In 1960, twenty-year-old Richard Barry O’Feldman, known simply as Ric O’Barry, began working at the Miami Seaquarium, which had only opened five years prior. He trained several captive dolphins as well as the facility’s first killer whale. In 1964, he was among the trainers who captured and trained five wild dolphins—Susie, Patty, Kathy, Scotty, and Squirt—to star in a new show on NBC called Flipper.
The show, which aired from 1964 to 1967 on Saturday nights on NBC, centered on the chief warden of the fictional Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve who, along with his two sons, owns a pet bottlenose dolphin named Flipper. Flipper was played by all five captured dolphins, most commonly Susie and Kathy.
Flipper received high ratings and sold a considerable amount of children's merchandise, especially during its first season. Its popularity led to the establishment of more marine parks that included dolphins in their attractions.
Ratings began to slip in 1965 during season two, due to the popularity of NBC's new Saturday night shows, I Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart. After a sharper decline in ratings for season three, producers decided not to do a fourth season, and the show was subsequently canceled.
In 1970, O’Barry visited a visibly anxious Kathy, who was then retired and living in a tank alone. When he got into the tank with her, she swam into his arms and voluntarily closed her blowhole, which stopped her breathing. She sank to the bottom, dead.
Realizing Kathy had committed suicide due to the psychological toll of captivity, O'Barry was spurred into action to quit his job as a trainer and save marine mammals from confinement and exploitation.
His efforts began with a trip to the Bahamas, where he attempted to release a captive dolphin named Charlie Brown, one of four dolphins captured in 1963 by the Bimini Lerner Marine Lab. At this point the other three dolphins had died, while Charlie Brown was confined alone.
Under the cover of nighttime, O'Barry rented a boat and brought his diving gear, a bolt cutter, and a wire cutter to the Marine Lab's headquarters. He dove into the water and cut away part of the fence holding Charlie Brown captive. But Charlie Brown, by now accustomed to captivity, was afraid to swim to freedom.
O'Barry tried time and again to run the dolphin out, but failed. He was caught and arrested the next morning and spent a week in jail. Ultimately the authorities fined him $5 and ordered him to leave the country.
When he landed back home in Miami, Florida, O’Barry was introduced to musician Stephen Stills through their mutual friend, folk singer Fred Neil. While they were out on a boat observing wild dolphins, O’Barry told him he wished to establish a program to return dolphins to the wild.
Stills offered to fund this endeavor, so O’Barry went to a shop to have campaign shirts made. As he had no ideas for a logo at the time, the shop owner suggested The Dolphin Project.
The Dolphin Project (1970-present)
Since its founding, The Dolphin Project has rescued, rehabilitated, and re-released captive dolphins worldwide. Members have protested at aquariums, marine parks, zoos, and hunting sites in several countries, including the Bahamas, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Japan, the Solomon Islands, and South Korea.
O'Barry himself has given speeches against marine mammal captivity at events all over the world. He has appeared on numerous talk shows, including Larry King Live, Anderson Cooper 360, Katie Couric, and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“Since our humble beginnings,” O’Barry has said, “Dolphin Project successfully released a number of captive dolphins back into the wild. It’s an inconvenient truth that the dolphin abusement industry doesn’t want you to know. And why would they? What justification would they use to keep sentient and complex-brained mammals captive in chlorinated pools when they could be swimming wild and free, as nature intended them to be?”
Thanks to the organization raising awareness of the captivity industry, many places of exploitation have closed down, including the Bimini Lerner Marine Lab, the U.S. Navy Dolphin Facility in Florida, and a traveling dolphin circus in Indonesia.
In 2019, The Dolphin Project partnered with the Central Jakarta Forestry Department and the Jakarta Animal Aid Network in Bali, Indonesia to open the world’s first permanent retirement sanctuary for dolphins who can’t return to the wild.
“While all dolphins are candidates for retirement, not all dolphins are suitable for re-release,” O’Barry explained. “Each individual has to be carefully evaluated, both behaviorally and physically. It takes considerable resources, a solid infrastructure, and a dedicated team of veterinary professionals to make this happen.”
The Dolphin Project has several celebrity ambassadors, including actress Maisie Williams, musician Matt Sorum, and racecar driver Leilani Münter. O'Barry's son Lincoln currently serves as campaign coordinator.
