Meeting the famous Ric O’Barry

Last week American activist and former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry visited the Netherlands. During a fundraising event for his organisation The Dolphin Project The Black Fish got a chance to shortly sit down with this influential character. Richard O’Barry (76) is a well-known activist, who spend most of his life protesting the captive industry of marine mammals and freeing them whenever he could. We were curious to hear about his past experiences in ocean activism and excited to hear about his future plans.

Initially Richard O’Barry started out on the other side of the issue, working as a dolphin capturer and trainer for the Miami Seaquarium during the 1960’s. He got globally renowned as the trainer of the 5 dolphins that starred in the popular tv series Flipper. After having lived so close with these dolphins for so long, O’Barry began to doubt the ethics of the work he had been doing those past ten years. When one of his favorite dolphins, named Kathy, presumably committed suicide in his presence he decided to radically change paths.

On Earth Day in 1970 Ric founded his organisation The Dolphin Project, aiming to end the hunt and exploitation of dolphins and whales worldwide. Over the 40 years that followed, he succeeded to release over 20 dolphins back into the wild. In 2009 O’Barry released the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove. This film showed the world how, each year, hundreds of dolphins are brutally slaughtered and captured in Taiji, Japan.

O’Barry’s work in Japan is remarkable. He has been monitoring the killing cove in Taiji since 2003 and still returns each year. In great detail, he narrates his encounters with the local fisherman, the Taiji whale museum, the local police and many others. Campaigning in Japan is extremely difficult. Due to the corrupt authorities, the local inhabitants of Taiji and its surroundings are completely unaware of the annual slaughter. Attempts by O’Barry to get locals involved, to reach out to schools and to broadcast The Cove documentary on local tv and internet have failed more than once. Nevertheless the numbers of killings seem to be going down.

Additionally, thanks to the international success of The Cove, Japan seems to be realizing that ‘the whole world is watching’. Using The Cove and the documentary Blackfish as an example, O’Barry tells us how he is convinced that making movies is ‘the new activism’. Movies have great potential to reach and touch a very wide audience.

The main purpose of O’Barry’s visit to the Netherlands is to convince the Dutch government to put an end to the dolphin shows at the Dolfinarium in Harderwijk. O’Barry says he feels a deep responsibility for the dolphins that are kept in the Dolfinarium. The Netherlands was the first country in Europe to hold wild dolphins captive. These dolphins may even have been captured by O’Barry himself. Now he believes The Netherlands could well be the first country to completely ban the captivity of wild marine mammals.

He stresses that the present issue is not only about animal well-being and animal rights, it is just as much about people as it is about dolphins. “To teach a child not to step on a caterpillar is just as important to the child as it is to the caterpillar” he says. We are seriously mis-educating our children by showing them dolphins that are doing tricks only to be fed dead fish. The dolphins that perform in these shows are ‘freaks of nature that we have created for our own amusement’. They have nothing in common with free, wild dolphins.

He then reveals that he is working to establish a so called dolphin sanctuary in the Mediterranean. Even-though he cannot elaborate too much on it yet, this promises to become a place where former show-dolphins will get a chance to ‘retire’ and be ‘untrained’. There is even talk about a collaboration with the Dolfinarium in Harderwijk. The amusement park is considering to participate in an experiment that O’Barry proposed to them last week. Some of their dolphins will be sent to the sanctuary for a two year period. Eventually it will be determined through scientific assessment whether the natural habitat has improved the well-being of the animals. The idea sounds promising and we are thrilled to see it unfold in the near future.

Finally, when we asked O’Barry what he would say his greatest achievement would be so far, he answered by pointing out all the people that were present at the venue. ‘This’ he says, ‘When I started I was on my own’. The captivity issue did not exist. Now more and more people know about it. Documentaries like Blackfish and The Cove have caused significant drops in visitors to theme parks like Seaworld. ‘However, as long as people continue to buy tickets, the show will go on.’

Interview and article by Anne Twaalfhoven