luckily, it didn’t take long for their fears to be put to rest. Researchers from the Cetacean Research Center located Sampal 60 miles away from where she had been held. Not only that, but she was swimming with 50 other dolphins, who are believed to be members of her original pod. After all those years, she was finally home.
O’Barry believes Sampal’s aquarium companions will also fare well. “I think the others will do fine once they are released too,” he said. “They know exactly what to do; they just need the opportunity to do it.”
There’s a powerful lesson here. Although Sampal’s thoughts and decisions remain her own, it seems that Sampal disliked prison as much as anyone would, and craved her freedom and her family, who welcomed her return. Maybe one day, cetacean shows will be a thing of the past, allowing all sea mammals to live freely with their pods, without threats from humans.