The dolphin who loved me

Margaret Lovatt at the Dolphin House on St Thomas

In the 1960s, Margaret Lovatt was part of a Nasa-funded project to communicate with dolphins. Soon she was living with ‘Peter’ 24 hours a day in a converted house. Christopher Riley reports for London’s Guardian on an experiment that went tragically wrong. Here is an excerpt. For the full report and a gallery of photos follow the link below.

Like most children, Margaret Howe Lovatt grew up with stories of talking animals. “There was this book that my mother gave to me called Miss Kelly,” she remembers with a twinkle in her eye. “It was a story about a cat who could talk and understand humans and it just stuck with me that maybe there is this possibility.”

Unlike most children, Lovatt didn’t leave these tales of talking animals behind her as she grew up. In her early 20s, living on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, they took on a new significance. During Christmas 1963, her brother-in-law mentioned a secret laboratory at the eastern end of the island where they were working with dolphins. She decided to pay the lab a visit early the following year. “I was curious,” Lovatt recalls. “I drove out there, down a muddy hill, and at the bottom was a cliff with a big white building.”

Lovatt was met by a tall man with tousled hair, wearing an open shirt and smoking a cigarette. His name was Gregory Bateson, a great intellectual of the 20th century and the director of the lab. “Why did you come here?” he asked Lovatt.

“Well, I heard you had dolphins,” she replied, “and I thought I’d come and see if there was anything I could do or any way I could help…” Unused to unannounced visitors and impressed by her bravado, Bateson invited her to meet the animals and asked her to watch them for a while and write down what she saw. Despite her lack of scientific training, Lovatt turned out to be an intuitive observer of animal behaviour and Bateson told her she could come back whenever she wanted.

“There were three dolphins,” remembers Lovatt. “Peter, Pamela and Sissy. Sissy was the biggest. Pushy, loud, she sort of ran the show. Pamela was very shy and fearful. And Peter was a young guy. He was sexually coming of age and a bit naughty.”

The lab’s upper floors overhung a sea pool that housed the animals. It was cleaned by the tide through openings at each end. The facility had been designed to bring humans and dolphins into closer proximity and was the brainchild of an American neuroscientist, Dr John Lilly. Here, Lilly hoped to commune with the creatures, nurturing their ability to make human-like sounds through their blow holes.

Lilly had been interested in connecting with cetaceans since coming face to face with a beached pilot whale on the coast near his home in Massachusetts in 1949. The young medic couldn’t quite believe the size of the animal’s brain – and began to imagine just how intelligent the creature must have been, explains Graham Burnett, professor of the history of science at Princeton and author of The Sounding of the Whale. “You are talking about a time in science when everybody’s thinking about a correlation between brain size and what the brain can do. And in this period, researchers were like: ‘Whoa… big brain huh… cool!'”

At every opportunity in the years that followed, John Lilly and his first wife, Mary, would charter sailboats and cruise the Caribbean, looking for other big-brained marine mammals to observe. It was on just such a trip in the late 1950s that the Lillys came across Marine Studios in Miami – the first place to keep the bottlenose dolphin in captivity.

Up until this time, fishermen on America’s east coast, who were in direct competition with dolphins for fish, had considered the animals vermin. “They were know as ‘herring hogs’ in most of the seafaring towns in the US,” says Burnett. But here, in the tanks of Marine Studios, the dolphins’ playful nature was endearingly on show and their ability to learn tricks quickly made it hard to dislike them.

Here, for the first time, Lilly had the chance to study the brains of live dolphins, mapping their cerebral cortex using fine probes, which he’d first developed for his work on the brains of rhesus monkeys. Unable to sedate dolphins, as they stop breathing under anaesthetic, the brain-mapping work wasn’t easy for either animals or scientists, and the research didn’t always end well for the marine mammals. But on one occasion in 1957, the research would take a different course which would change his and Mary’s lives for ever.

To continue reading go to http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/08/the-dolphin-who-loved-me

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