Miami native Ric O'Barry is one of those rare individuals so utterly devoted to his cause, so passionate and heartfelt, that he inspires generations of followers to stand alongside him. Since the 1970s, he's been working tirelessly to save dolphins from being slaughtered and captured across the globe - a fight which was captured in the Oscar-award winning documentary The Cove. And his organization, the Dolphin Project, has its roots right here in the 305.
After a former career as a dolphin capturer and trainer at the Miami Seaquarium, O'Barry had a revelation and began working to rehabilitate and release these highly intelligent, sensitive mammals and end the captive dolphin industry once and for all.
This Friday, O'Barry will be headlining an event at Luna Star Cafe as part of a fundraising event to help support his efforts. We spoke to the legendary advocate about how Miami inspired his career, how he deals with the horrors he's witnessed and how all of us can step up to help.
Cultist: You just returned to Miami from the annual slaughter in Taiji. What's it like this year?
Ric O'Barry: This year was historic according to the Associated Press wire services in Tokyo. That story was in over 200 other newspapers, and soon they're doing a much more in-depth story. There are four different Japanese groups of people and individuals who are coming forward and stepping up to do something about this annual dolphin slaughter. That is historic. I see the time when the Japanese activists will take ownership and I won't have to go there anymore. I'm thrilled about that. It's really hard to go from here. You fly all the way to Tokyo, it's something like 18 hours, take a train and go to this remote area of Japan and you're basically looking at Dante's Inferno for dolphins. If you saw The Cove, you're looking at the Disney version of what happens. When you see it in full color -- the sounds, the smells. Once you've seen it you can't unsee it. And once you get home you're bringing all these images with you. You turn the light off at night and 'Oh my God here we go again...' I've been doing that several times a year for the last 11 years. To see them step up, to me it's like, finally, it's light at the end of the tunnel.
How did Miami and the Seaquarium play a part in your creation of the Dolphin Project?
Well, the Dolphin Project was a result of my leaving the Seaquarium. I actually went there for the first time on opening day, Christmas day 1955. I was on leave from the Navy, so my mother and my two brothers and I went. It was only the third dolphinarium in the world. I stood there looking into the window in the main tank and it blew my socks off. You could see underwater! 300-pound sea turtles, starfish, dolphins were swimming all over the tank. There was a guy walking around in the bottom of the tank and he was feeding all of these creatures. It was a ding moment -- I realized that's what I want to do. And five years later when I got out of the Navy, that's what I did.
My first day on the job was on the capture boat. We went out and captured dolphins and were shipping them to different places. Flipper had just started, so Seaquarium made a deal with MGM where they'll supply the dolphins and a trainer if they filmed there. So for seven years I lived in that little house on the Flipper set and it's when I left that the Dolphin Project began. I was there for 10 years -- seven years with Flipper and three years training dolphins and killer whales. Then, after Earth Day 1970, I was doing the exact opposite, I was un-training them and putting them back.
How do you deal with the horrific things you see when you're on site at the dolphin slaughter?
Not very well. I must say it's very, very difficult. I don't, I just do the best I can. Insomnia is involved, probably post-traumatic stress disorder. Yeah there's a lot of things. It's very difficult for me to put that in words.
Have you seen any changes on the side of the people engaged in the slaughter since you started 11 years ago? How do they react to you?
Well, there's that 'they' word again. We have to really be specific who we're talking about. There's a worldwide boycott of Japan, but the Japanese people are not guilty. Of the people of Taiji, there are 3,353, I think, living there, but there's only 50 guys who are doing this. [Most people in Japan] don't do this and they're not guilty, but they get blamed for it. It's amazing how a small minority of people can create so much ill will towards an entire nation of 127 million people, most of whom don't even know it's going on.
If you're in Japan, it becomes very obvious that everyone's dancing as fast as they can to just pay the rent. It's very expensive and they work hard all day long. They don't have time for issues.
One of the things we're doing is getting a lot of young Japanese people together, and there's no better way to do that than through rock and roll. We're doing a benefit in Tokyo and everybody in the band that's playing has a very high media profile in Japan. Everybody is an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's the whole band from Guns 'n' Roses except for Axl. They all are totally into this and recognize the value of doing this benefit in Tokyo and getting a lot of young Japanese people together to celebrate the dolphin. There are places in Japan where it's the opposite of Taiji. They protect dolphins, they give them names, they swim with them. You never hear about that -- you only hear about these 50 men and what they're doing. We want to bring attention to what's right about Japan.
What do you say to people who don't see anything wrong with dolphins in captivity?
We're exposing what's going on. We're not cultural imperialists -- we're there to work with the Japanese people and hope that they will step up and do something about it and that's starting to happen.
In addition to The Cove, I'm hoping people will watch another documentary called Blackfish which will be on CNN worldwide on October 24. If they see that, they will not be buying a ticket for the Miami Seaquarium or Sea World.
Sea World's stock has plummeted since the film; that's the way to educate the public. It's all based on supply and demand like any other project. When people get the information they can do something about it, but most people don't have the information because this is a multi-billion dollar industry. They have the public believing that dolphins belong in captivity, that they're there for education and research and conservation -- that's the big lie. Blackfish and The Cove expose that lie and that's why their stock is plummeting.
Don't buy a ticket -- that's the best, most peaceful way to solve the problem. Don't wait for the government to solve it. They won't, they profit from it. Last year Sea World alone made 1.4 billion in profit. They pay taxes just like you and I do, and where does that money go? The government is not going to fix it. It's up to the people.
What else can people do who want to help the cause?
Go to DolphinProject.org, whether it's supporting us as we need funding or they can sign a pledge not to buy a ticket. They can generate a pre-written letter to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums who have the power to stop these dolphin captures. They can take action at that website, go there and look around -- they'll know what to do.
O'Barry will be appearing Friday night at the Luna Star Cafe along with several of his fellow advocates who just returned from Taiji. Back in the day, the likes of David Crosby, Jimmy Buffett and Bob Ingram performed at similar benefits to support O'Barry's efforts, so who knows what future legends you might see. Proceeds will benefit O'Barry's return trip to Japan and upcoming Tokyo benefit concert. $10 or more donation requested. The evening runs from 8 to 11 p.m. and you can check out the details on Facebook.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.