To Free A Dolphin
2000. 269 pages, hardcover. $23.95.
Behind The Dolphin Smile
1988, 2000. 300 pages, paperback. $15.95.
Both by Ric O Barry with Keith Coulbourn
Renaissance Books (5858 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90036.)
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry is now an internationally recognized film star, through the success of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove (2009) and Blackfish (2013).
When I first reviewed the books covering O’Barry’s earlier career, however, in November 2000, O’Barry was working by telephone and e-mail with no budget and no media notice, as he had for 30 years in countless similar situations, to prevent the start of swim-with-dolphin programs in Anguilla and Tortolla, in the British Virgin Islands.
O’Barry and the people who tipped him off about the swim-with programs believed that the dolphins to be used were previously kept at Diver Land in Margarita, Venezuela, where a dolphin named Cheryl who was of special importance to O’Barry died on October 31, 1997.
Originally captured and trained by the Russian Navy, Cheryl was sold circa 1991 to Waterland Mundo Marino, a traveling show based in Cali, Colombia. Argentinian animal advocate Martha Gutierrez showed Cheryl to O’Barry in 1995. Finding Cheryl in declining condition, O’Barry promised he would save her. Gutierrez and O’Barry won an order from a Buenos Aires court that Cheryl should be surrendered to their custody for rehabilitation and release, but Waterland Mundo Marino instead spirited her out of Argentina. O’Barry and allies tracked Cheryl as best they could for the next two years, but caught up with her at Diver Land just a few days too late.
Also in November 2000, O’Barry had just joined Free Willy! producers Richard and Lauren Donner in helping Hawaiian activists including Steve Sipman to fight plans by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to build a $20 million theme park around a new site for the Dolphin Institute at Maui Nui.
The Dolphin Institute, headed by University of Hawaii researcher Louis Herman, emerged in 1993 out of studies of captive dolphins begun in 1975 at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory. Then-assistants Sipman and Ken Lavasseur in 1976 became concerned that two Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins kept there were unduly suffering, and released them. Sipman and Lavasseur then called the police and awaited their arrest. The action has commonly been attributed to the “Animal Liberation Front,” but Sipman has assured ANIMALS 24-7 that “I never had anything to do with the ALF.”
The action itself was not quite a first. O’Barry had already tried to free a captive dolphin from the Lerner Marine Laboratory in Bimini, the Bahamas, on Earth Day 1970. But the dolphin refused to leave through the hole O’Barry cut in the fence separating the lab tank from the sea. O’Barry walked to the police station, turned himself in, spent a week in jail, and eventually paid a fine of $5.00.
Others protested dolphin captures even before that. O’Barry in his first book, Behind The Dolphin Smile, recalled how as a member of the Miami Seaquarium capture team he evaded protesters in 1962 to net the albino dolphin Carolina Snowball. She survived three years in captivity.
Under Miami Seaquarium trainer Ricou Browning, O’Barry meanwhile became chief handler of the five dolphins who performed in the film and TV series Flipper. When the TV series ended, O’Barry was retained to look after the dolphins for one more year. Then he was cut loose.
Deeply disturbed, but uncertain why, O’Barry became a semi-recluse for a while; became a vegetarian; traveled to India to seek his soul; returned to the U.S. to participate in marine mammal intelligence research; and was called one day to try to save the life of one of the Flipper dolphins, Kathy, who died in his arms from conditions O’Barry diagnosed as consequences of stress and neglect.
Dolphins’ Don Quixote
From that moment O’Barry has dedicated his life to liberating dolphins. Opening with the Bimini fiasco, Behind The Dolphin Smile entertainingly and informatively recounted how O’Barry came to be the dolphins’ Don Quixote.
Until the unexpectedly successful first edition of Behind The Dolphin Smile made O’Barry transiently famous in 1988, he worked mostly alone, in obscurity and near poverty. Yet O’Barry did manage to return several dolphins to the sea.
Success brought emulation and eclipse, especially after 1993, when the film Free Willy! and two sequels made cetacean freedom temporarily the most trendy and lucrative branch of animal protection. Latecomers who rarely had even a fraction of O’Barry s experience and commitment soon surpassed O’Barry in winning TV exposure, raising funds, and forming strategic alliances with major animal advocacy groups.
Stayed out of Free Willy!/Keiko fiasco
O’Barry, to many, seemed to be no more than a possibly envious voice from the shadows when he warned that the orca Keiko, who played Willy, was a poor candidate for release. O’Barry told me––several times––that Keiko was far too habituated to people and essentially content in captivity to succeed in the wild. But O ‘Barry also named many other captive whales and dolphins whom he believed should be set free. They included two of the last dolphins captured from the wild in U.S. waters, who were kept at a Florida facility called the Ocean Reef Club, and a number of Navy-trained dolphins who were soon to be sold as surplus. O’Barry believed the Navy dolphins might be especially promising release candidates because they had never been totally removed from the ocean.
Despite O’Barry’s caution, David Phillips of Earth Island Institute and Free Willy! producers Richard and Lauren Donner created the Free Willy/Keiko Foundation, later called Ocean Futures, and raised $14 million to prepare Keiko for possible release.
O’Barry was not involved in the 11-year, $20 million effort that did eventually release Keiko in the North Atlantic, only months before his death in a Norwegian fjord in 2003.
