Can captive whales or dolphins be returned to the wild?

In 1993, Warner Bros released Free Willy, the tale of a captive orca and his 12-year-old human friend. The popular film ended with Willy’s dramatic return to the ocean, even if he did have to jump a sea wall to get there. Meanwhile, Keiko, the real-life orca who starred in the film, was languishing in Reino Aventura, a run-down facility in Mexico, following his capture from the wild in Iceland. 

After Free Willy, a powerful public campaign was established to return Keiko to the wild. Through the collaboration of environmental groups, the filmmakers and a private benefactor, Keiko was transferred to a huge sea pen in his native waters in Iceland in 1998. There, Keiko was returned to health, adapted to his new environment and taken out on ‘ocean walks’, where he was equipped with a satellite tag to track his movements as he followed a research boat. In July 2002, after some contact with wild orcas, Keiko began a five-week journey, alone, across the Atlantic, eventually arriving in Norway in good health. Although he never joined a wild orca pod, at his death in December 2003, Keiko was a free whale.

Few captive whales and dolphins have been returned to the wild after long-term captivity and Keiko may not have been the best candidate, given how little was known about where he came from and who his relatives were. In some cases, releases have been the result of dolphins escaping the nets of their coastal enclosures or a storm washing them out to sea. Other efforts have been more deliberate, often following the closure of facilities and weeks or months of dedicated rehabilitation, where individuals relearn important skills for surviving in the wild, such as eating live fish and avoiding boats. Captive bottlenose dolphins have been returned to the wild in Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Russia, the United States, and, most recently, Turkey. Three dolphins were released in the Turks and Caicos Islands following years of captivity in the UK. In most cases the individuals were seen for months or even years following release.

WDC recommends that the return of any whale or dolphin to the wild should follow strict guidelines. Any release should, where possible, help to conserve wild populations as well as consider the health and long-term survival of the individual whales and dolphins returned to the wild. They should be released into, or close to, a population of whales and dolphins they would naturally be a part of, and into an area which is not heavily polluted. Local dolphin experts should be involved and the whale or dolphin carefully screened for any disease that might harm wild whales and dolphins. Those released should be healthy, able to feed themselves on live fish and free of behaviour that could jeopardise their long-term survival, such as approaching boats looking for food. Whale and dolphin releases should be supported as far as possible by local people, through positive education campaigns. Monitoring of individuals is vital so we know whether the release has been successful. 

As public sentiment grows against the keeping of highly intelligent, far-ranging creatures in captivity, more individuals are likely to become available for release through the closure of facilities no longer able to keep them. It’s possible for whales and dolphins, even those who have lived a long time in captivity, to learn how to hunt again and survive in the wild. It may even be possible for those born in captivity to learn hunting skills from other whales and dolphins who have lived in the wild, if they are returned in a social group. A multi-stage plan should be developed for each individual, with the aim of release, but with long-term care options should that not be possible. WDC, as part of the Free Morgan Foundation expert group, supports such a plan for Morgan, the wild orca found alone off the Dutch coast in 2010 and now held in very poor conditions at Loro Parque in Tenerife.

Other orcas, including Lolita and Corky, held in captivity in the United States, may be good candidates for release as researchers know their close family members are alive and thriving in the wild. The public supports their return to the wild or retirement in their natural waters but neither marine park holding them seems open to supporting such a project. Perhaps they fear that a successful release project would open the floodgates for all captive orcas.

It may not be possible to return all captive whales and dolphins to the wild. Following long spells in captivity, some may be too physically or mentally scarred to survive without human care. These individuals should be offered the chance to retire and live out the remainder of their lives in a safe enclosure in a natural cove or bay, where their health and welfare needs are taken care of, they can display more natural behaviour, they do not have to perform i shows, and public observation is only from a distance. WDC is working on an exciting project with Merlin Entertainments to establish just such a sanctuary for captive whales and dolphins, the first of its kind in the world. 


Thanks for this excellent treatment of the possibilities of release of long-term captives. Having guided the campaign for Lolita's return to her home waters for almost 20 years, I'd like to add some current news about Lolita's very good prospects for getting out of that tank and back to her native habitat. It's true that the marine park holding Lolita is not inclined to let her go, but she will likely soon be included as a member of a listed endangered species (her family) under the ESA. At that point it will be a judgment call on the part of NOAA, regardless of the wishes of the marine park, to determine whether she is safer and healthier remaining in the display tank or back in her home waters with the opportunity to communicate with her family. The comment period to NOAA to effectively make the case that she would be much better off in her native habitat goes until March 28, and is the best chance since Keiko's stardom to demonstrate that a long-term captive orca can indeed return safely to her native waters. Please refer readers to the Lolita page here: and here: for points to make. We only have one more month to make the case to NOAA that Lolita is far safer here than in that tank.

