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Remember “The Day of the Dolphin”?

Entertainment | November 20, 2018

Swimming with Dolphins (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1973, George C. Scott starred in The Day of the Dolphin, a film about the intelligence of dolphins and how they could be trained for military use. Although the movie was categorized as a science fiction film, it was based, in part, on reality. In the 1960s, the United States Navy began a program to train marine animals…dolphins and sea lions, in particular, …in underwater bomb detection, surveillance, and defense. As The Day of the Dolphin shows us, things can go awry when animals are trained to do human jobs. 

George C. Scott and his dolphin friend

George C. Scott Starred as a Marine Biologist

George C. Scott played the lead role of Jake Terrell, a brilliant and dedicated marine biologist. Jake’s partner in his work was his beautiful and intelligent wife, Maggie, played by Trish Van Devere. Recognizing that dolphins are highly intelligent creatures, the Terrells set out to show the world just how smart the sea animals can be. 

Yes, the Dolphins Talked…And They spoke English

One of the more far-fetched aspects of The Day of the Dolphin was that the two main dolphins, Alpha and Beta, were taught to speak English by Jake and Maggie Terrell. It was a clicky, squeaky form of English, but it was still understandable. Voicing the dolphins in the movie was Elliot Peterson and Elliot Fink…apparently you couldn’t audition your dolphin voice unless you were named Elliot. Talking dolphins was obviously a fictional part of the story, but scientists now know that dolphins have a complex and highly sophisticated system of communication, so in a sense, dolphins do talk to each other. 

The Navy Recruited Dolphins

Beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Navy tested and trained many different species of marine animals, including sharks, birds, and seals. They quickly determined that the bottlenose dolphin and the California sea lion were two of the more intelligent and easily trained species, so they focused their training on those two animals. Although proponents made it known that using animals for military exercises was cruel and unethical, the Navy continued to train dolphins and sea lions and still does to this day. 

Dolphins Can Detect Underwater Bombs

Dolphins are especially well-equipped to find underwater bombs due to their natural biosonar. Sea lions have excellent vision underwater and can spot enemy swimmers. Additionally, dolphins have been trained to rescue drowning swimmers. In fact, dolphins have been credited with saving the lives of a number of humans caught in open water. 

Could Trained Dolphins be Used for Evil?

In The Day of the Dolphin, the two trained dolphins, Alpha and Beta, are kidnapped by a ruthless and covert organization that is bent on using the specialized skills of the dolphins for evil. It is discovered that the dolphins will be used to attach an underwater bomb to the hull of the presidential yacht in an attempt to assassinate the President of the United States. The Terrells realize that the good intentions they had when training the marine mammals could be overturned by people with a sinister agenda. 

Speaking of Sinister...

Originally, Roman Polanski was set to direct The Day of the Dolphin. In August of 1969, however, Polanski was in Europe scouting filming locations when he got word that his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and four others were brutally murdered in their Beverly Hills mansion by members of Charles Manson’s bizarre cult. Polanski rushed home to the U.S. and abandoned The Day of the Dolphin project. The film project with picked up the following year by Mike Nichols. 

The Dolphin Got a Best Animal Actor Award

The Day of the Dolphin got mixed reviews when it was released in 1973, although it received two Academy Award nominations…for Best Original Score and Best Sound. As for the acting, the only cast member to earn an acting award for the movie was Alpha the dolphin who was awarded the Best Animal Actor Award in the 24th Patsy Awards. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.