The trio were rescued three years ago from their tiny pool at a resort hotel they’d been sold to after years of performing in a traveling circus.
They regained health and strength in the Bali Shrine, a floating pen in a bay that provided a softer, more natural environment.
Lincoln O’Barry, who worked with the Indonesian government to establish the Umah Lumba Rehabilitation, Release and Retirement Center, said dolphins are wild animals that should live in freedom.
“Watching them go was an incredibly emotional experience,” O’Barrry said.
The center was initiated in 2019 by the Bali Forestry Department and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. “Umah lumba” means “dolphin” in Indonesian.
Some time after the gates opened, the dolphins watched the opening, unsure of their next move. But after about an hour they were on their way, sometimes jumping over choppy waves.
The Associated Press saw their release via an online live stream. O’Barry documents the release with drones and underwater footage for a movie.
The Indonesian government supported the rescue of the dolphins, in collaboration with Dolphin Project, founded by Lincoln’s father Ric O’Barry, who was also at the release.
Ric O’Barry was the dolphin trainer for the 1960s TV show ‘Flipper’, but later came to see how much toll was taken on the animals. Since then, he has devoted his life to returning dolphins to the wild.
Center staff clapped as the dolphins swam out. Wahyu Lestari, the center’s rehabilitation coordinator, said she was a little sad to see them leave.
“I’m glad they are free and that they are going back to their families,” she said. “They should be in the wild because they were born in the wild.”
The released dolphins will be tracked at sea for a year with GPS tracking. They may return for visits to the shrine, although it is unclear what they will do. They can join another group, stay together or go their separate ways.
Captive dolphins are transported from city to city, kept in chlorinated water, isolated or forced to interact with tourists, often resulting in injuries.
Johnny, the oldest dolphin, had teeth that were worn down to below the gumline when he was rescued in 2019. Earlier this year, dentists fitted him with dolphin-style dental crowns so that he can now clamp live fish.
Johnny was the first of the three dolphins to swim into the sea.
Ric and Lincoln O’Barry spent half a century saving dolphins from captivity in sites from Brazil to South Korea, and the US release on Saturday was their first in Indonesia.
The Indonesian government’s decision to save the dolphins followed a decade-long public information campaign that included billboards, artwork, school programs and a campaign asking people not to buy tickets to dolphin shows.
A government minister was on hand on Saturday to lift the gate of the shrine.
Lincoln O’Barry said the Indonesian sanctuary will continue to be used for other captive dolphins. Similar sanctuaries are in the works in North America and Europe as more dolphin shows close. With virtual reality and other technology, appreciating nature doesn’t have to involve a zoo or a dolphin show, he said.
Yet dolphin shows are still popular in China, the Middle East and Japan.
In Japan, father and son have drawn attention to the dolphin hunt in the city of Taiji, documented in the 2010 Oscar-winning film “The Cove” Each year, fishermen hunt and hunt dolphins in a bay, trapping some to sell to dolphin shows and kill others for food.
Whale and dolphin meat is considered a delicacy in the Japanese culinary tradition. But Taiji has led to protests from conservationists, including some Japanese, for years.
The three dolphins released in Indonesia soon found themselves miles (kilometers) in the waters. But before they left, they circled the shrine.
“They turned and came back to us one more time, almost to thank you and say hello. And then they went right out into the open ocean and disappeared,” Lincoln O’Barry said.
‘We don’t know where they will go next. But we wish them a good and long life.”
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama