For National Dolphin Day: We Catch and Release “Flipper”

Happy National Dolphin Day!

It seems these days that practically every animal species on earth has a human fanbase and a national day or international day of celebration, but few actually provide actors that star in their own tv series.

Flipper (1964-67) concerned the adventures of a trained bottlenose dolphin (who was actually played by five separate animals, as well as a sixth who performed the famous talk walk — that’s the stunt where Flipper raises his body out of the water by rapidly thrashing his tail underneath him). If left in the wild, Flipper would probably be living a fairly uneventful dolphin life, eating, playing and rutting to his heart’s content. But it was just his luck to be the pet of a ranger (Brian Kelly) at a Florida marine preserve, so he basically is forced to spend every day rescuing foolish, reckless, incompetent and criminal humans who find endless ways to get trapped on boats or in the water. How this ranger could ever function without a cetacean hero in his corner is a question, as Flipper is the one who bails him out every single time there is a mishap.

The ranger’s two sons (Luke Halpin and Tommy Norden) also seem to be on call. When we were kids watching the show, that seemed like a kind of dream life, very Hardy Boys. Kids having rescue adventures. Upon reflection, it seems maybe kind of inappropriate. Too much risk and responsibility to lay at the feet of kids, and less-than-optimum skills and experience for first responders in terms of public expectation. Again, though: good thing they have that dolphin.

Moreover: good thing the dolphin is a super-dolphin, unlike any that have been encountered in the world as we know it. Much as in Lassie, which this show much resembles, Flipper seems to understand the intricacies of human spoken language completely. He comprehends complex spoken instructions, engages in problem solving, improvises and devises innovative solutions to new hurdles. Yes, dolphins are smart. Much like dogs, they can learn to obey simple commands like “fetch”. But much more than that, while highly entertaining, is implausible.

That said, the show was in its own way educational. If nothing else, it fostered widespread appreciation for these fascinating creatures. If people know nothing else about dolphins, they know that they’re smart (even though they’re not actually THIS smart). Most people who aren’t psychopaths are not indifferent to the fate of this beloved species, which is probably the best possible takeaway. As Flipper was a show for kids and families it imparted this lesson to many of us at an impressionable age (I watched it in reruns in the early ’70s). And if you did as well, now the theme song is stuck in your head! Sorry!

On a related topic, Mike Nichols’ The Day of the Dolphin (1973) was the second movie I ever saw in a cinema. See my appreciation for it, and him, here.