Throughout that time, however, and beginning more than a decade earlier, O’Barry worked to draw attention to the Taiji dolphin massacres, then a relatively obscure situation that several other prominent activists had looked at briefly, then turned away from as a seemingly impossible situation. Originally conducted as meat hunts, and to eliminate competition to catch fish, the Taiji dolphin roundups became hugely profitable after the killers discovered that they could sell choice specimens to dolphin exhibitors.
Eventually film maker Louie Psihoyos in The Cove showed the dolphin killing, the role of the captivity industry money in perpetuating it, O’Barry’s long campaign against it, and his own efforts to film it, using hidden cameras and the help of seven-time world free-diving champion Mandy-Rae Cruickshank to clandestinely place cameras underwater. On March 7, 2010, when The Cove won the Oscar for best documentary film of 2009,
Psihoyos accepted the award while O’Barry held up a sign asking viewers to send him a text message to receive further information about helping to stop the Taiji massacres.
But both before and after that moment in the spotlights, O’Barry went on about finding dolphins he could free successfully, and releasing those whose custody he won through whatever tactics each situation seemed to call for. His repetoire included a prolonged hunger strike in Israel and many arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience.
O’Barry’s first big chance for Free Willy!-level recognition seemed to come in 1994, when almost simultaneously the U.S. Navy agreed to make up to six surplus dolphins available for release, and Ocean Reef Club handed their dolphins to activist Joe Roberts whose involvement began when he heard O Barry speak to a diving club.
O’Barry’s second book, To Free A Dolphin, centered on the formation and dissolution of the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary. The site was a Florida Keys resort owned by attorney Lloyd Good, with a resident performing dolphin trained by Good’s son Lloyd Good III, and a history of conflicts with environmental regulation. O’Barry and Roberts hoped to use the site to rehabilitate and release the ex-Navy and Ocean Reef Club dolphins.
From the beginning there were conflicts. O’Barry came to believe that Lloyd Good III all along really wanted to breed and keep dolphins, not release them. He had a female, and O’Barry and Roberts brought more females plus males.
Roberts also made a tactical mistake, O’Barry argued in To Free A Dolphin, in bringing into the project former Ocean Reef Club trainers Ric Trout, Lynne Stringer, and Mary Lycan. O’Barry believes that all three had a fundamental conflict of interest, in that as trainers they need to have dolphins to make a living. Even if their motives were uncompromised, O’Barry explained, their whole approach was based on interaction.
O’Barry, alone among the leading figures in cetacean liberation, uses the standard techniques of wildlife rehab for release. He minimizes interaction, instead allowing animals to discover for themselves how to do what they need to do to survive. Help is limited to making sure the animals get enough to eat, are treated for illness or injury, and are constantly challenged with opportunities to learn key skills preferably without being aware of either human involvement or observation.
O’Barry believes all of the dolphins who were meant for release at Sugarloaf could have been freed within 60 to 90 days of their arrival, if he had been able to do things his way. His record elsewhere suggests he was right. But exascerbating the internal problems at Sugarloaf were a parade of visiting donors and celebrities who couldn’t resist making pets of the dolphins who were supposed to be released.
Add to that what O’Barry and I believe was deliberate disruption by undercover agents provocateur. We eventually identified four individuals in proximity to Sugarloaf with histories of alleged espionage against activism. Too late to help either O’Barry or the dolphins, we uncovered a trail of hints that self-appointed Sugarloaf peacemaker Rick Spill was actually attorney Bill Wewer. Wewer had direct links to Norwegian whalers and Canadian sealers, but dropped out of sight in 1991; Spill, of hazy background but strong resemblance to Wewer, emerged as a marine mammal activist in mid-1993, dropping out of sight in 1999, coincidental with Wewer’s reported death.
Several entities involved in marine mammal issues might have had an interest in covertly keeping U.S. activists focused on release projects and infighting––especially Norway, which during this time frame resumed commercial whaling (1993), and Canada resumed offshore sealing (1995).
O’Barry’s reputation took a beating from the much publicized failure of the Sugarloaf project. Ric Trout et al left in a huff, accusing O Barry of fakery. Joe Roberts left in a huff, taking the Ocean Reef Club dolphins to a sea pen on the Indian River, near their capture point. Someone cut the fence and released those dolphins before they could be freeze-branded for identification, so no one really knows if they survived or not. It seems likely, however, that they did.
Anticipating federal seizure of the ex-Navy dolphins as result of complaints by Trout and others, O’Barry and Good III released two of those dolphins near Sugarloaf. O’Barry argues that the release would have succeeded if Trout had not lured them back with a Navy recall pinger. Others claim both dolphins were injured and starving when recaptured. Two others of their group were returned to Navy duty; the remaining two dolphins who had been at Sugarloaf were sent to the Dolphin Research Center, a near-by swim-with-dolphins facility. O’Barry and Good III were heavily fined for having released the two dolphins without a permit.
Even leveling all fair criticisms at O’Barry, Behind the Dolphin’s Smile and To Free A Dolphin are an absorbing and inspiring two-part self-portrait of a marine “Man of La Mancha,” and are film-worthy prequels to The Cove and Blackfish, should anyone care to make them. O’Barry’s commitment is enduring, his successes have reduced the universe of suffering, his failures have not increased suffering, and he has undeniably broadened human awareness and compassion.