Mitzi and Pinball | Beach Boy Chronicles

When the Marco Beach Boys started, almost everyone came from anywhere but Florida, and when we started seeing dolphins along the beach, we were all excited and fascinated by our favorite mammal. grew up on the Saturday night TV show “Flipper”. “When we started asking our boss and mentor, Captain Jim Martin, about the bottlenose dolphins we saw almost daily, we quickly learned how the story of ‘Flipper’ and the world’s most famous dolphin began.

Between Marco Island and Key West lies Florida’s largest protected coastline and the Ten Thousand Islands. This vast ecosystem of tidal estuaries and mangrove forest is home to the Coastal Everglades, the Big Cypress Preserve and more bottlenose dolphins than anywhere in the world.

With an incredible metabolism and a voracious appetite for food and playful adventure, the animal almost everyone in the world recognizes as “Flipper” has become an adorable force of nature, but very few realize the true story. of “Flipper” started just off the Marco River.

At the end of August 1960, an old salt fisherman was alone and transporting a catch of pompano on a battered and weathered fishing boat. As the aging sailor labored to pull in his net, a young bottlenose dolphin – also after the captured pompano – accidentally became trapped in the large mesh circle that was the fishing method of the time. After a few moments of panic, the frightened dolphin began tearing holes in the expensive net and threatened to lose the precious catch.

The fisherman standing on deck that day was a gruff, determined old sailor from Fort Myers Beach, and he was born at the turn of the last century. His name was Milton Santini and when he realized his pompano catch and livelihood were in danger, the short, stocky sailor jumped overboard fully clothed and started taking the dolphin out seine mesh and in open water.

After a sudden surprise, and quickly learning that any attempt to hold the young animal behind the dorsal fin would result in a tail thump on the head that “would make your ears ring”, Santini discovered that by placing his arms around the animal . in front of the dorsal fin, the dolphin instantly became docile and cuddled like a baby.

After about an hour of grueling wrestling, the young runner-up was safely removed from the net and the remaining catch of pompano was safely on board. However, Santini was once again surprised when the grateful and dashing mammal started swimming alongside his boat and followed him home. He was even more surprised the following days when the young female followed him again and again out to sea. Over the weeks, the lone dolphin followed the fishing boat from Ft Myers Beach to Marco, and even to Grassy Key near KeyLargo. The young animal was never a stray as she waited patiently away from the fishing activity, but was still an amusing sight as she followed in the wake and surfed the waves behind the battered old pompano boat.

A month after the unusual relationship began, Santini’s boat was docked in Grassy Key when the fisherman was driving the Overseas Highway and on a mission to the local grocery store. He was driving an old van when he was attacked by another driver. After the accident, he was taken to hospital in Key Largo.

A doctor explained that his hand had been broken and there would be no fishing or hauling until the fingers, wrist and forearm had recovered. Santini was discouraged, but soon began a daily program of recovery and convalescence in a lounge chair by his boat at the dock. The doctor had given her a rubber ball to squeeze while the hand began to heal. The young dolphin always waiting to go fishing and always wanting to be a grateful and loyal companion, Santini on the dock accidentally dropped the rubber ball into the water and was thrilled when the dolphin reacted instantly. Without hesitation, the bright red sphere was thrown back at the friend on the lounge chair with a playful little nudge. For the first time in weeks, Santini burst out laughing and a game of catch-up began between two now inseparable companions.

As Milton Santini recovered from his injuries in the crash, he devised more elaborate tricks and games for the dolphin he named Mitzi. Before the end of the month, Mitzi could jump through hoops, play volleyball, jump on command and pull fish out of Santini’s hand. Long before the start of the busy winter season, Milton Santini, the gruff old fisherman of Ft Myers Beach, was happier and making more money with his new impromptu dolphin show than he had ever won. while fishing.

Mitzi’s discovery and training prompted Santini to build dolphin pins at Grassy Key and train many other dolphins. “Mitzi” was an extremely intelligent female that Santini would later describe as an animal “smarter than him”. He insisted that “Mitzi” could not only understand anything he said, but could teach him any trick in moments.

As tourists became fascinated, amused and even more intrigued by local activities during the recently produced trained dolphin show, the story behind Santini and Mitzi began to grow. The following January, Ivan Tors, a famous action/adventure filmmaker, became interested in directing a feature film called “Flipper”.

“Flipper” was filmed on location in the Florida Keys and eventually served as the pilot for the acclaimed television series that followed. A story that began in the waters surrounding Marco Island did not end but continues today with Mitzi’s ancestors and some of the most beloved and amazing mammals on the planet.

Tom Williams is a Marco Islander and the author of two books: “Lost and Found” and “Surrounded by Thunder – The Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men”. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.

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