13 Dolphins Wait for Freedom


Image credit: jurvetson/Flickr

With dead dolphins washing up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, wouldn't it be great if you knew you could help save a few? Thirteen, to be exact.If you have seen the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove then you already understand the direct connection between dolphin captivity and the horrific slaughter of these intelligent creatures. If you haven't seen it yet, please do so. I have had several screenings of it at my house and every person walks out saying the same thing, "Everyone needs to see this film." Several of the people I have screened it for have bought their own copy and are having their own screenings. It's that powerful.

If the star of The Cove, Ric O' Barry, is a hero to dolphins, then one man has been labeled their enemy. Dolphin trader Chris Porter has been called "The Darth Vader" of dolphins. Porter is responsible for many dolphin captures and he has sold many dolphins into captivity. He was once the head trainer at the Vancouver Aquarium and he trained the killer whale Tilikum who last year killed a Sea World trainer after a show. Perhaps Tilikum is trying to tell us that doing tricks in an aquarium in front of a bunch of screaming people is not what orcas are here for. Perhaps, after twenty seven years in captivity, he is done with the show.

The combination of the death of the trainer at Sea World and seeing the movie The Cove has made Porter, after 21 years in the captive aquarium business, have a change of heart. He has thirteen captive dolphins in the Solomon Islands that could be exported to aquariums, making him hundreds of thousands of dollars. But now Porter wants to set them free, so he founded Free the Pod.

"I always justified that collection was creating ambassadors of their species. I now realize my mistake. Free the Pod is my opportunity to make a change," said Porter, "For years I have been convincing myself that we are in fact providing ambassadors for wild counterparts. I have realized there are other ways to educate the people of the world about the importance and intelligence of whales and dolphins without separating them from their family groups."

So why can't he take the net down keeping them from the ocean and simply let them go? He believes that an ill prepared release could have catastrophic consequences for the dolphins which would give aquariums a chance to support their view against captive dolphin releases. In 1999, two activists were fined after releasing two dolphins that were not prepared for life in the wild and sustained injuries after the release. According to the NOAA Fisheries Service, a Marine Mammal Protection Act scientific research permit is required to ensure that humane protocols be in place that maximize the release's chance of success, and provide for long-term follow-up monitoring and emergency contingency plans in case it is necessary to rescue a released animal.

"So the release has to be done scientifically with the full support of the Solomon Government and local communities. With it proven and done responsibly the release will be a good example of a successful release to the aquariums," Porter adds, "That is why it is important that it be done scientifically."

With good reason, Porter is concerned that after the release takes place, the dolphins would either be recaptured by other dolphin traders or killed.

The Solomon Islanders have been killing dolphins for their teeth and meat for hundreds of years. In some areas of the Solomons, 1000 dolphin teeth are needed to be presented to the bride's parents as dowry payment. Not only are the dolphins in danger of being killed, but since the old Chris Porter showed the locals this new lucrative business of dolphin export, there are now many other dolphin traders in the Solomons.

So the new Chris Porter went to the government to get their support for the dolphins protection after the release. Porter has had some success. He now has the commitment from the Ministry of Fisheries and Environment to protect the thirteen dolphins after they are released as long as Porter can provide the funding to make the protection possible. And now the Ministry is getting the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium involved, who works closely with the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary.

Not everyone is supportive. In an open letter to top officials, some village leaders recently called on dolphin activists to be immediately deported from the Solomons for threatening their culture. However, some locals understand the value of protecting the dolphins. In April, the Fanalei and Walande communities ended hundreds of years of tradition by signing an agreement that they will not harvest dolphins for two years. Michael Toling Kirio from Bita'ama community says they also want to join the deal.

But the problem is, unless Porter can raise the money for the Ministry, he cannot guarantee their protection after the release. And that is a problem because nobody wants to help him because...well, because he's Chris Porter.

"People are slow to publicly support the project for probably the same reasons others are...Chris Porter has a bad rep," he says, "It is tough situation and I am shocked and angry at so many organizations that fought me during my dolphin export days, saying I was cruel and wrong. Now, after I have realized my mistakes and try to right the wrong...nobody wants to help me because they don't trust me."

After months of trying to gain support for the program, Porter now wants to step aside and let someone else handle the release. He knows his history and bad reputation is the reason that he has had difficulty raising money for the release and he hopes that if someone else takes over, that the support needed for the dolphins will come.

"For the sake of the dolphins I am more than happy to let others make this happen. This is is not about Chris Porter redeeming himself. Free the Pod is a chance to show the world that there is a better way to live with the seas of the world."

Many are still skeptical of Porter's motives. They say he is doing it for money. They say he is doing it for publicity so he can sell his island in the Solomons. So are we not going to allow someone to have a change of heart? Isn't Ric O'Barry's story a perfect example of a leopard changing his spots?

In the end, we have to ask: Does it really matter why Porter is setting them free? Isn't what really matters that thirteen captive dolphins will be allowed to be return to their home and once again be wild in the great blue ocean? I, for one, want to see them set free. I just hope "The Solomon Thirteen" find the support they need.

As Ric O' Barry once said after a release, "These dolphins are symbolic of a new day for the environment. It's all about respect now, not exploitation."

Read more about dolphins:
Scientists Say Dolphins Should Be Granted Human Non-Human Person Status
New Discoveries in Dolphin Communication Reveal Use of Diplomacy to Avoid Fights
Dolphins, Magnificent Mammals (Slideshow)

Tags: Animals | Conservation