Beneath the Surface

Diving into our obsession with dolphins.

While a predisposition toward optimism is by no means a prerequisite for involvement in the animal welfare movement, we can all agree that these are auspicious times for the cause. The last ten years have brought enormous change to the way western society thinks about and engages with species other than our own. Vegetarianism and veganism are wholly mainstream, science journals regularly trumpet the cognitive accomplishments of parrots and rats, trophy hunters post photos online at their peril, and a steady drip of damning evidence against factory farming continues to seep into the cultural water table. Last year, the National Institutes of Health finally retired the last of its chimpanzees to sanctuaries, effectively ending the practice of invasive research on great apes worldwide. And a few months earlier, a chimp named Tommy filed suit against his owner in New York State Court.

Meanwhile, interdisciplinary collaborations such as the Great Ape Project, the Nonhuman Rights Project and the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness provide the scholarly and legal ballast. The latter, signed by many of the world’s leading neuroscientists in 2012, states that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”

So, some animals are conscious and they can litigate; these are indeed heady times. But while there is much to celebrate, and the list goes on, the majority of these important gains have been reserved for the landlubbers, the cows and chickens and pigs and primates in our immediate vicinity, while marine creatures, those who live in the world’s oceans, continue to drift significantly beneath the surface of our moral consideration. To bastardize George Orwell, our ethical code toward animals in 2016 might be summed up as “Four legs good, two legs better, all fins bad.” It is clear, though, that if we are serious about mending our relationship with the natural world, no real progress can be made without coming to terms with the vast aquatic communities that range across more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface.

Filmmakers have recently made significant headway on this count. With The Cove in 2009 and Blackfish four years later, audiences were roundly stupefied and enraged by the revelations of how whales and dolphins—among the most intelligent, emotional and social creatures on the planet—are being exploited, abused and bludgeoned for profit. And now, bestselling chronicler of the seas Susan Casey adds her formidable voice to this growing chorus with her new book, Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins, a compelling portrait of our fraught relationship with the Delphinidae, or “toothed whales,” throughout the ages.

As with the ancient Minoans, whose culture was awash with reverence for all things marine, the sea is Casey’s literary muse. Her previous books delved into the mysteries of great white sharks and rogue waves, and here, what begins with a brief but “soul-shaking experience” swimming with spinner dolphins off Honolua builds into an impassioned, globetrotting examination of the many enlightening, surprising and often gruesome intersections between the human and dolphin worlds. All told, Voices is very much equal to The Cove and Blackfish in terms of its veracity and moral power.

“Dolphins are enigmas,” says Casey, equal parts saltwater savants and metaphysical marvels. Pioneering dolphin scientist Ken Norris put it more bluntly, calling the Delphinidae “the most mysterious of fauna on the planet.” To wit: They hunt in teams, use tools and heal their wounds with supernatural speed. They can distinguish between left and right, understand the difference between presence and absence, report whether they feel sure or unsure about answers to difficult questions, and they never sleep. They are talented mimics, some affix sea sponges to their beaks to protect themselves as they forage the seafloor, and many have famously come to the rescue of drowning humans. They are self-aware, and they love to share. When you give fresh food to a dolphin, that dolphin may return later with fresh food for you.

Casey finds herself entranced by the dolphin’s “beguiling mix of mystery and reality,” and in this she is not alone. Dolphins have long been central to the New Age. On Hawaii’s Big Island we meet the charming inhabitants of “Dolphinville,” a community of roughly 200 people who have given over their lives to communing with the megapods of dolphins who ply the Kona coast. Their guru, an ex-psychologist named Joan Ocean, leads daily swims with the animals, facilitates dolphin-centred retreats at her home and has personally spent more than 20,000 hours in the water with the animals. Ocean is such a dolphin aficionado that she once had a remora—the suckerfish that hitch rides on dolphins’ skin—stuck to her leg. On another swim, she witnessed five spinners give birth underwater simultaneously.

