Born Free USA Global Field Projects
(Photograph by Jeff Foster)
Two bottlenose dolphins, Tom and Misha, who were dramatically rescued from the brink of death in September 2010 are now entering their final but crucial stages of rehabilitation. The dolphins are on schedule for release into the Aegean — and back to the wild — in late spring.
The dolphins were rescued by the Born Free Foundation and Turkish NGO Underwater Research Society from a squalid pool in the tourist town of Hisoranu (southwest Turkey) after a major campaign against their incarceration in the summer of 2010.
Following a challenging but rewarding 18 months and despite some of the coldest and roughest weather conditions in recent history (that saw a tornado, gale-force winds and heavy storms batter the Aegean coast and rehabilitation site), the pair are making steady progress on a journey that takes them ever closer to freedom.
The dedicated international rehabilitation team, headed up by U.S. cetacean expert Jeff Foster, who worked on the rehabilitation and release programs for the orcas (killer whales) Keiko and Springer, has remained focused on the complex task in hand.
Foster explains: "We have had and still do have many obstacles to overcome but, throughout, Tom and Misha have proven to be willing participants. We have been working hard to prepare them for life outside their sea pen. Building up their fitness and stamina has been a crucial component. Their muscle strength was very weak when they first arrived and they were desperately underweight and lethargic as they had been confined to a ridiculously small and inadequate captive environment. They have since gained weight, their bodies are toned and they are clearly much fitter and stronger."
Some of the techniques adopted by the team were first tested during the rehabilitation of the orca Keiko, star of the Hollywood hit "Free Willy." Foster recalls: "We ‘cut our teeth’ on Keiko, which was a hugely expensive and ambitious project. We learned from that experience and this enabled us to go on and successfully release Springer, another orca."
He adds: "Tom and Misha are different again, not only because they are a different species but because they have spent years in captivity and have lost a lot of their natural instincts, which is what makes this project so unique and pioneering. One of the challenges has been to change their focus from ‘above water’ and people, to below water and their natural habitat. If we can get Tom and Misha back to the wild, in my view, it will be one of the great release projects of all time."
The other significant challenge faced by the team has been changing their diet from frozen fish to fresh fish and then live fish. During their long period in captivity, Tom and Misha lost the ability to catch and eat live fish. They had become so reliant on their keepers that when they first came to the rehabilitation center they refused to eat fish unless it was put directly into their mouths. But now, after months of expert husbandry and conditioning, Tom and Misha are once again catching and eating live fish. This is slowly being integrated into their diet, a technique that requires patience and an understanding of each individual dolphins’ behavior.
John Knight, Born Free’s senior wildlife veterinary consultant, has been monitoring the dolphins throughout and is pleased with their progress: "The difference in these two dolphins since the time of their rescue is incredible. Their muscle tone is much improved and they have gained weight. Their fitness levels are improving and their latest blood tests are looking good. Hopefully now we are on schedule for the release later in the spring."