With a kick of his flipper and a tiny splash into the Atlantic, little Cutter the dolphin was back with his buddies in the waters off Key West yesterday.
The 3-year-old spotted dolphin spent months recuperating at a marine mammal rehab center before he was released into a pod of dolphins 10 miles from the shores of the island.
Volunteers from the Marine Mammal Conservancy said they searched for over two days for the pod, then finally released Cutter to join his friends.
"It was a huge sigh of relief that we were able to find the pod," said Robert Lingenfelser, MMC president. "We counted about 22 animals including males, females and juveniles, and we released Cutter right in the middle."
Though young dolphins typically need their mothers for nourishment and to help them learn survival skills, experts felt Cutter was ready to be released into the wild.
Unsure of whether Cutter will be accepted by the pod, researchers will monitor him 24 hours a day for the next few days.
"If he's not integrated into the pod or feeding on his own, an attempt will be made to take and transfer him to a permanent care facility," said Blair Mase, of National Marine Fisheries.
A small radio transmitter was affixed to his dorsal fin to help researchers track the mini-mammal. They used a smaller device than usual, out of fear that the other dolphins might not accept Cutter based on his appearance.
Some dolphin advocates were critical of MMC for removing Cutter from the water, but Lingenfelser said it was urgent considering his condition.
"If we had not rescued him, he would have died," said Lingenfelser. "Medical tests proved he was starving and because of that, his liver was compromised and there were other issues."