Currently, a major point of contention in the issue of release or reinstatement of captive cetaceans is whether the dolphin or whale will readapt to catching live prey after it has been fed piecemeal in prolonged captivity. Another point of contention is whether released animals will spread acquired pathogens to the wild community, or have sufficient immunity from pathogens in the wild. A third point concerns the question of whether a released cetacean will readapt socially, or be condemned to a life of loneliness.
These points must be responsibly addressed, but if post-captive release is lethal, dangerous and irresponsible, then why has it been done so many times by organizations that are generally considered responsible?
Cetacean Releases contains accounts of a total of 121 bottlenose dolphins that were set free. Twenty-nine of these were held for more than one year. Three were released into Biscayne Bay by the Miami Seaquarium after 1 year, 2 years, and 10 years of captivity. Six were inadvertently released by the U.S. Navy after more than a year in captivity, and another eight were let go after less than a year. Only in a few cases was any attempt made to determine if the animals survived, but at least six of the 29 that were held more than a year were sighted several months later in apparent good health.
In 1991 two pilot whales that had stranded on the coast of Florida were rehabilitated by the Miami Seaquarium and released. Though most of their family had presumably died in the stranding, these two were sighted by the US Coast Guard in 1994, with their radio tag harnesses still intact, in the company of other pilot whales.
No orcas have been released after more than a few months of captivity, with the exception of Ishmael, the orca trained by the U.S. Navy to return to a signal from a boat while miles out to sea. After five months of exercises, Ishmael refused to return one day and was never seen again.
For the sake of this inquiry into the releasability of a long term captive orca, the most informative releases were that of a female bottlenose dolphin named Bahama Mama and a male pilot whale named Bimbo. Bahama Mama was held for 17 years in the Bahamas until, with no preparation for release, she escaped (Claridge and Balcomb, 1993). She was sighted repeatedly up to 8 months later in good health and in the company of other dolphins. After 17 years in captivity one might have supposed that she would have become hopelessly habituated to hand feeding and human care, but she immediately joined wild dolphins.
Pilot whales are possibly the most similar to orcas among the 76 species of cetaceans. Though slightly smaller, their social systems and general behavior greatly resemble that of orcas. Bimbo is a pilot whale that was captured in early 1960 when he was an adolescent at a length of 17' 6". He performed well for about three years, until his companion, a female pilot whale (possibly his mother), died. His behavior changed dramatically, becoming alternately agitated and depressed. After twice smashing through observation windows, he was released into the Pacific Ocean in 1967 (Valentry, 1969). Bimbo was positively identified in 1969 and again in 1974, by U.S. Navy dolphin collectors, both times in the company of a community of pilot whales .
The first release of a prolonged captive orca is scheduled to occur this year (1998). As Keiko nears the time of his ultimate release to his family in the North Atlantic, his immanent reunion will represent the most instructive example of the release of a long term captive orca. Keiko was caught at about the age of two, whereas Lolita was about six years old when she was captured. While in Mexico Keiko very nearly expired from the effects of captivity, but Lolita has maintained consistent good health. In addition, Keiko's family is virtually unknown, so monitoring his welfare post-release will be difficult. Each individual orca of the Southern Resident community (Lolita's extended family) is monitored and documented repeatedly each year, so monitoring her progress will simply be a part of standard operating procedure. All in all, Keiko is actually a less ideal candidate for release than Lolita, and yet chances are good that he will eventually rejoin his family.
Sufficient precedents are now on record to indicate that the retirement or release of Lolita would be safe and successful.