Tuemmler are smarter than orcas

Orcas: And the sea outside ...

Summary: Although orcas and dolphins are some of the most intelligent creatures on our planet, many of the animals are still held in captivity. There are around 300 ocean parks around the world where marine mammals have to perform tricks. Whether this is ethically justifiable is a matter of controversy. The American marine biologist Jeff Foster has meanwhile set himself the task of reintroducing two dolphins that have been kept in captivity for years. You are now being prepared for a life in freedom.

The dolphins Tom and Misha were doing badly when Jeff Foster saw them for the first time. Foster had come from Seattle to the southwest coast of Turkey, in a bay near the village of Karaca. In a floating cage not far from the shore, just 30 meters in diameter and only 15 meters deep, the two bottlenose dolphins slowly walked round after round.

It was January 2011 and little was known about these dolphins in Karaca. Only that they were caught in the Aegean Sea in 2006, that time in a dolphin park in the coastal town of Kaş; her cage life had begun. And that after four years they had been taken to an even more dreary place.

They had been transported a short distance inland by truck and placed in a rough-walled concrete basin in the mountain town of Hisarönü. There, tourists were allowed to hold onto their dorsal fins for 40 euros and let them drag through the water for ten minutes. Hisarönü consists mainly of cheap hotels and dodgy bars with booming music. It is hard to imagine a more unsuitable place for two dolphins born in the ocean. The animals' new home was also unsettling, the tank's filtration system worked poorly, and the bottom was soon covered with dead fish and dolphin droppings.

It only took a few weeks, then global outrage on the Internet and the outcry from local animal lovers led to the dolphinarium being closed. At the beginning of September 2010, the British Born Free Foundation got involved, a foundation that is committed to the protection of wild animals. Your employees put the two dolphins in a refrigerated vehicle lined with old mattresses and transported them to a new enclosure in the sea. So Tom and Misha came to Karaca.

And here they met Foster. The 55-year-old is an expert on marine mammals and should support Born Free in an extremely ambitious project: to nurse Tom and Misha and after years of imprisonment to prepare them for release in the Aegean Sea. "Handling such animals is difficult, the risk that it going wrong was very high, ”says Will Travers, Managing Director of Born Free. "But it was also clear to us that if we don't do anything, they will die."

Dolphins are among the most intelligent beings on our planet: They are conscious, highly social, equipped with a large and complex brain. They communicate with each other and use signature whistles that correspond to different names. You understand abstract terms and have a basic understanding of grammar and sentence structure. Now that we know how clever and sensitive these animals are (see "We have to talk", NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC 5/2015), there is even more discussion about whether humans are allowed to keep dolphins in aquariums and zoos, whether it is ethically justifiable imprisoning them for the pleasure of tourists.

In the 50 years before Born Free and Jeff Foster began training Tom and Misha, fewer than three dozen dolphins had been released after long captivity. Not all of them survived. But Tom and Mischa wanted to proceed differently. One wanted to teach them how to be wild again - and use all the possibilities of science to do so. The aim was not only to save these two animals, but also to provide evidence: that there is an alternative to life-long captivity for animals that are already “domesticated”. Success with Tom and Misha, "says Travers," would make more people think. It would call dolphin showing. ”The project was a chance for Tom and Misha to live freely again. It was an opportunity for Born Free to influence people's attitudes towards creatures. And it also offered Jeff Foster a chance: to make amends for previous deeds on the animals.

Foster acts like a hippie, he has long blonde hair and the sun-tanned skin of a man who rarely sees the inside of an office. The son of a veterinarian from Seattle worked in the marine aquarium in his hometown when he was 15 years old. In 1976, when he was 20, he started helping to catch orcas in Iceland. By 1990 he caught two dozen orcas off the coast of the United States and Iceland for SeaWorld, a global chain of water parks. In addition, he caught smaller dolphins, sea lions, seals and other wildlife for dolphinariums.

Foster didn't know whether Tom and Misha could actually help him pay off his old debt. But one thing was clear: he had a good feeling about this project. He caught his first orca because the job seemed more exciting than frying burgers. He also thought it was the best way to better explore a little-known species. But when he heard the cries of the captured juveniles on the deck of the catching ship, he realized that the matter was a little more complicated. He tried to calm the frightened and desperate young orcas with his hands and voice. He also refused to starve the animals to make them compliant. “The more you do something like that, the more you realize that you are tearing families apart,” he says. "You can't have a good feeling about tearing a being out of your world."

