It’s time for Snowball to come home.
The legend of the solid-white porpoise in St. Helena Sound spread among fishermen long before she was captured in 1962 and whisked away to Florida for display at the Miami Seaquarium.
There, “Carolina Snowball” attracted 3 million visitors before she died in 1965. She was featured in Life and National Geographic magazines. She was in episodes of “Flipper.” Later, Pat Conroy immortalized Snowball’s make-believe rescue and return to Beaufort in his novel “The Prince of Tides.”
A story about her capture in the Charleston News and Courier was headlined: “Pert, pale porpoise paddles to piscatorial pinnacle.”
But in the pages of the weekly Beaufort Gazette, readers called it “porpoise pirating” and “a dirty shame.” An unsigned poem referring to the bottlenose dolphin as “Peaches” for her pinkish hue, concluded:
“A way to talk to Peaches
They claim to have found,
But all Peaches would say was,
I liked St. Helena Sound.”
When word got out a year earlier that the Seaquarium was trying to capture Snowball, state Sen. James Waddell of Beaufort got a state law passed that banned the capture of marine mammals and putting them on public display.
But the law applied only to Beaufort County and Snowball and her gray pup “Sonny Boy” were captured near the mouth of the Edisto River right over the line in Colleton County.
Ten years later the federal government protected marine mammals, and 30 years later a new South Carolina law protected dolphin and whales statewide.
Such is the legacy of Beaufort’s sleek, 9-foot porpoise with pink eyes and ebony teeth.
Sonny Gay of St. Helena Island is 76 and retired, but he was running one of his father’s shrimp boats before he was 15.
That’s about the time he first laid eyes on a white porpoise in the murky waters of St. Helena Sound.
“I fell in love with her,” he said. “She was beautiful. White as snow. I immediately said, ‘Snowball.’ ”
Gay said she would come when he called her by name, or a loud whistle. He liked to feed her butterfish. She was smart, and full of personality.
Later while visiting family and Miami, Sonny went to the Seaquarium. After looking around, he asked if they were interested in seeing a white dolphin. William B. Gray, director of collections and exhibits, was interested. But years passed before Emil Hanson of the Seaquarium staff showed up at the Porpoise Fish Co. docks on Village Creek, owned by Sonny Gay’s father, Norman Lee “Meantime” Gay.
Sonny said Hanson’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree when he first saw Snowball on Pelican Bank.
The Seaquarium sent up a boat and staff members that winter to capture Snowball. They failed, but came back the next summer.
Snowball was again elusive, as Gray recounts in his 1964 book, “Porpoise Tales.” On the 58th day of trying over a nine-month period, Snowball and her pup were captured Aug. 2, 1962. They soon glided up to the Miami Seaquarium dock with flashbulbs popping.
Sonny Gay said he never asked for and never received a dime from the Miami Seaquarium. “Sonny Boy” was named after Gay, and he went to see them in the park once. He said he’s always been satisfied that Snowball lived her final years in safety, with humane treatment and plenty to eat.
“They put her in a good place,” he said. “Millions of people saw her.”
A piece of history
Kevin Vanacore of Florida grew up on the waters of New England with a passion for dolphins pumped by the first “Flipper” movie and the television series.
It led to a fascination with “Carolina Snowball” that’s still with him at age 60.
Vanacore has collected boxes of Snowball memorabilia. He was excited to discover that when Snowball died in 1965 — her body filled with signs of old age — they made a life-size fiberglass replica of Snowball that included her cranium, jaw and black teeth.
That started a new search for Snowball. He finally found her in a Seaquarium storage area. He was told Snowball had “escaped” during Hurricane Andrew, and was found floating in Biscayne Bay.
Vanacore said he obtained the Snowball likeness from the Seaquarium in 2000, and in return made a new fiberglass model for the park.
Two years ago, he had the original replica restored by Mike Kirkhart, owner of New Wave Taxidermy and Fish Artistry in Stuart, Fla.
“What you have is a piece of real craftsmanship, as well as history,” Kirkhart said.
Vanacore says he wants Snowball to have a home far better than his garage.
He wants a responsible institution that’s interested in preservation, conservation and history to give Snowball a platform to tell new generations her remarkable story.
“It was a very, very historical animal,” Vanacore said. “I think it deserves a special place where the public can appreciate her again.”
It’s time for Snowball to come home to Beaufort County.