Richard (Ric) O’Barry (born c. 1939) was first recognized in the 1960s for capturing and training the five dolphins that were used in the well-known TV series Flipper. O’Barry made a radical transition from training dolphins in captivity to assertively combating the captivity industry soon after Kathy, one of the Flipper dolphins, died, committing suicide in his arms, according to O’Barry.
‘Kathy looked me right in the eye,’ he said. ‘Then she took a breath, and never took another one. She sank to the bottom of the tank,’ he recalled, adding that he was quite certain that her death was a suicide.
He explained: ‘Every breath a dolphin takes is a conscious effort, so they can decide not to take the next breath. That’s what I mean by suicide.’
It was just before Earth Day, 1970. The next day, he found himself in jail for trying to free a dolphin.
‘I completely lost it,’ he admitted in a phone interview with The Sunday Times. He went on to set up the Dolphin Project to free captive dolphins and educate people about their plight.
For years, he had been trying to get the media to focus attention on what happened to the dolphins in Taiji, Japan. He managed to do that in 2009, when he worked with film-maker Louie Psihoyos.
The Cove went on to win Best Documentary at the Oscars.
In the documentary on the annual hunt of wild dolphins in Taiji, fishermen in boats bang pipes underwater. Fleeing this sound, the dolphins are corralled into a secluded cove.
The healthy ones are caught to be sold to aquariums but the others are speared, clubbed and stabbed to death, as recorded in the documentary, portions of which were shot secretly.
Mr O’Barry said the dolphin hunts in the Solomon Islands are no different. The residents use stones to create a sound that enables the hunters to drive the dolphins into an inlet.
‘The dolphins are ripped from their natural environment, separated from their families and pod mates, held in nets, transported in trucks, hoisted into cargo planes and flown to distant locations. Is it any wonder that many die in the process?’
Survivors are ‘condemned to a life in a concrete tank, listening to the hum of the filtration system and the screams of the audience’.
While wild dolphins can live for 60 years, in captivity they often die prematurely. Captive ones routinely suffer from ulcers, he said, adding that they frequently go blind and have skin problems.
Many also succumb to stress-related conditions like pneumonia, as well as self-inflicted injuries or those caused by accidents or confrontations with other confined dolphins.
Mr O’Barry, who works with US-based environmental group Earth Island Institute, said he will never give up the fight to free dolphins in captivity.
‘It’s my way of trying to right the wrong I committed in helping to boost the captivity industry through the Flipper series.’