My friends and family know that I can be a little obsessive, which was a good thing when I worked as an investigative reporter in Indian Country. I would drive 100 miles to get a story, if I had to, and the cooperation and approval I received from the majority of the Navajos who read my work made it worthwhile.
Well, ever since I began writing Wet Goddess in 1973, shortly after the events described therein transpired, I have wondered what happened to some of the characters involved… the human characters, that is. I think we all know what happened to the dolphins, don’t we? I doubt if any of them have survived this long. Pro-captivity factions may argue with me, but the best science (again conducted by my friend Dr. Randall Wells of the Sarasota Dolphin Program) shows that the lifespan of a dolphin in captivity is, most often, about half as long as one in the wild, and frequently a lot less. And when you consider the many threats a wild dolphin has to contend with, from sharks and boat strikes to getting caught in discarded fishing line, that says a lot about the “best level of care” we are able to provide for these creatures.
One person I was able to track down was the head trainer, Robert C., on whom the character of “Beau Coleridge” was based. He still lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he moved after the Floridaland amusement park closed down. On my drive from New Mexico to Florida in 2002 I stopped off to see him and his wife Carol, who was the basis for “Klara.” Unfortunately Robert was out on his boat shrimp fishing when I stopped by, but Carol was happy enough to see me, even though she seemed to balk a little when I told her I’d had a “relationship” with the dolphin they knew as Dolly, and whom I renamed “Ruby” in the book. Thankfully, she didn’t make an issue out of it… but I’ve never heard back from her, or Robert. (The Gulfport Marine Aquarium, where he used to work, was largely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.)
Over the years I’ve made several attempt to track down the other people involved, without success – until now. FaceBook is such a wonderful thing! The other night, I was able, with just a few keystrokes, to locate the other two people who formed the basis for the main characters in my novel: assistant dolphin trainer Jim H. (on whom I based “Hank Pulaski”) and Cynthia D. (who was the model for “Salina O’Rourke”).
Jim, who is really a Southerner, now lives far from the salt water in Tennessee. We talked for an hour about old times, about proto-dolphin trainer Milton Santini and dolphin scientist-prophet John C. Lilly, whose “radical” claims for dolphin intelligence and self-awareness in the 1960′s have been borne out by much more careful and methodical research conducted since the 1980′s. While harking on the fact that Lilly’s early attempts to anesthetize dolphins for brain electrode implants killed five of them at Marineland in the 1950′s, Jim admitted that his own attempts, to capture dolphins commercially with Santini in the Florida Keys, and later with Robert C., killed “three or four” dolphins.
“We’ve all got blood on our hands,” I said, and meant it. I hold myself in part responsible for Dolly’s death. Even you, if you’ve visited an oceanarium or aquarium that keeps captive dolphins, have blood on your hands, unless it was someplace like the Clearwater Marine Aquarium that takes only “rescue” dolphins who can, for whatever reason, no longer survive in the wild. Marineland? Miami Seaquarium? Yeah, you’ve got blood on your hands if you’ve ever been there. Sea World? Gallons of it… even human blood, from the totally preventable 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, and two other people killed by the killer whale Tilikum, who should, like all other captive orcas, be put out to pasture – rehabilitated in a wild setting.
But I digress.
In short, Jim hadn’t changed a lot over the years. He was unapologetic about his role in capturing dolphins, but after talking with some trainers at a Las Vegas casino with a dolphin show, he gave me a fascinating tidbit of information: “The last time I sold a dolphin, in the 1970′s, it went for $600,” he said. ”The trainers now told me that’s up to $250,000.” That a four-hundred fold increase in price!
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on how you look at it, I guess; the dolphin tank is either half-full or half empty. Half-full because now there is a strong incentive for oceanariums to take care of their dolphins, whereas in the past, if a dolphin got sick or needed surgery, it was cheaper just to let it die and go catch a new one. Half-empty because it gives those bastards who conduct the brutal, murderous dolphin drive hunts in Taiji and other places a big fat incentive to keep some of their prey alive and sell them to oceanariums and “swim with dolphins” establishments, where they will spend the rest of their lives separated from their slaughtered family, friends and mates, eating dead fish and performing for tourists.
Odd how people remember things, or don’t. Jim said that back then in the 1970′s, he realized, working with dolphins, “that there was somebody inside there,” meaning, I guess, that he understood they were self-aware. I remember just the opposite; as recorded in my novel, I recall him saying “Yeah, they’re smart, all right, but not THAT smart,” and comparing them to well-trained dogs. Which most assuredly, they are not!
I’ve written quite a bit today, so I need to turn my attention to other projects. Tomorrow I’ll finish this update by describing how I found Cynthia D. and what she has to say about our days at Floridaland.