A magical encounter in the sea off Hawaii changed Susan Casey’s life and set her on a quest to discover more about one of the most loved marine mammals
Susan Casey hadn’t given that much thought to dolphins when she went for a swim off the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Maui one afternoon in July 2010. In fact, she was more worried about sharks. The weather was bad – low clouds and a stormy sea – and there had been a recent spate of shark attacks in the area. It was dusk and no one else was in the water.
But Casey was drawn to the shoreline. She was flying back to her life as a magazine editor in New York city the following day and this was the last chance she would have to kick out against the waves.
There was another reason she chose to swim in such perilous conditions. Two years previously, her father, Ron, had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 70. Casey had struggled with the shock of his death. For months, she had been feeling untethered and lost. Situations that might previously have scared her now elicited only numbness. So she put on her goggles and headed out to the water, unaware that what she was about to experience would change her life for ever.
As Casey was swimming, looking down at the seabed, she saw a shadowy body pass diagonally beneath her. Then she caught sight of a dorsal fin. From below, several more shadows appeared and soon she found herself circled by a pod of 40 to 50 spinner dolphins. It was unusual for them to approach in this way; spinner dolphins are renowned for their aerial acrobatics and they normally jump around on the water’s surface and leap through the air.
“They were sort of surrounding me,” Casey says now, drinking a green tea in a beach restaurant in Maui, a few miles down the coast from where she was swimming that day five years ago. “I just remember it was sort of amazing because they can be so fast and I wasn’t even swimming at that point so they were obviously trying to stay around me.”
There was, she recalls, “a definite sense of presence”. One of the bigger spinners approached. Casey and the dolphin looked at each other, exchanging what she describes as “a profound cross-species greeting”. She thought about the grief she was feeling at her father’s death and she wondered if it were possible the dolphins had somehow sensed this. “Did they know?” she says. “Could they tell?”
From this single interaction, Casey was inspired to spend five years writing and researching Voices in the Ocean, a fascinating book of non-fiction reportage about the haunting and extraordinary world of dolphins, published in August in the UK.
It’s not unusual for people to have such a strong reaction to swimmingwith dolphins. The animals have long held a visceral allure for humans. They are among the most intelligent mammals on the planet and use sophisticated internal sonar to navigate and to detect objects several miles away in a process known as echolocation. Research has shown that dolphins communicate with each other through clicks, trills and whistles. They are even thought to speak in dialect. Plus, as Casey points out in her book: “Maybe we are hard-wired to love any animal that looks like it’s always smiling.”
Whatever the reason, that encounter with the spinner dolphins changed her.
When she got back to shore, Casey says: “I felt high … I dried off, started driving away and I started thinking how incredible, beautiful they were. I was really present and really happy in this very deep way. I drove for about 20 minutes and all of a sudden, it occurred to me I’d forgotten to feel sad. It didn’t last, but something lifted in that moment that was interesting.” She pauses. “It was really interesting.”
To put this into context, it is important you know that Casey is not a New Age, touchy-feely type. She is not much given to sentimental hyperbole or gushing spiritual insights. At the time, she had one of the plummest jobs in journalism: editor of O, The Oprah Magazine which regularly shifted one million copies a month.
Before that, Casey had been the editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated Women and had a spell as creative director at Outside magazine, a highly regarded publication for literary writing about the outdoors. (During her time there, Casey commissioned the writer and mountaineer John Krakauer to write about the base camp at Mount Everest in 1996. His 17,000-word piece about a disastrous expedition during which several climbers died became a book, Into Thin Air, which has just been adapted into the blockbuster film Everest.) She is the author of two previous works of non-fiction, the New York Times bestseller, Devil’s Teeth (about sharks), and The Wave (about giant waves).
“I was happy in New York,” says Casey, “but I really did feel I had this urgent – I’m not sure I’d call it a mission – a need to connect with nature.”
She flew back and handed in her notice, then sold her Manhattan apartment and moved to Maui to write the book. It must have seemed like a curious decision to the people who knew her. How did Oprah take it?
“We’re very close. She’s very supportive of anyone feeling in their heart they have to go and do something,” Casey replies. “At the same time, I don’t think she’s particularly happy when people jump ship.”
The gamble paid off. The more Casey read about dolphins, the more intrigued she grew. She found out, for instance, that their ancestors were land-dwelling hooved animals that took to the sea some 55 million years ago. They adapted exceptionally well to their new environment, evolving “in a completely different way from the way we did”.
“For reasons nobody knows, maybe to become more social, they shrank but their brains became much bigger for sonar. That took 25 million years.”
By comparison, Casey says, we’ve had our “big brains” for a mere 200,000 years: a pinprick in time. A dolphin’s brain is organised in a different way from ours – with repeating patterns of a limited selection of cells – and leads to some unique behaviours. Dolphins are voluntary breathers, possibly so that they can keep one half of their brain awake at all times to be vigilant for predators. Their advanced aural sonar projects 2,000 high-frequency clicks a second from a specialised organ in the forehead. Echoes are then transmitted back to a receiver in their jaws. Dolphins can detect the most marginal variance in an object’s size and consistency – assessing the molecular difference between a sheet of copper and aluminium. Not only this, says Casey, but “they can eavesdrop on each other’s mind images”. Mind-reading, I say. She nods. “A little bit like mind-reading.”
