In the 2009 Academy Award-winning feature documentary “The Cove,” Richard O’Barry says if there is a dolphin in trouble anywhere in the world, his phone will ring — and that is exactly what happened when 72 captive dolphins in Indonesia needed to be taken back to the open sea.
The phone call came from the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, a nonprofit animal rights group, which is working with the Earth Island Institute that is sponsoring the release initiative. O’Barry works for the institute as a marine mammal specialist.
The group needs O’Barry’s help to help rescue illegally-captured bottlenose and spinner dolphins and release them back to the sea in Karimun Jawa National Park, located off the northern coast of Central Java. It is part of a five-year cooperation program involving JAAN, the Forestry Ministry and the Earth Island Institute.
The dolphins are held captive by traveling animal shows and other groups that falsely claim to be concerned with their welfare. It didn’t take long before O’Barry landed in Indonesia to supervise the building of a 90-square-meter sea pen — the largest ever in the world for a dolphin rehabilitation program — that will house the aquatic mammals, once they are rescued, before their release back into the wider sea.
O’Barry and the JAAN team flew over the coast on a chartered airplane to look for a suitable location for the sea pen. They finally settled on a spot about a quarter of a mile away from the shore of one of the islands in the national park, where the dolphins could be supervised while they readjusted to their natural habitat.
A survey conducted by JAAN has revealed that many dolphins are held in captivity by institutions in Indonesia operating under the guise of conservation, education and therapy. The group carried out the survey after receiving reports of abuse from members of the public concerned about the aforementioned traveling circuses.
“Traveling dolphin shows are the most abusive shows in the world. They’ve been outlawed in other countries,” O’Barry said.
When moving between cities, the dolphins are confined in small tanks, which is very stressful for mammals that normally travel about 40 miles a day, O’Barry said.
The conditions are even worse than those experienced by animals in zoos, since dolphins are very sensitive to sound and lose their sonar ability when confined in a small space.
Unfortunately, O’Barry’s initial dolphin-saving mission in Indonesia last month came to a halt when he and the JAAN team — along with his son, who was supposed to film the event for the “Blood Dolphin” television series on Animal Planet — had to cancel the rescue of the first three dolphins for reasons O’Barry said were still unclear.
“I have no idea why it takes so long to do such a simple thing,” he said. “Just take them from the tank into the sea pen, it’s a simple move.”
O’Barry conceded, however, that such a problem was not uncommon in other countries, since business entities that feature dolphins are usually backed by affluent people with powerful connections.
“It is a multi-billion [dollar] industry around the world. That is why there are such shows, they pay taxes to the government, and the government supports them. That’s the problem,” he said.
O’Barry’s efforts to raise public awareness of the reality that lies behind the dolphin’s smile — which he refers to as nature’s greatest deception, because it gives people the illusion that the mammals are always happy — is just one of the many missions he has been involved in over the past 40 years. He has worked in over 70 countries since he turned from a renowned dolphin trainer to a dolphin rescuer.
O’Barry used to capture and train dolphins for the 1960s children’s television series “Flipper,” a job that catapulted him to international stardom. His change of heart came in 1970 after Kathy, one of the five dolphins he had trained for the series, died in his arms.
“I was young and foolish. When you’re a dolphin trainer, you have to lie to the public every day and to yourself and I got tired of doing it,” he said.
As a result of O’Barry’s new outlook and the popularity of “The Cove,” a 2009 documentary that analyzes and questions Japan’s dolphin-hunting culture, dolphin shows at marine mammal parks and oceanariums around the world have been on the decline.
According to O’Barry, the claim that dolphin shows educate the public and promote scientific research couldn’t be further from the truth.
“What does it teach you to see a dolphin suffer and what do the young children really learn from the dolphin? They learn that abusing nature is alright and that is really dangerous to their young minds.”
What should be inspiring to children, O’Barry said, is the fact that 8,000 people who inhabit Karimun Jawa are getting involved in the rehabilitation project.
However, even though dolphin hunting is on the decline, he said, there have been increased efforts to breed the mammals in captivity.
“If it was my decision, there would be birth control for dolphins. There is no need for a dolphin to be born in captivity just to do a show and tricks. Nobody learns anything from it and there is no connection between dolphins and conservation. You don’t have to put them in captivity to like dolphins,” he said.
One of the activities that is still in high demand is swimming with dolphins, which, O’Barry said, unfairly tasks dolphins with amusing and entertaining. “It’s an endless line of swimmers that the dolphins have to amuse,” he said.
Another culprit is dolphin-assisted therapy, whose practitioners claim it can help autistic children overcome the disorder. According to O’Barry, such so-called therapy is just a money-making scam and there is no scientific proof that dolphins can help to heal people.
He backed his arguments with scientific research by Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and behavioral biology expert from Emory University in the United States, which shows that dolphin-assisted therapy is nothing but a fad that has not been proven to work as a treatment for mental or physical disorders.
“It is hypocritical to capture the dolphins and destroy their lives to enhance ours,” O’Barry said.
He added that instead of improving the life of autistic children, the costly treatments would only improve the lifestyle of the business owners who prey on desperate parents willing to go to any lengths to make their child’s life easier.
Right now, O’Barry’s main priority is releasing the 72 dolphins back to the wide open sea, and giving them back their natural habitat. “I can read their body language and I can tell when they are ready to go,” he said. “Hopefully, their family will come to the sea pen and that will be the best time to let them go.”
Dolphins have a life expectancy of up to 60 years but for O’Barry, it is not a question of how long the dolphins’ life-span is but their quality of life. “Right now, those dolphins are on death row. Putting them back in nature is not a science project but it is the right thing to do,” he said. “They need us to leave them alone. That’s what we need to do. Leave them alone.”