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Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin © Mike Bossley/WDC
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WDC in Japan – Part 3: Restoring freedom to dolphins in South Korea

Katrin Matthes

Katrin Matthes

Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany

In my last blog, I shared my spectacular encounter with digital whales and dolphins, now I want to tell you about the real dolphins I had the chance to marvel at in the wild from Jeju Island in South Korea. The best part of the story is that some of them were once in captivity but have been successfully released into the wild thanks to the tireless work of an organisation called Hot Pink Dolphins. Today, these dolphins swim wild and free again, reunited with their original family. Since South Korea is only a stone's throw away from Japan, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to meet the team responsible.

In the waters around the beautiful island of Jeju in South Korea, lives a population of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. Eight individuals from this population were once caught illegally and forced to live and perform in aquariums for several years. But the fact that they were captured illegally enabled Hot Pink Dolphins and other animal welfare activists to fight successfully for their release in court. The dolphins were taken to sea pens where they were prepared for their return to the wild, and then finally released back into their home waters. Thanks to the work of Hot Pink Dolphins, these captive dolphins were successfully released between 2013 and 2022. This success story proved that it is possible to successfully release dolphins back into the wild, even if they have spent years in captivity.

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin
Three of the females that were released went on to have babies in their natural habitat! © Mike Bossley

Although they have been given a second chance at life in their natural habitat, with their families, their very existence is under growing threat. Aside from the usual dangers like fishing, a surge in tourism has brought new challenges as dolphin watching operators chase them so close that hardly a sheet of paper fits between the boat and the dolphin. Additionally, the construction of offshore wind farms further restricts their habitat. Protecting dolphins from threats like these is the core mission of Hot Pink Dolphins.

The Hot Pink Dolphins team with Katrin Matthes from WDC
It was an honor to meet the people responsible for giving these dolphins their freedom back.

But their dedication goes beyond just the Jeju dolphins. They also fight for the freedom and safety of all whales and dolphins in South Korea. And the effort is worth it! Thanks to organisations like Hot Pink Dolphins, the import of whales and dolphins has been banned by Korean law since 2018. This was followed by another law in 2022, forbidding the building of new aquariums for the display of whales and dolphins. Given that breeding is difficult and has had little success in the past, and no whales and dolphins will be imported from other countries, captivity in South Korea will most likely die out with the current generation of captive whales and dolphins.

'Basically, whales and dolphins are not suitable for aquariums because they live in complex social networks. Their natural habitat can’t be artificially built since they move extensively in nature.  We urge all the captive facilities to release whales and dolphins back into nature or into sanctuary before it's too late.’ says Joyakgol from Hot Pink Dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphin in captivity
No dolphin or whale should have to face the confines of a tank.

Fortunately, there are only about 20 individuals left in captivity in South Korea. Hot Pink Dolphins is currently fighting for the relocation of a beluga whale called Bella, who should have been moved to a sea sanctuary long ago. A sanctuary is essentially a large, fenced-off area of the sea that would offer Bella a more natural environment to encounter the ocean’s flora and fauna without being made to perform for human entertainment. However, there have been recurring delays in the planning process, which should be completed by now. We share concerns about Bella's wellbeing with our colleagues in South Korea.

Beluga whale in captivity

Can you help end captivity for whales and dolphins?

But speaking of sanctuaries, Hot Pink Dolphins celebrated a great success this year: the official promise for a marine sanctuary to which six bottlenose dolphins are to be transferred in 2025. Unfortunately, not all dolphins can simply be released back into the wild. An important requirement for their release is that they can be returned to their original habitat and that there is a chance that they can rejoin their original family. So, for dolphins originally from Taiji, Japan, whose families were wiped out by dolphin hunters, a marine sanctuary is the only option for a return to the ocean and a reasonably species-appropriate life. More about dolphin hunting in the next part of my series of blogs.

Dolphins in Taiji are secured in a small area before being killed or taken to an aquarium
For dolphins in Taiji, their chances of survival without a family members are zero.

The visit to Hot Pink Dolphins made a deep impression on me and reinforced the idea that it doesn't necessarily take a big organisation to make a difference. Their small team has already achieved so much for the welfare of whales and dolphins, not only around Jeju, but throughout South Korea. Despite never-ending work and limited resources, they always seem to be cheerful and full of energy. Perhaps it's because they only need to look out to sea to know all their efforts are worthwhile. Watching dolphins from land as they hunt, play and rest, whilst recognising some ex-captive individuals among them, is surely the best reward for all their hard work.

Jeju island, South Korea
To stand here and watch these formerly captive dolphins enjoy living a life wild and free was a moment I'll cherish forever.

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About Katrin Matthes

Katrin koordiniert für uns die internationale Arbeit zu Japan. Ihr Hauptaugenmerk liegt auf der Beendigung des kommerziellen Walfangs und der Delfinjagden in Taiji. Katrin kümmert sich außerdem um die Bildungs- und Kinderinhalte auf unserer deutschen Website.