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    Dolphin dabbles in watercolors

    With the Clearwater mayor's help, Sunset Sam paints a holiday card.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    Sunset Sam, artist, bottlenose dolphin and permanent resident of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, paints a holiday card Tuesday as Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst holds the canvas and Melissa Koberna, director of animal training, watches.
    CLEARWATER -- As the mayor of Clearwater, Brian Aungst has had a lot of ceremonial duties: ribbon-cuttings, dedications and public appearances. Last year, he even officiated at a wedding.

    But he's not accustomed to being upstaged by a dolphin.

    Tuesday he played second fiddle to Sunset Sam, the resident Atlantic bottlenose dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Island Estates. Mayor Aungst got to hold the canvas for Sam as he painted a holiday card. "This certainly is the most unusual request I've ever had," said Aungst, who had just come from a Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce breakfast. "I was afraid I might fall in the water, but Sam was very gentle with me."

    Sunset Sam has resided at the Marine Aquarium since he was found beached in Tampa Bay in 1984. He had pneumonia and worms, and took a year and a half to fully recover. Because of his health problems, Sam won't ever be released, Dennis Kellenberger, executive director, said.

    Sam, who is 9-foot-4 and weighs nearly 500 pounds, began painting in 1992.

    "We had seen other dolphins do it and thought Sunset Sam might like to paint, too," said Melissa Koberna, director of animal training, who has worked with Sam for the past 14 years.

    Once or twice a week, if he is in the mood, Sam will paint a picture. The finished products are then framed and taken to the aquarium's gift shop where they sell for $50 each.

    On Tuesday, his trainers fed Sam several fish to get his attention.

    Then, Mayor Aungst came up alongside Sam's tank and stood near the edge with the canvas in hand.

    After one of the trainers dipped a brush in paint, she put it in Sam's mouth. (His preferred medium is non-toxic watercolor.) Sam popped out of the water just far enough to apply brush strokes on canvas, methodically moving his head back and forth.

    First, he painted in red, then green, then yellow paint.

    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    This is dolphin Sunset Sam's latest painting. To some it looks like fish of different colors. It will be displayed at City Hall until mid February, when it will be auctioned. Half the proceeds will go to the city and half to Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

    "Dolphins can't see colors," Koberna said. "We just show him the canvas and sometimes let him pick which paint he wants."

    Before he switched to a new color, the playful dolphin was fed a couple of more fish. Then he eagerly returned to the canvas.

    The entire process took about five minutes. After the mayor gave Sam a few more fish, the dolphin flipped in and out of the water a couple of times, as if he were mindful that people were watching. There were about 50 visitors and aquarium employees in the audience.

    To some observers, the finished artwork looked like fish of different colors swimming in different directions.

    Someone else suggested the painting was of Santa with his sleigh.

    Sam's latest masterpiece has been taken to City Hall, where it will be displayed until mid February, when the Marine Aquarium holds its annual "Romance With the Sea" event. At that time, the painting will be auctioned, with half the proceeds going to the city and half to the Marine Aquarium's expansion efforts.

    "We are indeed fortunate to have such a facility as this in our city," Aungst said. "It was great being able to assist Sam."

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