By Ed Killer
STUART — Like it is with many Baby Boomers, a discussion with Stuart’s Kevin Vanacore, 58, soon turns to his greatest passion. It’s not real estate or collector cars that gets Vanacore speaking with his hands. Instead, the Connecticut native lights up when he begins to speak about a dolphin.
But not just any dolphin. This dolphin was special. This dolphin was albino.
Carolina Snowball was a common dolphin, a marine mammal 8 feet long and weighing about 400 pounds. She was unique in that she was truly albino, a rare genetic mutation that rendered her normally gray skin entirely white.She lived in the early 1960s and was first observed in the wild in her native waters of St. Helena Sound near Beaufort, S.C. Her strikingly snow-white skin made her a target for collection and controversy, but ultimately an ambassador for awareness.
Although Snowball died in captivity in 1965, Vanacore is committed to keeping her legacy alive.
For Vanacore, a property manager who moved to Stuart in September, Snowball was a huge influence on his life. To him, she was more important than Flipper, the 88-episode TV star from 1964 to 1967, mainly because Snowball was a single animal while Flipper was portrayed by several dolphins. Growing up in East Haven, Conn., Vanacore had a love for the water and the marine wildlife that inhabited it.
“I was into two things growing up in the 1960s — Boston Whalers and dolphins,” he said.
He eventually landed a job training dolphins by the end of the 1970s at Marineland near St. Augustine. But part of the reason he chose to pursue that profession was Snowball’s fame. She was written about in newspapers, filmed in news reports and even had a story about her in Life Magazine.
Whether chasing mullet or waiting for unwanted bycatch from shrimpers, Snowball was well-known in her home waters. Boaters, fishermen, shrimpers and scientists would marvel at her snow-white skin when she could be seen swimming or feeding in St. Helena Sound.
In 1961, word of Snowball’s miraculous appearance reached the curators of the Miami Seaquarium. They decided to capture the rare animal and move her to Miami to join the dolphin exhibit there.
The Seaquarium’s pursuit of her became a point of heated debate and controversy among coastal South Carolinians. Most believed she should be allowed to swim free.
After the Seaquarium’s collection efforts had begun, Beaufort County leaders speedily enacted an ordnance that made it “unlawful to net, trap, harpoon, lasso or molest” dolphins in the waters of Beaufort County.”
Seaquarium director of collections and exhibits William Gray wrote about the adventure of capturing Snowball in his 1964 book “Porpoise Tales.” In it, Gray vents: “I do not know of any law prohibiting the capture of porpoises anywhere else in the world.”
Herman Melville’s Capt. Ahab didn’t have it that rough.
Snowball proved elusive, but eventually, on the 58th day of the collection trip, Gray’s team encircled Snowball and her offspring and brought them aboard their vessel in the waters of neighboring Colleton County. The two dolphins were quickly prepared for transport and flown to Miami to what would be their new home.
A star is born
Soon, Snowball was a star attraction at the Seaquarium. Vanacore said she drew attention as the only white dolphin ever captured from the wild. That in and of itself was enough to draw the interest of the media, and from dignitaries and world leaders.
Film footage shot during Snowball’s collection was even woven into an episode of Flipper.
It was still a decade prior to the nation crafting laws to govern the protection and management of marine mammals. But an awareness of how special animals such as dolphins are was blooming among Americans.
By 1972, the nation’s first Marine Mammal Protection Act became law. It came along with other landmark legislation such as the Clean Air Act and a year before the Endangered Species Act.
Trevor Spradlin, a marine mammal biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Snowball did not generate the need for the law, but she helped introduce Americans and others to dolphins.
“She was certainly a celebrity and helped put a spotlight on dolphins,” Spradlin said. “She helped people to become enlightened and sensitive and raised the public consciousness.”
Spradlin explained that the Marine Mammal Protection Act grew out of a number of dolphin, whale and seal stories that were generated during the 1960s, but most notably from dolphin deaths in large nets in the Pacific Ocean’s tuna fishery.
Now dolphins in U.S. waters are rarely collected from the wild and almost always because they are injured. Spradlin said there are successful breeding programs that provide dolphins to aquaria.
back to the bay
On May 4, 1965, Snowball died. A necropsy later revealed she was quite likely a well-aged dolphin.
Vanacore began collecting memorabilia in the 1990s from eBay and other sources as he researched the once-famous creature.
“I found out they had made a fiberglass replica of her in 1965,” Vanacore said. “For a while, they had a display that commemorated Snowball’s life.”
But Vanacore said ownership changes and the passage of time relegated the symbolic representation of Snowball to a forgotten storage area. He diligently tracked down a former curator of the Seaquarium to find out about it being in storage.
“It took me about three years to find out if it even still existed,” he said. He even uncovered a crazy story about it being caught in a storm surge during Hurricane Andrew’s landfall in Miami in 1992 where it was washed out into Biscayne Bay. Someone returned it to Seaquarium management, which returned it to the forgotten exhibit pile behind some buildings there.
When Vanacore learned that, he attempted to find someone he could negotiate with about acquiring the replica of the great white dolphin.
“I even offered to give them a replacement and it still was difficult to get anyone to work with me,” Vanacore said. “They had the most historical marine mammal that ever lived, and they treated it like a forgotten photo.”
Finally, in 2000, Vanacore picked up Snowball. Her finish cracked with spiderlike veins, she did have anatomically correct features like her pink eye and ebony-colored teeth. Snowball still sat in Vanacore’s storage until March of this year when he decided to have her refurbished.
He approached New Wave Taxidermy and Fish Artistry owner Mike Kirkhart, who agreed to refinish Snowball. Vanacore expects to pick up Snowball this week. Kirkhart said his team sanded her down, but did not need to make many changes to the replica dolphin since it was in relatively good shape already. The mount did have water inside, probably soaked up while it was floating in the bay. They had to work to allow the water to get out of it so the final finish doesn’t end up with bubbles one day.
Vanacore wants to share his most-prized piece of dolphin memorabilia. He has contacted curators with Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. about donating her for display there.
If Snowball ends up there, Vanacore hopes she gets the credit she deserves.
What: A female albino dolphin
Collected: Aug. 4, 1962
Died: May 4, 1965
From: St. Helena Sound, Beaufort, S.C.
Captured: For Miami Seaquarium
Captors: William Gray, director of exhibits and Capt. Emil Hanson, skipper of Seaquarium’s collection fleet
Noteworthy: Drew international media attention, including notoriety in Life magazine
MARINE MAMMAL PROTECTION
Law: Signed Oct. 21, 1972
Protects: Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, walruses, manatees, otters, polar bears
Anniversary: This year is the 40th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and there will be events to commemorate the landmark legislation in Washington, D.C., during Capitol Hill Ocean Week June 5-8 and later in the year.