An Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin "Chunsam," pokes its head out of water and another dolphin "Jedol" swims behind in waters off Jeju Island, Thursday, before they were freed to the open sea. / Yonhap
By Nam Hyun-woo
A 13-year-old captive dolphin returned to the open sea Thursday, marking the first cetacean reintroduction in Asia.
The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, called "Jedol," was released to waters off Jeju Island, 497 days after the Seoul Metropolitan Government decided on its return.
Jedol, captured in May 2009, has performed shows at aquariums in Seoul Grand Zoo and Jeju Pacific Land.
Citizens and animal rights advocators in and outside the country have shown keen interest in whether it will be the first case of dolphin rehabilitation in Asia and the first Indo-Pacific bottlenose release in the world.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon announced the plan for its release in March 2012, after a local court ruled the capture of Jedol illegal and ordered its return to the open sea.
Since then, Jedol has been trained to acclimatize into natural life in the Seoul-based zoo and was transported in May this year to an ocean pen in Jeju as the final stage of its rehabilitation.
Two other dolphins, named Chunsam and Sampal, also had been rehabilitating in the pen. Sampal escaped the pen on June 22 earlier than its scheduled release and Chunsam was freed with Jedol.
Aquarists and experts at National Fisheries Research and Development Institute five days later found that Sampal had joined a group of wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. There are over 100 such dolphins living in waters off Jeju, forming several groups.
According to the Seoul government and cetacean experts who took part in Jedol's rehabilitating project, the dolphin has met standards, such as hunting, genetic screening and physical capacity, required before release.
Before the two dolphins' return to the open sea, aquarists and trainers marked them with permanent distinguishing numbers and attatched satellite tracking devices to their dorsal fins. Jedol was numbered one and Chunsam was numbered two. Sampal fled before trainers could implant tracking devices.
Dr. Naomi Rose, a member of International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee and renowned dolphin expert, said Jedol's reintroduction is an unprecedented case derived from a social consensus and Korea could lead other countries in terms of marine life preservation.
Prof. Kim Byeong-yeup at Jeju National University, in charge of the reintroduction project, said that Jedol's rapid regaining of survival instincts helped its release proceed smoothly.
"During the final stage of acclimatizing training, a number of wild Indo-Pacific dolphins appeared three times near the pen, socializing with Jedol. This is a positive sign that Jedol and Chunsam will successfully adapt to wildlife," said Kim.