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Jeju dolphins all set for freedomAfter five years of captivity Taesan and Boksoon are only days away from rejoining their pod in the wild
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승인 2015.06.10  15:59:39
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▲ Jeju dolphins Taesan and Boksoon are all set for freedom after years of captivity. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Release update

Both Taesan and Boksoon were successfully released on Monday, July 6, after a ceremony held inHamdeok, Jeju City.

Sohn Hawsun said that they had continued to progress well after a technical commission on June 18. “All members, three of them veterinarians and one a researcher at my institute, agreed that their status is good for release,” said Sohn.

Upon release, the sides of the cage were cut open and the dolphins swam to freedom. The dolphins will be tracked as part of a long-term project of the Cetacean Research Institute. “I hope for only one thing — the successful reunion of the dolphins!” said Sohn.

The following interview was conducted before the dolphins' release. - Ed.

“They are totally different from their status in captivity,” says researcher Sohn Hawsun of the Cetacean Research Institute, Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, as we perch on a circular sea pen a couple of hundred meters off the Hamdeok coast, Jeju City.

'After three days it was clear there was no problem,' said Sohn Hawsun about the dolphins' rehab program. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Two Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Taesan and Boksoon, occasionally break the surface below, and even leap majestically in excitement, plunging back down into their underwater cage.

“As soon as they arrived [on May 20] they were more energetic and began boisterous synchronized swimming together,” says Sohn, the head of a government rehabilitation team preparing the animals for release, to rejoin their wild kith and kin.

Showing signs of acute depression and not eating for weeks on end, it was feared the animals were not ready for the ocean. Yet the speed with which they have taken to the Jeju seas has left their previous handlers bewildered and even “betrayed,” says Sohn.

“At that time the vets thought that Taesan and Boksoon were in bad health, but they immediately showed their joy after reintroduction to Jeju,” says Sohn. “They must have sensed they were back in the Jeju waters.”

▲ Divers monitor the dolphins' behavior during feeding time to ensure they are ready for release. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

A long struggle for freedom
The pair will now be reassessed on June 14, and the team is “very positive about their [imminent] release.”

This tentative success is part of a long-running saga that has gripped animal rights campaigners across the globe, and led to Jeju Island becoming an unlikely home of dolphin rehabilitation.

Taesan and Boksoon were among 11 dolphins captured from the Jeju seas between 2009 and 2010, eventually spending five years in captivity.

They were initially sold by their fishermen-capturers to Pacific Land entertainment park, Jungmun, along with two other dolphins: Sampal and Chunsam. Another, Jedol, was sold to Seoul Zoo. (Read more about Jedol here. - Ed.)

Six dolphins did not survive the ordeal of capture.

After a protracted legal battle funded by an alliance of animal rights groups and environmental campaigners, the Supreme Court ordered the release of all surviving dolphins in March 2013.

Jedol, Sampal and Chunsam were all sent to Jeju for rehabilitation and were freed between May and July that year.

Sohn says that Taesan and Boksoon were too weak at the time to risk release, and they spent another two years at Seoul Zoo to build up their strength. Concern remained even after two years of care, until the remarkable turnaround now seen along the Hamdeok coast.

▲ The dolphins are fed live flounder, rockfish and sea bream once a day. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Almost ready for the wild
Sohn explains that the dolphins seem to have retained their natural hunting skills, as observed during daily feeding time. To decrease human contact, they also deploy a drone above the pen to record behavior.

▲ Cetacean Research Institute staff working at the Hamdeok sea pen. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Before release, the team must be sure Taesan and Boksoon are able to compete in a wild environment, and thus the program seeks to build up their strength and natural instincts to maximize their chances of survival after years of routine and deprivation.

“Our priority was to enhance their hunting ability. But just two to three days after introduction [it was clear] there was no problem,” he says, just as a local fisherman approaches and hands over live flounder, rockfish and sea bream.

Cetacean Research Institute staff then begin tossing the live fish into the pen. As Taesan and Boksoon excitedly loiter below, Sohn says they like to pick of the healthiest fish first, adding the team is overjoyed with their behavior change.

Untamed spirits
Their decade in the wild before capture has been crucial to the successful rehabilitation thus far as they retain essential survival skills often dulled after years in captivity.

Another crucial ifactor is that, unlike Jedol (released in 2013), “Taesan and Boksoon are not tamed,” says Sohn.

“The difference is, Jedol showed more interaction with humans, and some people felt he wanted to communicate, so at that time the problem was how to decrease interaction. But these two guys don’t seem to have any good feelings toward humans,” says Sohn, without a hint of disappointment: “I don’t want them to be waiting for us to feed them.”

▲ Keeping their distance from humans, the dolphins are thought to stand a good chance of survival inn the wild. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

During dives to observe the dolphins, however, Sohn does feel an enigmatic connection.

“Sometimes, when I go down to the water, Taesan and Boksoon just look at me, less than 1 meter away, and at that time I think, What are they thinking? Do they think of me as a friend, or an enemy?”

He even tries to reassure the animals.

“I worry about whether they think of me as a good guy, or a bad guy. I just want to be a good guy to them. ‘Calm down, I am doing good to you, and believe me, you will be happy.’ ”

As Taesan and Boksoon’s big day approaches, Sohn hopes it is not the final goodbye.

“I hope these guys go back to their home safely and in the future, someday, I want to see them again — in the wild.”

Threats to Jeju’s wild dolphins

The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) grows to 2.6m long, and weighs up to 230kg. Its back is dark grey and its belly is light grey to white with grey spots.

It lives in the waters around India, northern Australia, South China, the Red Sea, and the eastern coast of Africa. The Jeju population numbers around 100 and is independent from other Indo-Pacific bottlenose populations. The marine mammals are most often sighted within 500 meters of the northeastern and northwestern coasts.

Up to 10 percent of the population is killed or removed from the wild every year due to “by-catch” and “incidental live capture” by fishers. This is in addition to the sale of 11 animals to Pacific Land in 2009-2010.

The situation represents a serious threat to the population’s long-term survival, states Kyung-Jun Song of the Whale Research Institute, Ulsan. Song adds that urgent by-catch mitigation measures are needed: “including fishing gear modifications, time-area closures and acoustic alarm attachments.”

A false dawn for dolphins?
There are currently 52 dolphins in aquariums nationwide, nearly twice as many as in 2011, the time of the initial court decision to release the Jeju animals.

The rise is due to an increase in domestic and foreign investment in large aquariums such as Singapore-funded Geoje Sea World, Hanwha Aqua Planet and the beluga whale exhibition at Lotte World Aquarium.

Cho Hee-kyung, president of the Korea Society for Animal Freedom, said this to the Hankyoreh newspaper last July:

“When dolphin shows become declining attractions in advanced countries that have begun to consider them inhumane, they are often exported to countries that lack animal rights awareness and regulations, like China and, embarrassingly enough, South Korea.”

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