October 15, 2001 12:00 PM

They were scooped from the clear waters of the Caribbean, put to work in a traveling dolphin show in Guatemala and abandoned in May 2001. By July, when Richard “Ric” O’Barry first saw them in a filthy tank in Santa Lucia de Milpas Altas, they were covered with blisters and slowly being poisoned from swimming in their own excrement. But it wasn’t long before Ariel and Turbo, two 10-year-old Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins, were roaming a custom-built two-acre sea pen in remote Graciosa Bay. The dolphins were treated by a vet, and O’Barry forced them to hunt live fish for meals. “See how they don’t jump out of the water?” he said as they pursued their supper. “They’re not performing. They’re acting like wild dolphins.”

When O’Barry, 61, set Ariel and Turbo free on Aug. 31, it was an act of liberation rooted in a longstanding sense of personal guilt. For four years in the 1960s he was head trainer for the Flipper TV series. But in 1970, after one of the five dolphins that had played the title role died in his arms, O’Barry changed his ways. “The dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest illusion,” he says.

“They aren’t happy doing tricks.” Convinced that depression killed the animal, he soon founded the Dolphin Project, a small, poorly funded group committed to freeing many of the 400 dolphins in captivity in the U.S. and hundreds more overseas.

Practically single-handed, O’Barry fought the international marine theme-park industry, picketing marine shows and occasionally freeing dolphins without their owners’ permission. But last January, the controversial activist got the kind of break that will give him worldwide visibility when he was hired as a wildlife consultant for the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals, which works with governments around the world to safeguard wildlife. Once acting on his own, O’Barry will now carry out his mission by official invitation and with the clout of a mighty organization. When authorities decide that a captive dolphin would be better off in the wild, they call him in to oversee its rehabilitation. “This work,” he says, “is payback for my Flipper sins.”

Still, O’Barry is not without his harsh critics. Theme-park owners insist that dolphins perform willingly, and scientists question his results. O’Barry says he has freed 16 dolphins since 1970, but his methods make their survival hard to verify. (Arguing that implanting tracking devices is painful for the animals, he marks the dolphin’s dorsal fin and relies on fishermen, naturalists and surfers for sightings.) In 1999 O’Barry was fined $20,000 for illegally releasing two dolphins, retirees from a U.S. Navy research program, that were being kept at a Florida Keys dolphin sanctuary. The animals were recaptured by officials within two weeks, reportedly begging for food and scarred by boat propellers. “It was a disaster,” says Trevor Spradlin, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist.

O’Barry, who insists the animals were not harmed, has always done things his own way. Raised in Miami Beach, he dropped out of high school at 16 and did a five-year hitch in the Navy. In the early ’60s, he landed a job trapping dolphins in the wild for the Miami Seaquarium, where Flipper director Ricou Browning discovered him. “He was a very good trainer and a very honest person,” says Browning, who insists dolphins can live happily in captivity if properly treated. In 1971, O’Barry wed Martha Kent, now 56, but his crusade led to their divorce 20 years later. “If there was a dolphin in trouble we would just go,” says their son Lincoln, 29, now vice president of the Dolphin Project. “It took a lot of sacrifice.”

It still does. O’Barry, who is paid $50,000 annually by the WSPA, lives a nomadic existence with his wife of two years, Danish writer-photographer Helene Hesselager O’Barry, 35. In Guatemala they stayed in a tent pitched on a dock. O’Barry refuses to be deterred by his persistent detractors. “This is not about science,” he declares of his quest to free dolphins. “It’s a healing art, getting out of their way.”

Christina Cheakalos

Linda Trischitta in Guatemala

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