In 2009, along the waters off Jeju Island in South Korea, a ten-year-old female dolphin was mistakenly captured in a fishing net. But instead being released back into the wild as law requires, she was sold to a local aquarium and given the name Sampal, bound to a life a world apart from the one she had known.
Over the next four years, the wild dolphin was housed in a small pool, forced perform tricks as part of a dolphin show — treatment many believe is inhumane.
Yet as word spread of Sampal’s plight and the injustice of her captivity, folks across the country began to call for the dolphin to be set loose back into the wild. Animal rights advocates, biologists, and even Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon added their voices to the once-wild dolphin’s cause, spurring the Korean High Court to finally deliver orders that Sampal be returned to the open ocean.
But before her keepers had the chance to set her free as was planned for later this summer, Sampal managed to find her own way home.
While undergoing rehabilitation in a netted sea pen to ready her once again for life in the wild, Sampal apparently decided she’d waited long enough. Months before her planned release, the dolphin somehow managed to swim through a narrow tear in the pen’s netting to freedom in the vast ocean beyond — ending her four year ordeal in captivity.
SteveD./CC BY 2.0
Sampal’s handlers were initially concerned that the dolphin might not have fully reacquired the skills she would need to survive in the wild, but their worries were soon quelled. According to Korean media, researchers from Cetacean Research Center were able to track Sampal 60 miles from where she had been held, swimming free among 50 other dolphins believed to be members of her original pod.
Although research into dolphin behavior continues to suggest that these aquatic mammals possess a mental capacity not so far outmatched by our own, it doesn’t take an advanced degree to recognize a more fundamental, and perhaps more important commonality — a simple desire to be free.