There is strong evidence to show that they use specific whistles to identify or call each other. Recent studies by the Orca Research Trust in New Zealand have noted bottlenose dolphins and orcas carrying dead infants in what has been interpreted as a signal of grief. Other studies have found that they also appear to grieve differently if a pod member has died after a long illness rather than if their death has been sudden and unexpected. Dolphins, along with human beings and great apes, possess von Economo neurons that enable them to stay attuned to the ever-shifting nuances of social interplay.
“The emotional part of a dolphin’s brain has become so elaborated that every scientist who looks at it thinks it must be doing something incredibly important in the field of emotional sensitivity,” says Casey.
It seems as though dolphin brains might have evolved to a point where we cannot fully understand them because we’re just not clever enough. If you think of it in terms of an alien invasion movie, the dolphin brains are the extraterrestrials and we’re the stupid earth-dwellers who can’t wrap our heads around the really cool stuff because we’re not as advanced.
It is partly as a result of their unfathomable qualities that dolphins have for so many millennia been a source of fascination. As part of her research, Casey travelled to Crete where she found vivid frescoes of dolphins dating back to 1600 BC and the Minoan era. She also went to the Solomon Islands and Japan to witness the brutal reality of dolphin hunts, as well as swimming with captive orca dolphins (otherwise known as killer whales) which are largely kept in isolation before being brought out to entertain hordes of tourists. The life expectancy of captive orcas is considerable shorter than those living in the wild.
She is a forthright critic of venues such as SeaWorld (the subject of a damning 2013 documentary, Blackfish) and an advocate for the urgent need to protect our planet from pollution and animal cruelty. “A lot of what is bad about human nature comes from a notion of dominion, that we’re somehow better or separate or not part of the animal kingdom,” Casey says. “It’s kind of arrogant … I argue for humility.”
The most delightfully zany part of her book comes when she stays with a community dubbed Dolphinville on Hawaii’s Big Island, led by a woman called Joan Ocean who claims to receive messages directly from dolphins, some of whom appear to her as extraterrestrial beings from underwater spaceships. In fact, the history of human interaction with dolphins has thrown up several examples of extreme or eccentric behaviour. One of the most infamous instances was of Margaret Howe, who took part in a scientific experiment conducted by the neurologist John Lilly in 1965. Howe lived for 10 weeks in a half-submerged house alongside an amorous six-year-old dolphin called Peter whom Lilly hoped to teach English. In the end, Peter’s sexual advances became so persistent that Howe gave into them, Casey writes, “at first tentatively and then more enthusiastically”. It was not to be: “Howe couldn’t keep pace with Peter’s appetites, despite incorporating hand jobs into his daily routine.”
“Yeah, everyone wants to talk about that,” Casey says drily when I raise this episode. “In the 60s, it was sort of this Xanadu of: we’ve got these dolphins, surely we could teach them English? And they’re very good at mimicking … There are tapes of Margaret going, ‘One, two, three’ and the dolphins going, ‘Uh, uh, uh’. You can see that they’re trying.” As for the cross-species coupling: “I don’t think anyone expected it to happen.”
But then in 2005, a British woman married a male dolphin named Cindy in Israel. Sharon Tendler, from London, wore a white dress and was tossed into the water by friends after the ceremony so that she could swim with her new husband. “I’m the happiest girl on earth,” Tendler said at the time. “I made a dream come true, and I am not a pervert.”
Casey is the non-judgmental type but even she struggles with this. “I don’t know what makes someone marry a dolphin … but you don’t see people wanting to marry dogs and cats.”
Unlike dogs or cats, she says, dolphins are clearly capable of displaying empathy. A lot of their behaviour “demonstrates that they are at least aware of the plight of others”.
And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of dolphins being able to sense a woman’s pregnancy or pick up on cancerous growths in the humans who swim with them. One of Casey’s favourite examples is cited in Voices of the Ocean and concerns the scientist Maddalena Bearzi who was studying a pod of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of California. The dolphins were gathering sardines for food when, suddenly, one of them headed off in a different direction at top speed. The others followed until they were about three miles offshore and formed a circle.
When Bearzi got there, she saw that in the centre of the circle was the floating body of a teenage girl with a plastic bag wrapped around her neck. The girl had attempted suicide but was still alive. The scientists could save her because the dolphins led them to exactly the right spot having determined the girl’s position through echolocation.
In a different, less dramatic way, Casey has also found herself transformed. Swimming with dolphins and writing the book helped her work through her grief at her father’s death. It made her believe she was meant to be happy, not sad.
“My father was not a letter writer but one of my prize possessions is a letter he wrote to me when I was in my 20s at college and I was super-depressed. He wrote to me that life is supposed to be fun. He was a really joyful guy. I started thinking about that: what’s the point if you’re not having fun?” It’s a rhetorical question, but then she adds: “Maybe at some level, I knew the answer lay in the ocean.”
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