But within months in 2015, Jose Luis Barbero went from being the pinnacle of his game to public enemy number one, after a video emerged of him allegedly abusing dolphins in captivity.
The Spaniard, who worked with sea creatures for more than three decades and was widely respected, appeared to kick and punch the animals in the gritty clips.
A deluge of online abuse followed, with Barbero and his family receiving death threats, and the scandal that culminated in him allegedly committing suicide.
The coach was found dead in the parking lot of a Spanish airport in an apparent suicide, aged 59.
Many believed the whistleblowers – who expressed no remorse when news of his death broke – were justified in their ways of drawing attention to the cruelty suffered by dolphins in captivity.
But questions have arisen over the validity of the video, with some claiming that Barbero – who had just signed a lucrative new contract for a top job at a prestigious aquarium in the US – had been targeted out of jealousy.
Now, a new Netflix documentary – The Last Dolphin King – delves into the saga, with interviews from those involved in the video’s release and the people who knew Barbero best.
From an early age, Barbero established himself as one of the most prolific dolphin trainers in the world.
His special bond with animals was often showcased in videos of him petting and playing with them.
According to his friend and fellow trainer Daniel Juarez, the Dolphins in Barbero’s care adored him and waited at the gate for him to arrive.
He had a reputation as a tough coach, which didn’t always sit well with those he coached.
Daniel explains: “The exercises required a lot of physical preparation. Otherwise, you couldn’t follow the show.
“He demanded it of himself and others. What happened? People didn’t like it.”
“Aggressive and Violent”
When the damning video – a montage of clips edited together – was released, allegedly showing the cruel treatment of dolphins by Barbero and other trainers, it sparked global outrage.
The footage was reportedly shot by activists and park neighbors who witnessed the alleged abuse and were concerned.
A surveillance camera overlooking the swimming pools of Marineland in Mallorca, Spain, where Barbero worked, was installed to capture the training sessions.
At the time, animal rights group SOS Delfines, which was instrumental in releasing the video, said the cameras were “only intended to show how captive dolphins are treated”.
In the Netflix documentary, its president Carla Cornella says: “The fact that the dolphins were trained so aggressively and violently shocked and hurt me.
“Jose Luis was responsible. These events took place under his supervision.”
The video went viral and was widely reported in media around the world.
The fact that the dolphins were driven so aggressively and violently shocked and hurt me. José Luis was responsible
Carla Cornella, President of SOS Dolphins
In an attempt to defend himself against the alarming accusations, Barbero said in a statement: “I believe a response is needed to this brutal and cowardly campaign against my profession.
“I can only say from the recommendations of my attorneys that this video is a montage created to privatize a campaign that has challenged my professionalism for 35 years.”
Despite his denials, Marineland Mallorca immediately distanced himself from him.
The park’s then manager, Rafael Abraham, told the media he was “shocked and embarrassed” and insisted the video “does not reflect at all what we do at Marineland”.
The ensuing media frenzy sparked an investigation by Barbero’s new employers – Georgia Aquarium – to establish the authenticity of the video.
Having already traveled to Georgia to start his new job, Barbero’s distraught wife, Mari Gracia, begged him to come home as the scandal took its toll on his mental state.
When he returned to Spain, Mari says he kept a low profile and didn’t go out much.
The pair were hounded by dastardly messages, trolls wishing Barbero a slow and painful death. Others said they hoped he had been shot in the head.
In March 2015, Barbero went missing, triggering a huge search party.
After his disappearance, another video was released claiming to show more abusive behavior towards dolphins.
I had never seen people be so angry as with José Luis. They didn’t know him
It sparked a new wave of posts from disgusted social media users, with one writing: “I don’t care if he falls headfirst off a cliff.”
Heartbroken Mari tells the documentary, “I had never seen people get so angry as they were with Jose Luis. They didn’t know him.”
A few days after his disappearance, Barbero was found dead in a car park at Palma de Mallorca airport.
Although police said his death was being investigated, they concluded it was a suicide.
In the documentary, Barbero’s son Marcos says, “I don’t know for a long time that he was dead, it was a day or two. They didn’t tell us the cause or how he did it. ”
“Hate and Revenge”
After his death, social media users continued to leave nasty messages on his Facebook page, with one commenting, “I hope you suffered from your death.”
Questions about the legitimacy of the video remain.
Former colleague Javier Gutierrez thinks it was motivated by ‘hate and revenge’, and says it’s understandable that someone would want to damage Barbero’s career.
“They really picked the right time to release it,” he says. “It was when Jose Luis Barbero signed the contract with Georgia Aquarium, so he was already in the United States.
“They put a lot of thought into how to do the most damage.”
But Carla of SOS Delfines insists the videos have “not been manipulated at any time”.
“It was just edited,” she says. “What we did was edit those images into a short video.”
According to the activists, after the trainer’s death, all the animal rights groups they were affiliated with cut ties with them.
One of the video’s makers, referred to as “V” in the documentary, says she felt no emotion when she learned of Barbero’s death.
“I couldn’t feel bad because I hadn’t done anything wrong to feel bad,” she says.
“If I were to feel bad, it would be because I felt guilty.”
The Last Dolphin King is available to stream on Netflix from November 25.
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