Thank goodness to think that cetaceans might REALLY be one day free of their bondage -- and may their days of human captivity be over for good. #EmptyTheTanks

I believe to say an orca born into captivity cannot be rehabilitated is like saying a domestic cat cannot catch a mouse, or a pet dog cannot catch a rabbit. No matter how many times you feed a cat and it sits on your knee to be petted its wild instincts are still in there and they have been domestically bred for thousands of years. The captive marine mammals have a short history, many still in there are wild caught so at the more they are only a few generations into being domesticated. The are orca, the oceans apex predators and it will always be in their genes, if marine parks are so confident that it is impossible why do they not test them whilst in the tanks and start to give them live fish and watch the results?

Mother nature kicks in to a point..they r worth the effort to...the alternative is a hell to them!!

This is a very inaccurate observation. Most domestic captive-born animals cannot survive wild conditions. The house cat is an example, as is a dog. Orcas are completely different from these animals and it is anyone's guess really if they can be rehabilitated for re-release, let alone release. Keiko is a poor example as this whale died of poor health conditions very shortly after release.

Excellent news! It would be great to hear the timeline of the project and which locations are considered?
On the edge of my seat, Viivi

I must add that although some releases may and have been successful, the harm is already done for these creatures must go through some stress once held captive. The changes and the limitations they are put through must be irreparable. The separation to their whole habitat and family members must be devastating. Then again, it seems people want to think it's all fine after the release. I still think holding them captive should be something prohibited. It belongs to the ocean and in the ocean. Then many dolphins and whales are trapped, injured and killed because of poor fishing regulations and there's nothing done about it. It's definitely a twisted world we live in.

My concern with releasing captive born animals is that they may no longer represent combinations of genes that would be found in wild populations. I do not know the details of the captive breeding programs enough to speak with any authority, but it seems to me that since wild caught orcas have been taken from both Washington and Iceland, as well as from both resident and transient populations (though I believe it has been far fewer transients), that whales that otherwise would never have mated in the wild might have been mated through the captive breeding process. If this is the case, I do not believe those animals should go into the wild.

There are videos on youtube of captive born orcas catching & killing sea birds! Orkid, captive born orca, uses food to lure the birds closer! They r ALOT smarter than want $eaworld want us to believe!

Cetaceans are highly intelligent beings, so I utterly reject the notion that a captive whale or dolphin, whether captive-bred or not, can't be rehabilitated for release back to their NATURAL environment. Yes, there has to be a period of rehabilitation and acclimatization, but rest assured, it can be done. Those who use the argument "they can't be released", it's just a self-serving argument to continue their explotation.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated... I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.
- Mahatma Gandhi

Please post a comment at NOOA to support Lolita in two ways:
1) Be included in the Endangered Spicies Act
2) be released with her family in Puget Sound, Washington.

Deadline is March 28th.


Can a young male dolphin be released into the wild ?
I reasently returned from a trip to Mexico, and the way they are used to entertain appalled me.
Many thanks Paul.

I know i am late on here for the Orca debate about the orca's release. But i would like to say any animal can be trained to go wild and in some cases revert back naturally. i believe to rehabilitate this whale and release it back to the wild should be done and all Sea world and other place's keeping these creature's should eventually be closed. If they want to carry on move to the coast and take boat trips out to them show the real wild animal not a stressed out animal in a pool that is one two small and two two plain. if you keep a killer whale the pool should be a minimum of one square mile per Whale or dolphin. and near the sea with natural exits for them to either visit us at there will or stay away and be free. My own opinion is train them to be free even a week of freedom is better than none. keiko lasted a year and i think she had a happy year.

Im so tired of hearing individuals talk about captive animals not surviving back in the wild. All I can say is "wheres your common sense" whether you were raised in a tent all your life or if you got to live your life in a palace with tons of space. These animals flourish in their natural habitats and alot of animals learn from one another. So stop with the "I dont think they would survive" yeah! cause you people basically have no sense. Every single wild killer whale that was forced by man to live the life of captivity was nothing but detrimental to these massive ocean animals and is extremely hazardous and unhealthy inhumane and barbaric. Do you people realize there has been over 600 wild killer whales taken from the wild into captivity from around the world since 1965 to 2000 - 575 of them perished rarely quickly in a torture tank b.s. swimming pool. Thats 80% more deaths by captivity than the actual deaths of killer whales in tne wild.. so shut up please, you all sound like idiots or possibly season pass holders of sea world or miami dump aquarium.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.