Carl Conley’s Dolphin Tale “The Origins of Flipper”
Once in awhile a story comes along that seems almost magical. When Blanche Lee called me and asked if I would be interested in the origins of ‘Flipper’, I almost did a back flip. When I was growing up, the only animal who moved that spot in my heart reserved for unconditional love more was Lassie, so of course I couldn’t wait to hear the tale when I arrived at Blanche’s house. She had laid out four or five old supporting documents on her kitchen table, which were pictures of Flipper, Chuck Connors; articles about the origins of the famous TV show and more. But Blanche insisted that before I perused the newspaper clippings, I had to read a letter that had been written by Donald Santini, the son of Milton Santini, the man who caught and trained the porpoise that touched the hearts of millions. After reading the letter I had a conviction that if I re-wrote the story in the letter I’d be doing an injustice to the depth of emotions that must have inspired it, so, without further ado, here is how Flipper was discovered by Hollywood.
“It was going to be one of those days, you know, everything was falling into place. 10:00 a.m. and all was well. The weather, putting on a command performance, was particularly gorgeous. One of those days that takes your breath away and reminds you why you have chosen to live in South Florida. Sky so blue you could get lost just looking into it. Brilliant white billowy clouds drifted lazily across the Bay forming picturesque scenes that kept you guessing what you would see next in this panorama called life.
This was the setting for the final tribute to Milton Santini, founder of Santini’s Porpoise Theater, home of the mischievous Mitzi, better known to movie goers and TV fans as the indomitable, zany, and courageous “Flipper”. The Porpoise Theater is now known as the Dolphin Research Center.
The Center is world renown for it’s continued research into the versatile capabilities of dolphins. It serves other facilities that have dolphins and provides the puzzling answers to problems encountered by dolphin researchers and aquariums around the world.
When other facilities need answers to their problems with dolphins, and need them now, they turn to the leader in dolphin research, The Dolphin Research Center of Marathon Florida.
How did it all get started? As I gazed out over the bay, memories came flooding back, back to a time when I was a boy 11 years old and almost a man. A long time ago indeed.
It all started in late 1945 at the end of World War II. My father Norman Santini and my Uncle Milton Santini had survived the challenges of World War II and had come home to begin life anew. They naturally turned to the only life they had ever known and started mullet fishing out of Tavineer and Marathon Florida.
One day they heard that the Sea Aquarium in Miami Florida was looking for someone to catch dolphins for them. They were offering $100.00 for each dolphin delivered to Tavineer or Marathon. That was a considerable amount of money for one dolphin, so the Santini brothers became partners and started catching dolphins to sell to the aquarium. That is where I come into the picture. Being 11 and almost 12, I had the responsibility of a man. I never thought anything about it. That was just the way it was.
Our first time hunting for dolphins was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me and I remember the events as if they happened yesterday. Norman, Milton and I were up early that late summer morning. This was our first attempt at hunting dolphins, and we were not sure exactly what we were going to do. We rode in my dad’s 35-foot cabin workboat. Behind us we towed Uncle Milton’s 21-foot open plywood workboat and a skiff. The 21-foot workboat had an inboard marine engine and was considerably faster than the cabin boat.
We had finally decided we were going to use the faster boat to herd the dolphins into shallow water to make it easier to catch them. Turned out we didn’t have to herd the dolphins to shallow water.
As soon as we spotted a dolphin, my father and Uncle Milton jumped into the faster boat and took off in pursuit of the dolphin. At first the dolphin just swam ahead of the boat and was unconcerned until it figured out no matter which way it went, the boat was always a short distance behind. Becoming alarmed the dolphin soon began trying to evade the boat following it, to no avail. As the dolphin began to tire, it headed into shallow water about four to four and a half feet deep.
As part of the dolphins evasive maneuvers, it would go under water and emerge just in front of the bow of the boat, cross in front of the boat, and head in the opposite direction. This was just what the Santini brothers’ thought would happen, and it was ultimately the undoing of the dolphin. The more tired it became, the closer it would pass in front of the boat and head in the opposite direction hoping to loose the boat.
The brothers had decided, after seeing a rodeo to attempt to bulldog the dolphin by jumping on the fleeing dolphin and hanging on for dear life as long as they could. For this event, whoever was going to dive onto the dolphin, had a four-foot long stiff rope made into a lasso loop opened wide enough to slip over the dolphins head and pull tight. At least that was the plan, if you could call anything as harebrained as trying to bulldog a free-swimming dolphin an idea. Funny thing is though it worked.
Uncle Milton was on the bow of the boat ready to jump when the opportunity presented itself. Norman was steering the boat and had a string tied to the distributor cap wire to pull to shut off the engine. As soon as Milton jumped for the dolphin, Norman pulled the string and rolled backwards and overboard. Since the boat had carried him 60 or 70 feet past Milton and the dolphin, Norman had to swim over to help his brother hold onto the dolphin.
During all this excitement, my job was to steer the cabin boat pulling the skiff and help keep the dolphin in sight at all times.
As soon as my dad reached Uncle Milton and the dolphin, the dolphin stopped trying to get away and just lay there and Uncle Milton was finally able to use his rope.
It took me about 5 minutes to stop the cabin boat, anchor it and bring the skiff to my dad and Uncle Milton. During that five minutes or so, the dolphin did not move and seemed to realize that it was not going to be hurt. My dad and Uncle Milton talked in low soothing tones as they stroked the dolphin trying to soothe it.
The three of us loaded the dolphin into the skiff and I was now given the very important job of riding with the dolphin to try and keep it calm, protect it from sunburn with a blanket over it, and always keep the dolphin and blanket wet. I have always wished that the first dolphin that we caught would have been “Mitzi” better known as Flipper, but that was not the way things turned out.
