Once a dolphin trainer, now he’s their biggest protector
In This Feature
Dolphins & People. A four-part feature
The Business of Dolphins
The Movie that Launched a Revolution
The Real Story: Freeing Keiko
Ric O’Barry: From Flipper to The Cove
Tilikum: The Slave Who Fought Back
Life and Death at SeaWorld
The Drive Hunts
Interviews & Reports
“Don’t Buy a Ticket!”
More about Ric O’Barry
The “Spartacus” of Whales
My Visit to SeaWorld
A Whale of a Business
See also Part One: The Smartest of Us All?
“Kathy looked me right in the eye,” Ric O’Barry says. “Then she took a breath, and then never took another one. She sank to the bottom of the tank. I jumped in and got her to the surface and tried to revive her but she was gone at that point. I don’t really like talking about that. But that was 40 years ago. 1970. Earth Day 1970.”
It was a day that transformed Ric from a happy-go-lucky dolphin trainer in Miami to a man obsessed with saving dolphins from the captivity and entertainment industry.
Kathy was one of the dolphins who played Flipper in the TV series of the 1960s. And Ric is quite certain that her death was a suicide. “Every breath a dolphin takes is a conscious effort, so they don’t have to take the next breath. That’s what I mean by suicide. I’d heard that dolphins commit suicide but I never experienced that until Kathy looked me right in the eye and took a breath and then never took another one.”
Understanding their nature as self-aware beings
The seeds of his transformation had already taken root as he worked with the dolphins. “I used to put the television set down by the pool so that Flipper could watch Flipper on TV at 7:30 on Friday nights. And I realized they were self-aware. And then the next step is to question, well, why they are in captivity if they are self-aware?”
Today, at age 70, Ric travels the world – a man on a mission – forever trying to right the wrong he believes he committed by helping to boost the captivity industry through the popularity of the Flipper series.
In 2009, he got a big break, working with moviemaker Louie Psihoyos in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. True to form, as he stood on the stage at the Academy Awards, he unrolled a big sign that would send people to his website where they could join his current campaign: Save Japan Dolphins. These are the dolphins who are the subjects of the move The Cove – dolphins who are herded by the hundreds into a killing cove where they are massacred or captured and sold to the captivity and entertainment industry.
“Don’t buy a ticket!”
Ric’s message to anyone wanting to help protect the dolphins is very simple: “Don’t buy a ticket.” Don’t go to SeaWorld or to any other facility where dolphins are on display. Don’t patronize the industry. Once we stop paying them, they’ll be forced to shut down.
But how do you shut down the captivity industry? What do you do with all the dolphins? Obviously, it couldn’t be done all at once. Dolphins who are born in captivity don’t even know what the wild is.
“They don’t know what the tide is or the current or the natural rhythms of the sea,” says Ric. “They’ve never seen a live fish. They don’t know what that is. They think that the ceiling is the sky. These are freaks that we have created for our amusement.”
Ric’s answer: “If I had a magic wand, I would stop all the captures. I would stop captive breeding at all of these facilities. I would get involved in research in birth control. There isn’t any reason for a dolphin to be born in a building or in a tank. None whatsoever. And let them just phase out.”
Phasing them out will take a while. And Ric says it’s going to be tough for them. “If a human had been through the same experiences as many of these captive dolphins experienced, we’d be crazed. And some of them are crazed. I think some of them are mentally unhealthy.”
In February, 2010, just a few days after Ric said those words to us, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando made his point in the worst possible way. Tilikum, who had been becoming increasingly angry, frustrated and depressed, turned on one of his trainers, Dawn Brancheau, dragged her underwater, mauled and savaged her, tore her apart, and left her dead in his pool as an audience of humans watched on, helpless and aghast.