Beloved dolphin doctor dies, friends remember his legacy

SAN DIEGO — Dr. Sam Ridgway, distinguished marine mammal veterinarian and scientist, died peacefully at home in San Diego, according to the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

Ridgway’s last interview at his Point Loma home was in March 2022 with Spectrum News.

Looking back over his life, Ridgway remembered the dolphins and whales he loved most, showing photos of Beluga whales and books he dedicated to dolphins he worked with.

He was known as the Dolphin Doctor because of his groundbreaking and unique contributions to discoveries in dolphin anesthesia, medical technology and his studies on dolphin echolocation.

His colleagues also called him the Father of Marine Mammal Medicine because of his pioneering spirit and groundbreaking discoveries that advanced the health and welfare of dolphins, porpoises, whales, sea lions and seals.

Ridgway was a founder of the US Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, which he served for over 60 years.

He was the founding president and CEO of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, a nonprofit he helped establish in 2007. One of his last projects before his death was working with StoryFile to create an AI-powered, conversational video, where anyone can ask him about his challenges, discoveries, successes and failures.

“I hope that it spreads the word and gives encouragement to young people that they can look at people and methods and technology that they never considered before,” Ridgway said. “There’s a new world out there.”

The National Marine Mammal Foundation team showed the StoryFile to a classroom in San Diego during summer school. Seventh grader Kaitlyen Walker got to have a conversation with Ridgway in her classroom. The StoryFile technology will help him live on, giving students like his access to his heart and mind.

“I’ve always been like waiting for the opportunity to learn more about like dolphins and creatures and mammals inside of the ocean,” Walker said. “So like having an opportunity to be able to learn about it is like really inspiring.”

Dr. Cynthia Smith said that inspiration made Ridgway special to everyone. She had a decades-long friendship with him that started when she was a young scientist and grew into running the National Marine Mammal Foundation together.

“There were really two separate parts to his legacy. There was one part that was the pioneer and the curious man and the intelligence and the thoughtfulness that he placed on marine mammal medicine and science and conservation, which is how he became known as the Father of Marine Mammal Medicine,” Smith said. “And then there’s the other part of his legacy, which is more personal. And that’s the part that we’re going to carry with us forever. It’s the way that he made you feel and how you felt noticed and valued.”

The StoryFile is a way to preserve Ridgway’s life story and expertise and helps ease some of Smith’s grievance at his passing.

“Sam created it, it’s him,” she said. “So when you’re interacting with StoryFile Sam, it feels like you’re sitting there having a conversation. To have that is so comforting and unique, and special and a treasure. People that never even met him can now feel like they got to meet and talk with Sam Ridgway.”

Their friendship was one Ridgway cherished as well.

Pointing out one of their first photos taken together, Ridgway said he met Smith in the 1990s at a young age.

“Now she’s the director of our foundation and she grew up very well,” he said.

Throughout his career, Ridgway mentored hundreds of veterinary and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, marine mammal veterinarians, conservationists and scientists. Now, his friends and colleagues hope the StoryFile will help his legacy live on and help the next generation of scientists.

“I never imagined that we would have the technology that we do today. Back in the ’60s, I wrote all my papers on a mechanical typewriter,” Ridgway said. “This has been amazing to me.”

A memorial service for the Dolphin Doctor will be held in San Diego on Sept. 9. His friends say anyone who feels moved can make a donation to the National Marine Mammal Foundation’s Ridgway Fund, to continue Sam’s legacy in pioneering marine mammal medicine, science and conservation.

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