That first dolphin was sold to the aquarium for $100.00. There were many dolphins subsequently caught by the Santini brothers and sold to the Miami Sea Aquarium.
It would be several years later that Uncle Milton would catch “Mitzi” (Flipper) in the bay close to the Gulf of Mexico in the Goodland Florida area. I was not there to help catch Mitzi (Flipper) but my uncle later told me catching her was uneventful and he didn’t think much about it.
By the time Mitzi was caught in the Goodland Florida area, Uncle Milton had his own very small aquarium and had several large pools that he put the dolphins in.
As soon as he got Mitzi to his aquarium, he placed her into a pool by herself and gave instruction to his helpers to just feed her and that he would sell her when he got back from his planned trip to the Seattle Washington Fair in 1956.
That trip was a total disaster. Milton was delivering five or six dolphins to be on exhibit at the fair.
When dolphins travel, they are placed in containers with very little room in them and very little water in them. Consequently someone has to ride with them in the cargo hold to insure that they are kept calm, wet, and that they do not roll over in the narrow container and drown in the small amount of water in the tanks. Uncle Milton always rode in the cargo hold with his beautiful dolphins. They were his kids and he loved them.
When the plane landed in Seattle, a flat bed truck with a boom wench came to unload the dolphins and take them to the exhibit at the fair. After the dolphins were loaded onto the flat bed, Uncle Milton rode on the back of the truck with the dolphins to the fair. On the way to the fair disaster struck. The boom operator on the flat bed truck had left the boom in the upright position.
When the driver drove under an overpass, the boom was knocked down onto the truck killing several dolphins and breaking Uncle Milton’s back. He was subsequently transferred back to a hospital in Florida. Upon his release from the hospital, Milton went home to his dolphins.
One day while he was resting in a recliner and squeezing a hard rubber ball to build the strength in his forearms and hands, he dropped the ball. It hit a rock and bounced into the pool that the then unnamed Mitzi was in. Mitzi had never received any training while Uncle Milton was in the hospital recovering. At this point she was still for sale. As soon as the ball bounced into the pool that Mitzi was in, when she immediately picked up the ball in her mouth and tossed it back to Uncle Milton.
He thought this might have been a fluke so he threw the ball about 100 feet to the other end of the pool. Mitzi swam down to the ball, picked it up with her mouth, swam back to Milton and threw him the ball again. At that precise moment, Mitzi was never for sale again. Milton realized he had a very special dolphin and as the saying goes, “the rest is history.”
Ivan Tors was looking for a dolphin to star in the first Flipper movie and someone told him about Mitzi. He drove to the Florida Keys to see Mitzi and fell in love with her. Uncle Milton had taught her a trick by accident, and it was that trick that landed Mitzi in the role of Flipper.
One day Uncle Milton had been working Mitzi and she had accomplished a difficult trick and he threw her a small fish as a reward. However he threw the fish too far and it went over her head. Mitzi went up in the air partially out of the water and swam backwards on her tail for a couple of feet and caught her reward. Mitzi didn’t seem to think too much about what she had done, but everyone who saw her swim backwards on her tail was just blown away by this unbelievable feat. She immediately went into training to improve her new skill. Several weeks later Ivan Tors saw her perform her Backward Tail Walk and she was immediately signed to the starring role in “Flipper.”
From that beginning she went on to star in movies and TV and became the most famous dolphin in history, before or since then. Ask anyone in the world that has access to a TV or the movies, who is the most famous dolphin in the world and the answer always, without exception, is “Flipper.”
Milton Santini passed away on 5 April 1992. Today we, his family and friends, are here in Goodland Florida on a forty-five foot stone crab and grouper boat. His friend Captain Bud Kirk is taking family and a few close friends to perform Milton’s last wish. To spread his ashes in the bay near the Gulf of Mexico in the Goodland Florida area where he first found his great friend Mitzi.
It is indeed a solemn occasion. Family and friends alike are all feeling down in their spirits. We simply could not have had a better day to do this one last thing for Milton Santini.
Somber spirits boarded the boat in preparation for the last ride with Milton. The big diesel engine cranked over and started that familiar sound particular to diesel engines. Everyone settled down to the business at hand. No one was smiling.
Captain Kirk eased his sturdy fishing boat into the channel in the bay and headed towards the Gulf several miles away. As we cleared the no boat wake area, Captain Kirk increased the power until we were traveling at a fairly fast speed and the boat created a sizeable wake behind it.
The alert quickened everyone’s spirit. People started smiling. Dolphins were swimming and jumping in the wake of the powerful diesel boat. Everyone was watching the show put on by the dolphins. It was as if they sensed what was happening and were putting on their own un-choreographed salute to Milton Santini, a great friend to dolphins.
One dolphin jumped completely out of the water, clearing the large wake by a couple of feet. Another and then another cleared the wake one at a time, then two dolphins simultaneously, and finally three dolphins cleared the wake simultaneously in a final salute as we slowed down to say our final good-byes to Milton Santini. We had a few moments of silence. The dolphins seemed to sense our sorrow at the loss of a good man, swam slowly around the boat a few times and then silently glided away and out of sight.
We performed Milton Santini’s final wish and spread his ashes in the water where he first met his beloved Mitzi. I offered a final prayer and family and friends alike each tossed a carnation flower into the water.
Tears were wiped away and Captain Kirk headed the boat back to the port in Goodland Florida. As he increased the speed of the boat to a moderate speed, everyone’s spirit lifted again as a single baby dolphin, four feet long escorted us back to the dock.
The sun shone brightly, the clouds told their stories in the sky and everyone was at peace with the realization that we had all been part of a once in a lifetime experience. The dread and gloom that could have prevailed had been thrown aside and everyone had their own private memories of a man and his dolphin, a man and his friend!”