Ric O’Barry was born in the United States in 1939, two years before the country entered World War II. When he was two years old, his father was called into the army and went to war, returning in 1945 after the surrender of Japan. Little else is known of Ric’s childhood, except that he grew fond of marine life early on because of his father’s job as a fisherman.
DOLPHIN-HUNTER AND TRAINER
After Ric finished his studies, he entered the fishing industry full-time to focus on finding dolphins. Ric worked with the Miami Seaquarium (the oldest and one of the largest oceanariums in the United States) capturing dolphins and training them to entertain crowds of people. In the early 1960s, Ric became the head trainer for the five dolphins who played the famous “Flipper” on the popular TV show named after the character. Ric also served as a stunt double for the character played by Luke Halpin.
Throughout the sixties, Ric enjoyed a successful career as a dolphin trainer. He was paid well for his work, and very much enjoyed learning about the psychology of dolphins and how they interact with human beings. Ric developed special bonds with the dolphins he trained, especially with the five he trained for “Flipper.” And, as Ric spent further time training the dolphins, he also learned that they share traits with humans, including intellect and display of emotion.
Although Ric loved his job as a dolphin trainer, his time spent with the creatures also began to shift his perspective from capturing them to letting them be free. He came to realize that dolphins were not supposed to be put in tanks just to entertain the public; they should be set free and allowed to live where they’re meant to live.
THE DEATH OF KATHY: A SUICIDE
Eventually, Ric would have his change of heart when Kathy, the dolphin who most often played “Flipper,” died after she went under and did not resurface for air during one of their training sessions. This tragic event led Ric to believe that during her captivity, Kathy had experienced deep depression and committed suicide as a result. This had a profound effect on Ric’s life, and after the incident he decided he was going to turn things around for himself.
And so, during the Earth Day celebration of that year, Ric founded “The Dolphin Project,” a non-profit organization which aimed to educate the public about the issue of dolphins in captivity, as well as campaign to free them into the seas. From that moment on, Ric worked with numerous organizations worldwide to help release captive dolphins to where they are naturally supposed to be.
ESTABLISHING “THE DOLPHIN PROJECT”
Since he founded “The Dolphin Project,” Ric has become one of the world’s most vocal supporters of releasing captive dolphins. Wherever he had the opportunity, he spoke about how it is wrong to keep dolphins captive for the sake of entertainment. In an interview, when Ric was asked about the issue of captivity, he said:
“What's wrong with captivity? The capture, bring them into a concrete chlorinated box, reducing them to circus clowns and then selling this as educational to the public. And I think it's extremely dangerous. This issue for me is not just about the dolphins. There's about a thousand in captivity and it's more about the millions of people who go and see the show. They're learning, it is educational, they're learning, however, that it's okay to abuse nature. To teach a child not to step on a caterpillar or a butterfly is as important to the child as it is the butterfly. And that's what's wrong with it.”
Although Ric gained many supporters in his effort to free captive dolphins, there were also many who strongly opposed him, particularly in the business sector. Ever since Ric started his work, commercial businesses and other institutions had filed lawsuits against him for “affecting their businesses.” In fact, throughout his years of working on “The Dolphin Project,” Ric has faced numerous accusations, even threats, to try to prevent him from fighting for dolphins’ freedom.
GAINING SUPPORT AND FURTHER SUCCESS
In 1991, Ric received the “Environmental Achievement Award” from the US Committee for the United Nations Environmental Program for his work with “The Dolphin Project,” as well as his work to release captive dolphins. By this time, he had also begun speaking at numerous events and conferences worldwide to stress the importance of his cause.
Many of those who opposed Ric and his campaign have criticized him for his focus on dolphins, stating that dolphins are no different from all the other marine creatures they captured. They have also criticized him for neglecting other important societal values, such as poverty and homelessness, but he simply shrugs them off; he says the reason why his focus is on dolphins is because they are what he has trained for all his life:
“I focus specifically on dolphins, but I’m also as concerned about homelessness and other issues. Unfortunately, I can’t do very much about homelessness, and other equally important issues. I helped create this dolphin amusement park industry, which is one reason why I focus on the dolphin captivity industry. Not because I believe they’re more important. It’s about being effective, and this is how I am as effective as I can be.”
In 1999, Ric and his associate, Lloyd Good III, were convicted of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act after releasing two captive dolphins into the Gulf of Mexico without providing adequate notice to authorities. During a press release initiated by the Commerce Department, it was said that the two dolphins were not “ready” to survive in the wild, and Ric’s and Lloyd’s actions resulted in the dolphins suffering life-threatening injuries.
Throughout the 2000s, Ric became more involved in the fishing industry in Asian countries, particularly Japan, where dolphin meat is considered a delicacy. In 2007, he was named as a “Marine Mammal Specialist” for the Earth Island Institute and, in the same year, was appointed Director of the “Save Japan Dolphins Campaign.”
In 2009, Ric was featured [and cast] in the documentary film “The Cove,” which focused on the capture, display, murder and overall trade of dolphins around the world. Set in the town of Taiji, Japan, the film won numerous awards, including an Academy Award for “Best Documentary Film” the following year. The film not only opened the eyes of the international community to the evils of dolphin-fishing, but it also helped Ric to advance the campaign to preserve the dolphin population.
Today, Ric continues to fight for dolphins, in spite of the seemingly-overwhelming force his opponents have against him. And yes, Ric knows his actions have spurred a great deal of animosity from commercial fishermen who catch these creatures for a living, but he knows that more and more people will join his cause as more realize just how bad the situation is for dolphins around the world.
“People coming forward like this—it's a wonderful thing to see. And that's exactly what the dolphin hunters don't want. They want this issue just to go away, and the public to go away and the media attention to go away. And that's not gonna happen not until they stop killing these dolphins.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- The Dolphin Project
- World Wildlife Fund
- Sava Japan Dolphins Campaign
- Earth Island Institute
- Explorers Club
Awards and Achievements
- 1991: Received the “Environmental Achievement Award” from the United States Committee for the United Nations Environmental Program
- 2009: Received the ASPCA “Lifetime Achievement Award”
- 2009: “The Cove” named “Best Documentary” by the National Board of Review and received the “Audience Award for Best Documentary” at the Newport Beach Film Festival
- 2010: “The Cove” received the Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature” and the Genesis Award for “Best Documentary Feature”
- 2011: Received the “Bambi Award”
- “The Cove” named “Best Documentary” by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association
- Conferred Fellowship by the Explorers Club
- Named a “GreenHero”