Russ Rector, a dogged defender of Florida Keys dolphins and all ocean creatures, died Sunday in Broward County.
Rector, 68, was an indefatigable critic of marine-mammal captivity and founder of the Dolphin Freedom Foundation. After working for seven years as a dolphin trainer at Fort Lauderdale’s Ocean World marine park until 1975, he quit over concerns about marine-mammal captivity and protested against the park until it closed in 1994.
In the Keys, Rector supported rescue-and-release efforts for marine mammal strandings but harbored strong opinions against several local dolphin facilities.
He was a constant thorn in the side of the Miami Seaquarium, identifying undersized animal tanks and code violations that required expensive fixes.
In August, 1990, Rector and fellow dolphin activist Ric O’Barry tried to halt U.S. Navy explosives testing about 18 miles from the Dry Tortugas by swimming into the test waters. Contractors working with the Navy forcibly removed the two men. The protesters accused the contractors of intentionally ramming them with their boats. Rector said he never fully recovered from neck and shoulder injuries from that encounter.
The Navy soon agreed to keep explosive testing well away from the newly enacted Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“If not for Russ’s actions, that kind of [testing] might still be going on right now,” Key Largo activist Rick Trout, a longtime friend, said Monday.
“He became more of a Conch than actual Conchs,” Trout said. “Russ was in the forefront of defending the Keys against environmental damage — not just about dolphins and sea turtles, but about all big and small creatures in the ocean.”
Rector took part in the effort to establish the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in the mid-1990s, intended to prepare captive dolphins from the Navy and some marine display facilities for release into the wild, but departed in a split with O’Barry and facility directors over how the program was being operated.
The Lower Keys project later collapsed amid controversy over management, including an un-permitted and unsuccessful dolphin release, and federal lawsuits. The two dolphins released ultimately were found severely underweight begging for food, one at a Key West marina, the other up the Keys nears Marathon. The feds levied a fine of $59,500.
He frequently jousted with federal marine-mammal officials and Key-based rescue groups over what he perceived as inadequate responses to marine-mammal strandings. “The animals and people of the Keys deserve better,” Rector said. “Nothing changes from one stranding to the next. When the next one comes, it’s the same [confused] fire drill.”
The Miami New Times named Rector its True Hero of 2004. “Is he overbearing? Yes,” wrote the magazine. “Is he a hero? ...[T]o many other people, here and elsewhere, the answer is yes. He's a hero.”
Russ Rector is survived by Linda, his wife of 47 years. No memorial service is planned. His ashes will be scattered on the ocean off Fort Lauderdale.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206