Sampal is a creature that spent the first decade of her life in the waters around Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Sadly, abuse and exploitation have featured heavily in her life. But her story also has a happy development, one that should give us pause when considering how we treat these beings of the sea.
When Sampal was about ten years old, she was accidentally captured in one of the numerous fishing nets in the waters around the island. Rather than being released, she was illegally sold to the Pacific Land Aquarium, where she spent roughly three years confined to a tiny subterranean pool. Kept hungry, she was forced to perform daily by doing tricks that would be rewarded with food, as is routine practice at captive dolphin facilities.
About a year ago, thanks to the efforts of individuals such as Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, Sampal and her two companions at Pacific Land were ordered by the Korean High Court to be returned to their home waters. The dolphins were transferred to a temporary sea pen this May for rehabilitation and an eventual release, which was officially scheduled for sometime later this summer.
The rehabilitation and release project, facilitated by a group of organizations and institutions such as the Korean Animal Welfare Association, Ewha University and the Cetacean Research Center, was going according to plan.
Ric O’Barry, director of Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin Project, was invited to Korea in order to assess the physical and psychological state of the dolphins and was pleased with their progress.
“They need to be un-trained what they learned at Pacific Land and retaught how to live in the ocean,” said O’Barry, while predicting that the dolphins would fare well once they were returned to their home range.
However, on June 22, about a month into the rehabilitation, the netting of the sea pen tore open, resulting in a gap large enough for a dolphin to swim through. Sampal took advantage of the situation and left the pen. She hung around after her escape, but as a group of people gathered at the pen to ascertain how to get her back inside, she swam for the open ocean and did not return.
While there was great concern for her wellbeing, with some fearing that she was not ready to be returned to the ocean, the Cetacean Research Institute reported a confirmed sighting of Sampal on June 27. She was spotted 100 kilometers away from the sea pen, swimming with a pod of about 50 dolphins—the very ones from whom she was taken all those years ago.
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