Ocean and her fellows harbour some pretty extreme beliefs about their dolphin neighbours: that they are capable of healing people, that they are multidimensional beings, that their sonar activates interplanetary messages that are encoded in our DNA. Ken Norris, concerned with the uncanny ability of his study subjects to elicit emotional reactions from humans, lamented such hippy-dippy thinking: “I would rather have truth than mysticism,” he once wrote. But to reduce our seemingly instinctive connection with dolphins to nothing more than a shared recognition of a higher intelligence that can be demonstrated in a lab does not quite pass muster, either. As Casey cautiously points out, “There is something singular about them … Orangutans are wicked smart too, and you don’t find people gathering to teleport with them.”

To recognize the ocean as a cosmos unto itself, and to become aware of how the human and the marine worlds are increasingly coming into dire conflict, is to accept that there is at least a kernel of truth to the idea that dolphins are communicating with us from an alternate universe—that in some ways, when they seek us out in the water they do become multidimensional beings, if only metaphorically, if only for a moment.

Perhaps new age thinking relies too heavily on such metaphors. But this does not mean that rich, instructive comparisons should be outlawed when attempting to articulate other forms of intelligence and consciousness. “We’re primates—I get it,” says neuroscientist Lori Marino, a leading expert on the dolphin mind and the founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. “But there is more than one way to be smart.” Marino and her colleagues have discovered the dolphin neocortex is unlike anything in the mammalian world, humans included. “This is a brain that is built for speed,” says Marino. “The rate at which they process information is astounding.” And the Delphinidae brain has three times as many von Economo neurons (VENs) than humans do. Marino calls VENs the “superstar neurons,” and they play key roles in empathizing, modulating emotions, joking with others and even love.

When you extrapolate from the findings that a dolphin’s brain is essentially working at warp speed, and that its emotional centre is three times larger than a human’s, perhaps we can begin to conceptualize how a dolphin might indeed be operating on a level that appears supernatural. “There is some sort of cohesiveness in them that I don’t think we get quite yet, but it accounts for a lot of the behaviour that seems strange to us,” says Marino.” I think a lot of it comes down to emotional attachment … a very strong sense in them that if something happens to the group, it happens to you.”

Along with a quick jaunt to Ireland to meet the “Most Loyal Animal on the Planet,” a bottlenose dolphin named Fungie who has lived in Dingle Harbour for more than 30 years, Casey’s fascinating experiences with Joan Ocean at Dolphinville and Lori Marino at Kimmela serve as a balm to most of the narrative in Voices, which necessarily dives into some very dark waters. We meet John Lilly, a neuroscientist whose experiments on the dolphin brain in the 1950s, while catastrophic for the animals, produced an epiphany for the scientists: “We felt we were in the presence of Something or Someone, who was on the other side of a transparent barrier which up to this point we hadn’t even seen. The dim outlines of a someone began to appear.”

Lilly went on to found the Communication Research Institute (CRI), where dolphins would live with humans in specially designed buildings in an attempt to, in his words, “learn our language and ways.” Money rolled in from the National Science Foundation, the Navy, the Department of Defense, NASA; federal bureaucrats saw potential implications for sonar development, mind control, even communication with alien life. But in the 1960s, when Lilly started administering LSD to his dolphins and regularly tripping with them, his career began to veer off the rails. Meanwhile, CRI’s experiments devolved into the provocative and absurd; in one ten-week cohabitation study, a waitress named Margaret Howe was stalked around the house 24 hours a day by a bottlenose named Peter who had a constant erection. Astonishingly, Howe eventually gave in to Peter’s lusty advances, but as Casey recounts, “Howe couldn’t keep pace with Peter’s appetites, despite incorporating hand jobs into his daily routine.”

The story of Lilly’s work on dolphins offers eerie parallels with experiments that were done on chimpanzees at about the same time. The similarities between the species are unavoidable: their cognitive brilliance, the history of vivisection and abuse at our hands, our attempts to profit from them scientifically and financially, the metaphysical questioning they engender in anyone lucky enough to witness them first-hand. Psychologist Robert Yerkes, a contemporary of Lilly’s, once summarized the critical importance of a social life to the chimpanzee by stating that “one chimpanzee is no chimpanzee.” The same could be said of dolphins.