It was not without irony that it was precisely these relevant experiences that qualified Foster for his new role. Born Free employees eyed him suspiciously. "Jeff came from the fishing industry, that made us nervous," says Alison Hood, who oversaw the Tom and Misha project. "But he has incredible knowledge, and we had taken responsibility for the two dolphins and had to give them the best chance, no matter how."

It would take six to eight months and $ 500,000 to train Tom and Misha and prepare them for release, Foster had estimated at the beginning: the enclosure, the staff, the equipment, the live feeder fish. Born Free hoped to get by on less than half the money. In the end it was twice as much.

A captive dolphin may have the same physique and genetic program as a wild one, but otherwise it is a different animal in many ways. The life of a dolphin in the ocean is unpredictable. A wild dolphin maintains social contacts and hunts over long distances, is constantly on the move, encounters many other species and constantly new situations. It only appears to breathe, otherwise it spends most of its life under water.

Life in the water park is just the opposite. The environment is narrow and barren, people live by the clock, looking for food or hunting is unnecessary. Except for training and shows, the dolphins don't have to move much either. Above all, their focus is changing: the world above the water is more important than the world under water. Almost everything - from feeding to training and instruction during shows to applause from the audience - takes place upstairs. Wild dolphins spend an estimated 80 percent of their time deep underwater. In contrast, captive dolphins spend 80 percent of the time near the surface.

Foster caught his last orca for an aquarium in 1990, and since then he has increasingly focused on researching wild whales and dolphins. From 1996 to 2001 he was also involved in the attempt to reintroduce Keiko, the orca from the movie "Free Willy". Keiko swam out into the open sea off Iceland in 2002, but died of pneumonia the following year. After this experiment, Foster worked with more success on the release of a young female orca found alone and malnourished off the coast of Washington state.

“The people from the dolphinariums now think I'm freeing animals. And so both sides distrust me, ”says Foster. “I am not fundamentally against keeping whales and dolphins. I just want to do the right thing. ”As a dolphin catcher, his main concern has always been to understand the animals' needs and to make it easier for them to get used to nature and the human world.

Over time he got to know Tom and Misha better and better. Tom was the shorter, more playful, and probably the younger of the two. He looked more trusting and seemed to have adapted better to life in captivity. When someone came to the enclosure, they usually swam there as if to ask: “Well, what is it? Did you bring me something? ”. Misha, on the other hand, was reserved and suspicious of anything new. When Foster tried to teach him to have blood drawn from the tail fin, Misha fled at the sight of the syringe. During the next attempt he stayed in the middle of the enclosure and waved his tail fin as if to say: “Just look, don't touch.” He was reluctant to get involved in people, often he looked out of the enclosure into the open sea.

It wasn't just about teaching the two of them how to catch live fish, reducing their contact with humans, and ultimately opening the gate. Foster literally had to recondition them. And to do this, he had to work with the same tools and methods that are used in water parks around the world to drill dolphins for pool life.

Tom and Misha had to get used to having someone finger their tail fin to draw blood and pinching it with a thumbnail in preparation for the needle stick. They had to learn to endure other preventive measures, such as swabbing bacteria from their blowholes. In order to make her fit for life in the ocean, Foster also had to get her to do strength and endurance training, with swimming sprints, jumps, and repeated runs on the tail fin. "We had to train them to go wild again."

For strenuous training you need calories, so Foster first got the dolphins used to their poor eating habits and made them palatable to the fish species they would hunt in the Aegean, for example mullets, anchovies and sardines. He offered them their future prey fish and, if they ate some, rewarded them with mackerel, their favorite food. Foster imitated the unpredictability of the great outdoors by throwing different numbers of fish into the tank at different times. “The animals had developed an internal clock and knew exactly when to feed,” he explains. "We had to reverse that, because in the great outdoors you will find more one day and less the next."

