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article imageOp-Ed: Rehabilitated captive dolphins Tom and Misha swim to freedom

By Elizabeth Batt     May 11, 2012 in Environment
Karakas - After almost two years of dedicated rehabilitation, Tom and Misha, two male bottlenose dolphins rescued from a hotel swimming pool in Hisaronu, Turkey, have been released back to the wild.
Their journey back to freedom has been a long one. But it was finally realized on May 09 when the Born Free Foundation announced that Tom and Misha had been released back to where they came from. And the dolphins, rescued in 2010, never once looked back as they bolted for the blue.
The rescue to rehab to release was a battle from day one, but is a testament to what can be accomplished when persevering hearts and minds combine forces. And although it is still early days and cautious optimism rules the roost, these two bottlenose dolphins carry the hopes of many pinned to their fins.
Tom and Misha were captured around six or seven years ago in the eastern coastal area of the Aegean Sea, where they were incorporated into a dolphinarium called Dolphin Therapy Kas. From here they were moved to a swimming pool in Hisaronu, for use in a swim-with-the dolphins program.
Turkish campaign group, the Dolphin Angels had already mounted a local campaign against the facility when a team from the Born Free Foundation visited the site to investigate. They discovered a filthy cesspool housing two dolphins swimming in their own waste.
The owner of the facility subsequently fled said Born Free, forcing the foundation into "Considerable negotiations with the facilities’ creditors." With an agreement finally reached, ownership was transferred to the foundation and with the help of the Underwater Research Society (SAD) and Dolphin Angels, Tom and Misha were relocated to a temporary sea pen in southern Turkey.
From there said Born Free, "The dolphins were moved to a specially designed large, deep rehabilitation sea pen constructed by the Foundation."
Rehabilitation for release back to the wild is a long graduated process dictated by the dolphins' progress. Tom and Misha had to check off several boxes before a return to the ocean could be considered. The first stage included nursing them back to full health. There had to be little to no chance that the bottlenose could transmit any known pathogen or disease to the wild dolphin population.
Then their echolocation abilities had to be checked. Cetaceans often switch off their sonar in captivity as it constantly bounces back at them. Tom and Misha also had to relearn the art of catching live fish again, a complicated and gradual process called broadcast feeding. Born Free said that broadcast feeding involved:
Delivering a mixture of dead, stunned and live fish to the dolphins which will create confusion and initially disguise the introduction of live fish to their diet. This will allow them to get used to the ‘feel’ of such a food source and will create competition between Tom and Misha, an essential survival technique for when they are in the wild.
More importantly, the bottlenose had to regain the strength and stamina they had lost in captivity. Tom and Misha were encouraged to be constantly active in their pen and trained to peak performance. They would need this endurance in the wild, to catch live fish and elude predators.
But the road to rehab was not always a smooth one. The dolphins, originally slated for release last year, suffered a setback when they became sick and had to be nursed back to health. The Back to the Blue team who nudged Tom and Misha towards their release: Jeff Foster, Mike Partica, Amy Souster and Derya Yildirim, constantly had to adapt to the dolphins’ needs and progress.
It was all worth it on Wednesday when Tom and Misha’s gateway to freedom was at last opened and one final poignant hand signal, sent the dolphins to freedom. Watching their departure was actress and wildlife campaigner Virginia McKenna OBE and Coronation Street actress and Born Free Patron, Helen Worth, who accompanied the Foundation on its first visit to see the dolphins' conditions in Turkey.
Of course Tom and Misha are not entirely alone, they are being tracked by state-of-the-art satellite and radio equipment, the first time ever that wild dolphins will be able to be tracked and monitored after release. Born Free reported yesterday that within the first hour of their release:
The tracking team reported that they had traveled a distance of 4.2 nautical miles hugging the coast before heading out to sea where they were later seen interacting with a wild dolphin.
More importantly Tom was observed catching a fish, a promising sign. But today the Foundation reported that in the 48 hours since Tom and Misha's release:
"They have travelled over 100 miles in the direction of their home waters. So fast in fact that the tracking boat could not keep up!"
Unless you've followed Tom and Misha's journey, the significance of this release is difficult to explain. To see these dolphins returned to the wild is a huge milestone in the cetacean world. Their rehabilitation lays the foundation and the groundwork for use in any future releases of captive cetaceans.
Although the Born Free Foundation said initial activities were very encouraging, they remained cautious:
"There is still a way to go before we know 100 per cent that Tom and Misha have re-adapted fully to life back in the wild."
Free Willy trainer Jeff Foster, added:
Seeing Tom and Misha race through the ocean, hunting and chasing fish and even hooking up with a wild dolphin after just a few hours of freedom, indicates that they are right on track. We will continue to travel with them and monitor their progress for a while to come – but for now it looks like it has been a great day.
In a television interview with ITV's 'Daybreak', Helen Worth said that Tom and Misha, who were "Born in the wild, taken from the wild and now back in the wild," are heading back to Ismir where they were captured seven years ago. "So they're going home," she said.
For those involved in Tom and Misha's release, and for cetacean lovers around the globe, the emotional journey culminated in tears of joy. Here is a shot at righting a despicable and tragic wrong and it's a cause well worth championing.
For anyone who says it can't be done ... may Tom and Misha prove you wrong.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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