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Behind the Dolphin Smile (1988)
O'Barry wrote a memoir, Behind the Dolphin Smile, with the help of journalist Keith Coulborn, recounting his journey from training dolphins to becoming a leading advocate for their freedom. Though originally published in 1988, new editions have been released in recent years, with added chapters and details.
A review in The Australia Times has said, “To call this book riveting would be an understatement; it is absolutely fascinating.” Kirkus Reviews described it as “An engaging memoir" and "a refreshing down-to-earth look at men [and] dolphins.”
Author Susan Casey has written, "Though Behind the Dolphin Smile succeeds on many levels—as a biography, an adventure tale, a dolphin primer, a wonderful, page-turning narrative—at heart it is something more than all of them. This, it seems to me, is a love story."
Signed copies are available on The Dolphin Project's website.
The Cove (2009)
Directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, The Cove (2009) is a documentary chronicling O’Barry’s quest to expose secret hunting operations in the Japanese town of Taiji. Much of the footage was obtained using hidden underwater microphones and cameras disguised as rocks, as the filmmaking crew was met with open hostility from Taiji police, townsfolk, and the government officials involved in covering up the hunts.
Every year, starting in September and ending in March, Taiji fishermen round up dolphins to an isolated cove, where they capture them in nets. They sell a few dolphins to marine parks and aquariums, and brutally slaughter the rest to sell the meat. This hunt kills an estimated 23,000 dolphins per year. This documentary argues this practice is not only cruel and unnecessary, but also dangerous, as dolphin meat is unfit for human consumption due to high levels of mercury.
The Cove was positively received by critics. Philip Wilding of Empire Magazine described it as “a taut, thrilling documentary that plays out like a heist movie while never overshadowing its message or activist credentials.” Christine Champ of Film.com wrote “The Cove does what every great documentary with a cause should: It educates, entertains, and inspires audiences to take action.” Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times called the film “one of the most audacious and perilous operations in the history of the conservation movement.”
The Cove won thirty-nine awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, and a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States. It also won Audience Awards at eleven film festivals.
Prior to The Cove’s release, the wider Japanese public was generally unaware of Taiji’s dolphin hunts and the presence of dolphin meat on the market. While some screenings in Japan were cancelled due to protests and death threats aimed at theater staff, a Japanese video-sharing site made the film readily available. In 2011, a Taiji activist group called People Concerned for the Ocean began publicly distributing DVDs of the documentary. O’Barry has since been invited to speak at several Japanese universities.
Blood Dolphin$ (2010)
Blood Dolphin$ was a three-part documentary television show that aired on Animal Planet in 2010. Its first hour recapped key points of The Cove and detailed how it brought international media attention to the dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan.
In the first episode, O'Barry and his son, Lincoln, a filmmaker, traveled back to Taiji to discover that the dolphin hunts have continued, despite worldwide scrutiny. Once again, footage had to be covertly obtained due to threats of violence from townsfolk and police. The fishermen even postponed the hunt to avoid being filmed.
During the making of the show, O'Barry was quoted as saying, "I am a marked man. Two of my associates have been murdered."
Even so, he has remained hopeful about ending the slaughter by educating Japanese citizens. "In some ways, the Japanese people are victims because they don't have the information," he said. "But we're here to listen and learn... We're not cultural imperialists."
For the second episode, the O'Barrys traveled to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, a hot spot for dolphin hunts and trafficking. The third episode featured their interactions with traders and native hunters.
Awards and Honors
In 1991, OʼBarry received the Environmental Achievement Award, which was presented by the United States Committee for the United Nations Environmental Program. In 2010, The Huffington Post dubbed him the Most Influential Green Game Changer.
In 2011, in the wake of The Cove's success, South Miami City Commissioner Walter Harris and South Miami Mayor Phillip Stoddard renamed a street Richard O'Barry Drive in his honor. A public celebration of the new street name took place near South Miami City Hall.
"More than anything, I hope this all translates into awareness," O'Barry said in response. "That some young kid will look at that sign, google Richard O’Barry, and get educated about the issue. I hope it will also send a message to people that this is an important issue that deserves attention. Because we still have much to do."
In 2015, O'Barry recieved the Bambi Award, the most prestigious media award in Germany. Established in 1948, the Bambi Award is given to those who have had an enduring effect on audiences and the public. The awards show was broadcast live to an audience of five million people.