To get their brains going, he threw beings into the enclosure that the dolphins hadn't seen in a long time: octopuses, jellyfish, crabs. He cut holes in PVC tubing, stuffed it with dead fish, and threw it into the water. Tom and Misha had to experiment for a while before they could figure out how to get the food. The hose had two other advantages. It floated about five feet below the surface, reminding Tom and Misha that there was food under the water. In addition, in this way people and care were separated from each other. “They should understand that food isn't just out of a silver bucket,” says Amy Souster, a young dolphin trainer Foster brought to the project.

The training for the bottlenose dolphins lasted from autumn 2010 to spring 2011 and comprised up to 20 learning units per day. When summer came, Foster hoped Tom and Misha might be ready in a few months, but when the water temperature in the bay rose to 26 degrees and more, the two lost their appetite and contracted an infection. Only artificial nutrition and strong antibiotics saved them from death. Despite their long captivity, the two dolphins had not become real friends. It touched Amy Souster all the more to see how Misha worried about the sick Tom, how he pushed him to the surface to breathe and brought him fish to make him eat.

Then there was another problem: towards the end of the summer some of the villagers in Karaca had made it very clear that the dolphin project was gradually becoming a nuisance to them, that they wanted their bay to themselves again. Born Free car tires were slashed, there were scratches on the paintwork and finally even threats of rape against female employees. So in October 2011 the marine enclosure together with Tom and Misha was carefully pulled to the other side of the bay and moored next to a sailing academy. Foster and his team have now doubled the scope of the dolphin training, they placed particular emphasis on increasing their stamina, let the dolphins sprint back and forth in the enclosure or swim ten laps along the edge of the enclosure - as quickly as possible.

At the new location, Foster also used one of his innovations from the Keiko project: he used a catapult to shoot fish into different corners of the enclosure. The dolphins not only got food without direct interaction with humans, the catapult also encouraged Tom and Misha to move even more, like wild dolphins in the wild. Soon the "pop" of the catapult was enough to trigger their search and hunting reflexes. “The time had come to get them used to live prey again,” says Foster.

Even captured wild dolphins appear to completely forget in captivity that they normally hunt and eat live fish. Shoals swimming through the enclosure look at Tom and Misha as if they were watching an animal film on television. So Foster mixed the live prey with the dead food fish.

Initially, the living were incapable of escaping with a blow to the head or a cut tail. Since Tom and Misha were used to swimming competitively after everything that splashed into the water, they devoured the live fish with the dead. Over time, the trainers increased the proportion of live fish until the dolphins got used to the taste again - and to the idea of ​​catching their own meals. Next, Foster released the live fish in containers with remote-controlled closures, in different locations and at different depths. In this way, Tom and Misha were encouraged to turn their attention back down from the surface. The dolphins spent more and more time looking for prey on the floor of the enclosure. Sometimes they even lured fish out of their hiding places by startling the prey with air bubbles from their breathing holes.

Amy Souster had initially been extremely skeptical as to whether the dolphins could be successfully released. But she saw how Tom and Misha changed: “from lethargic, people-related animals that were fixated on food from buckets to those that hunted live fish and behaved like their wild counterparts. It was incredible. ”Foster felt the same way. The time had come to open the gate.

May 9, 2012 was a cool day with a cobalt blue sky. A cluster of Born Free employees and helpers gathered near the enclosure. Early in the morning, transmitters were attached to the dorsal fins of both animals so that they could follow how they were finding their way in the Aegean Sea. "Now came the moment of certainty: if they survive for six months, we can say that the release was successful," explains Foster. "If they are not doing well, if one of the two slows down and his range of motion becomes smaller and smaller, we know that he doesn't have enough to eat."

Then a diver opened the door in the net of the enclosure. But Tom and Misha didn't seem to trust the offer. They stayed in place and carefully swam around. 20 minutes passed. When the waiting became uncomfortable, Amy Souster stretched out her right arm and moved it down in front of her body - it was the last human instruction that Tom and Misha would receive: "Swim from A to B." Tom obeyed, as usually, and swam out of the enclosure. He waited about ten meters in front of it. As usual, Misha followed Tom's lead, but immediately shot past him and darted to the mouth of the bay. Tom chased after him. If there was any doubt as to whether the two dolphins, locked up for so long, would love the open sea, they were quickly removed. "After six hours they ate fish they had already captured and joined another dolphin," reports Foster. "It was fantastic."