“A solitary dolphin is like a floating oxymoron,” writes Casey, and the ravages of prolonged captivity on these animals is a recurring theme in her reporting. She visits the largest human-made dolphin enclosure in the world, Ocean World Adventure Park in the Dominican Republic, and Marineland in Ontario, where in 2012 whistleblowers drew widespread public attention to alleged mistreatment of the star attractions. Between the lines, we are offered an excoriating history of marine parks, where despite the lip service paid to animal welfare and public education, dolphins and whales suffer physical and psychological torment, even if their caregivers perform their duties flawlessly.

“Only now are we beginning to understand what that word, together, means to a dolphin,” writes Casey, and only recently have we understood the consequences of denying the Delphinidae this togetherness. In captivity, the animals can develop ulcers and heart problems and succumb to normally non-lethal illnesses. They gnaw on the walls of their enclosures until their teeth are ground down; they slam themselves repeatedly against the sides of their pens; they attack their fellow animals and human caregivers, occasionally killing them. That is, unless they have completely given up hope. Often, as Casey writes, “the animals orbit their teacup pools as endlessly as lost satellites.”

Headlining Casey’s international cast of dolphin activists is Ric O’Barry, the former dolphin trainer (he trained all five animals who played Flipper in the 1960s) and the central figure in the Academy Award–winning documentary The Cove. Casey joins O’Barry in Taiji, Japan, to take part in opening-day protests of the gruesome dolphin drive hunt, and in the process airs even more of Taiji’s dirty laundry: the town is not just the site of indiscriminate dolphin slaughter; it is also the epicentre of the live dolphin trade. “Taiji is a one-stop shopping destination for anyone who would like to buy a dolphin, and who is untroubled by the process of plucking that dolphin out of a pool of blood that contains the dead bodies of its entire family.”

But the town’s split personality toward the marine world reaches its most awful expression—and the book reaches its emotional nadir—when Casey visits the bizarre Taiji Whale Museum, a place O’Barry calls “the Bates Motel for dolphins.” Inside, happy ticket holders can ogle dolphin and orca fetuses in formaldehyde, buy dolphin plush toys and take in a live dolphin show—all while chowing down on snacks made of fresh dolphin meat.

Imagine a circus selling elephant burgers, a zoo hawking giraffe-on-a-stick, an aquarium serving grilled calamari. The cognitive dissonance is so stunning it seems like a bad joke. But for irony you cannot beat the U.S. Navy, whose mid- and low-frequency sonar—invented on the backs of countless dolphins killed in the Lilly-era sonar studies—has been proven to cause internal hemorrhaging, embolisms and mass beaching events of wild whales and dolphins. As Casey writes, the U.S. Navy is “an institution that is busily blasting [whales and dolphins] out of existence, using the same technologies that we recruited them to help us develop.”

One could argue that over the last decade western culture has taken a number of significant steps to expand its moral sphere to include other species. As Casey writes: “researchers around the world are coming to the same conclusion—we are not the only beings who matter—and new ideas are stirring about how the startling depth and breadth of other creatures morally obliges us to act humanely towards them.”

It makes sense that the great apes might come first in this grand reshuffling of allegiances. But if we are serious about transforming the human-animal relationship on this planet, we must press on beyond our closest evolutionary cousins. That is where the real work will be done. Philosopher Raymond Corbey once suggested that the great apes might serve “as go-betweens and mediators between humans and other animals, philosophically, scientifically, and morally.” Perhaps, and hopefully, this process is already underway.

The Minoans, those dolphin-loving ancients, believed in time as a circular construct. In such a philosophy, old forms of knowledge might be revisited and made new again. This seems like a tall order for us, especially when images from the Taiji Whale Museum refuse to leave one’s neocortex. But Casey, who has seen it all, remains optimistic. “What if nature spoke to us in music, and the dolphins were her chorus,” she writes. “What if we stopped talking, and joined their harmony?”