Flipper, I can’t stand you!

Untitled, 1983. Keith Haring.I am preparing a document about our Samadai project and, these days, I am drafting a section on ecotourism and sustainable dolphin watching and swimming-with. I started a search for all information that would help me understand the reasons why we, humans, are so attracted by them, dolphins. I discovered a world of poetic and romantic legends dating back to the Ancient Greek and Romans as well as more remote indigenous cultures. I found stories of cooperation and help in which dolphins are pictured as gentle, smart, merciful creatures symbolizing respect, kindness, intelligence, often intervening to rescue humans or by them invoked for protection. The reader gets a sense of peaceful admiration and devotion for those creatures that have been chosen by so many authors and artists to embody so noble virtues. The human protagonist is often depicted a rank down the dolphin, increasing the appreciation for the cetacean.

But there is something else, something really primary and more mysterious about this connection, something not related to culture and local tales, something that has perhaps even inspired those stories. It is not clear to me what has come first between the feeling of attraction and its celebration in arts and culture. The two must have grown together, enhancing each other. I think we have an innate will to socially interact with other creatures that we subconsciously perceive as able to engage in this relationship; I also think art has picked up this innate tendency and fed it back to us interpreted, elaborated and materialized in various forms of artistic expression.

Artists and communicators have a great responsibility: with their interpretative work, they mold the collective imagination and somehow influence our expectations.

We are getting to the point.

Classical artists glorified these superb animals, triggering a sense of reverence and deference in the public. But in modern times something changed. The natural connection we feel for dolphins remained, but the paradigm shifted. At some point in history the hierarchy was reversed: we were not looking up at the majestic creature anymore, we became equal, when not superior. This, whether it is due to different communication forms and formats or an actual philosophical swing, this has changed everything and brought our society to a contradiction that is so blatant and ironic that would be funny, if it wasn’t fueling some of the major threats dolphins face nowadays.

Not surprisingly, according to various surveys (including BBC TV), swimming with dolphins is enlisted in the top activities in people bucket lists. Obvious, anticipated, it is a great experience and it is nested in our souls.

What is shocking is the expectation we have, the way we picture this encounter in our imagination.

Google it. Search for images using “swim with dolphins” as query.
Hugs, kisses, rides. This is the current collective immagination. Not much left of the majestic magical goodwill creatures, they are pictured as pets now, forced into unnatural postures and behaviors. And I blame Flipper, one of the most popular symbols of this new school of thought, for drilling this misconception into our brains and captive facilities for immortalizing it. What you have seen in the TV show and see today in pools is what we want them to do. Do not try to hug a dolphin thinking that he/she will spontaneously and happily respond. It won’t, obviously. People, you are being misled: wake up!

What worries me is that, as long as we have such an utilitarian approach to natural resources (even those we claim to love), their conservation will hardly be satisfactorily achieved.

We need a different environmental culture.
Maybe they are not many, but we still have “romantic” authors that properly represent in their articles, videos, songs the nature of these animals…please, let them invade your mind and work your imagination. If you can’t find them, you can always seek refuge in the classics.

Always question and make considered choices, a critical approach is fundamental in everything… we would still be burning witches otherwise!


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3 Responses to Flipper, I can’t stand you!

  1. Brava Madda! Giusta riflessione, da propagare, propagare…siamo nel MedioEvo dei media…è grave!

  2. Totally agree; when people mention their dream of swimming with dolphins, most automatically picture commercial aquariums in America for example. Why on Earth, would anyone prefer to jump into a dirty swimming pool and “ride” a somewhat unnatural dolphin, when you can observe them in their natural environment playing with other members of their large pods and nurturing their young, all with a much less expensive price tag? It seems absurd that there is even the market to create such a choice!

    Maybe it’s just the conservationist in me; if that’s all it is, then education should be all that’s needed to fix the issue… is that too optimistic?

  3. Jonatan Nielsen says:

    Very interesting for sure! I really agree with the misleading of Flipper and captive dolphins, cus I’ve seen so many swim and be in contact with dolphins that way, and couldn’t help but feeling it was a wrong picture.
    Anyway, I read a book called The Aquarians, where they talked about the amazing fact that dolphins are actually “transparent” to each other, because of their echolocation abilities. Wanted to ask you if that is in fact really true? Since they seem to have abilities far more powerful than our average X-ray. If this is true it just reveals that these amazing mammals live transparent lives. Something which is the biggest problem in the human culture, cus we got the ability to hide things, from others and ourselves.

    Also, my own interest in dolphins is not just their gentle creature, but it really seems like there is so much more to them than we know.. They belong in the wild, and had the honor of being close to them on their field with you guys was truly amazing!
    Trying to change the public image of this would be a necessity it seems.
    Great post!

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