The signals from the transmitters showed that the two were initially swimming together towards Izmir. After five days, they parted ways. Foster wasn't surprised. Tom continued to swim west, Misha turned south and east."When he was gone, he was gone," says Foster.

Tom's transmitter worked for five months, until mid-October, and Misha until the end of November. Foster and Born Free had hoped the devices would last nine months or more, but it was enough to know the dolphins had adjusted to their new life in the Aegean. It had cost 20 months of work and a million dollars, and now the proof was provided for the first time: Dolphins held captive can learn again to survive freely in the ocean.

It was the first successful attempt at reintroduction that has been documented in detail. It was a year before the next followed, at the other end of the world, in the China Sea off the tip of South Korea. On July 18, 2013, the mesh walls of an enclosure opened in front of Jeju Island. Two Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Jedol and Chunsam, lingered undecided for a short time, then swam out into the open ocean. Together with a female named Sampal, they were illegally caught from a school of around 120 wild dolphins between 2009 and 2010 and sold to Pacific Land, a water park on the island. A Korean animal welfare organization obtained their release by court order.

The three dolphins had been taught the usual tricks for the shows: jumps, tail-fin runs, somersaults and waving their tails. Jedol was later taken to the Seoul Zoo. After the release decision, Chunsam and Sampal were brought to the marine enclosure in Jeju at the beginning of April 2013, and Jedol followed a month later. Then the Seoul Zoo sent a trainer to prepare the dolphins for freedom.

The animals were healthy and in good shape, and they hadn't been caught until they were older and more experienced. Release seemed easier than with Tom and Misha, and yet there were doubts.

“At first I thought it would be nonsense to let Jedol go because he was used to the pool and dead fish. Four years in captivity is a very long time, ”says his trainer Joo Dong Seon. “I wasn't sure if he would be able to hunt again himself. But then I was able to see for myself how quickly dolphins learn. "

As with Tom and Misha, contact with humans was reduced and the animals were taught to catch fish. It only took a few weeks for the dolphins to be able to take care of themselves again. Food intake, fitness, weight and health status were carefully recorded to determine the best time for release.

But Sampal had a mind of her own. On June 22nd, she made her way through a small hole in the enclosure, not without having enjoyed an extensive feeding beforehand. A few days later, the researchers were able to use photos to confirm that she had joined a school of wild dolphins.

Jedol and Chunsam were released three weeks later. Their dorsal fins were marked with durable numbers, and both received a transmitter that fell off after about three months. Soon they joined Sampal and her school. The experiences made with Tom and Misha in Turkey were confirmed.

However, there is not a way back to freedom for all dolphins in human hands. "About a third of the animals are eligible for release," says Naomi Rose, who works as a marine biologist at the American Animal Welfare Institute and has advised the Korean animal welfare organization.

Jeff Foster does not want to generally endorse the release into the wild either. He does say that he would no longer help with the trapping for dolphinariums and that the release would certainly be good for many dolphins, even for captured wild orcas. But he still believes that displaying dolphins can improve people's attitudes towards animals - if done right. If the obsolete model with artificial pools and circus-style shows were replaced by enclosures in the sea, with open gates and educational and research programs. “The animals would then have a choice,” he says. “Tom would probably stay. Misha would be gone immediately. ”The debate will continue, but Tom and Misha have already done their part.

The story of the three other dolphins has another chapter. On a fine day in May 2014, the crew of a small fishing boat spotted a school of 60 to 70 Indo-Pacific dolphins roaming the northeast coast of Jeju Island. Some hunted. Others played. The calves tried a little frantically to follow their mothers. They were wild dolphins who lived their wild dolphin life, a complex community with its own customs, its own rhythm, its own priorities.

Suddenly a dolphin with a small white "1" on its dorsal fin appeared in sight of the people: Jedol. Shortly afterwards the “2” came into view: Chunsam. The numbers looked bizarre and out of place in the wild tumult. At the same time, they were moving proof that the two dolphins were at the right place: in the open ocean, where they were born and where they would now spend the rest of their lives.

(NG, issue 7/2015, page (s) 86 to 105)