“If Everybody Did Something, We’d Get Somewhere…” Susan Casey Talks Story About Leaving Oprah and Writing Her New Book, Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins
by Owen James Burke
Susan Casey swims with the dolphins. Photo: Susan Casey.
Former Editor of O: The Oprah Magazine and creative director for Outside Magazine Susan Casey, is author of New York Times bestsellers The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks and The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean. Just this month, she’s released her third title, Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins.
I caught up with her in the midst of her book tour to find out how she came to pack up her New York City office and leave her editorship at O, The Oprah Magazine, and embark upon a 5-year research project which led her around the world from Hawaii and The Solomon Islands to Japan and Greece.
In Voices in the Ocean, we learn that dolphins, which shed their fur, ditched their legs and crawled into the sea 55 million years ago, are not only equipped with larger, more developed brains than ours, but also bear greater emotional capacity than humans. In fact, as you’ll read, we are inferior to dolphins in almost every way. Between their sonar capabilities and oversized noggins, it’s no wonder NASA and several of the world’s Navies have called on the dolphin for help time and time again.
Casey takes us from the early days of of mad scientists experimenting with psychoactive drugs and even interspecies romance to the post-Flipper Sea World craze–a trade, which we learn is run by a bunch of ruthless gangsters, is still reaching new heights today. Through scientific lenses hard and soft, she explores an almost fantastical array of the miracles and tragedies of our complex relationships with these creatures which dates at least as far back as the Minoans of modern-day Greece, 5,000 years ago.
Photo Courtesy: Susan Casey.
The Scuttlefish: Voices in the Ocean is beautifully written – and you clearly got your nails dirty with the research. Reading it made me realize that that’s where I fell in love with the ocean, too —with dolphins. Flipper, specifically, did it for me. I wanted to be Sandy, in that little skiff living in Florida. That looked pretty good when I was a kid. Still does, as a matter of fact!
Susan Casey: Oh, me too. It does for all of us.
So, what led you to decide to leave your editorship with O? Did you get the idea for the book while you were there, was being in a New York City office too stifling, and is that why you dove into this new book?
I was working on the book while I was still at the magazine. I was doing some reporting, and thinking about the proposal. I don’t mind being in New York, but I’m not a lifer. I can spend periods of time there and be perfectly happy, but then I have to leave. Part of me is always in Hawaii, and that’s been the case since I wrote The Wave. I had a place there, and I was going as much as I could. But it’s a haul from New York—a 12-hour flight.
I wrote the proposal and the publisher loved it. I then had to reckon with the fact that I had even more reporting to do. I really wanted to write the book in a place where I felt I could devote everything to it. I had to make the decision between sticking it out in New York and constantly going back and forth to wherever I needed to go, or to just devote myself to writing. I decided I had to take the full kick at the can— I just really want to write books about the ocean.
It was hard, because I loved that job. It was a great situation, with great people, and it was a fun magazine to edit. But I want to give it my all with my career as an author.
Well, you’ve certainly got the pen, or keyboard for it.
When you open the book, you’re in Hawaii swimming with spinner dolphins, and then you find yourself back in New York, still thinking about that experience from your office. How long were you pondering the topic, and was there an “Aha!” moment that made you think this book could work?
That was the “Aha!” moment, in 2010. I was thinking about dolphins a little bit before that, because I saw the The Cove and wondered what it was all about. I read some things about dolphins and made a mental note that there was more there, but it was really that one incident that made me think, “This is the right thing.” There was another weird dolphin incident that had happened to me, but that one is too weird to even tell you about.
Well, actually, that sounds like something I definitely want to hear about.
I did a story for O: The Oprah Magazine where I went down to Brazil. This was me trying to feel better after my dad died, but this was before the dolphin incident (in Hawaii). I went down to see this spiritual healer, John of God. It was also on Oprah’s show. So I’m in the middle of nowhere in Brazil, doing a story on a spiritual healer, and out of nowhere, a woman comes up to me and gives me a little crystal dolphin. She said she’d been told to give me this. I asked her who told her, and she just said, “A spirit.” Then she walked away.
Susan Casey in Brazil with João of God, or “Medium João.” Photo courtesy: O: The Oprah Magazine.
This place is literally in the heart of Brazil. There are no stores, there’s nothing there. This complete stranger walked up and handed me a dolphin. I pay attention to stuff like that.
On the other hand, if there hadn’t been the material to write a book, I wouldn’t have written a book. There’s a ton of amazing material about dolphins. There’s intriguing science, locations, and of course, my favorite—obsessive characters.
Dr. John C. Lilly was one of the early proponents of dolphin research, neurology and psychoactive drugs like LSD. His experiments were unconventional, to say the least. Photo: Lilly Estate.
It’s really unbelievable that all of this remarkable history is so fragmented. I think a lot of us have heard about romantic relationships, the whole interspecies thing, but if you hear about it in one article, you don’t get the whole mad scientist Dr. John C. Lilly aspect of it (note: Lilly gave dolphins LSD and undertook an experiment with Margaret Howe Lovatt that eventually resulted in Lovatt pleasing a dolphin named Peter sexually). That guy was wild to read about!
I don’t understand why more people aren’t aware of him, and why someone hasn’t written a good book about him yet. There’s definitely a book there. He went pretty far down the rabbit hole. But I’m not sure how much access anybody who would’ve been likely to write a book like that had in the past. If we start looking at the archives, there is tons of stuff. It’s definitely a job for somebody. It’s fascinating.
I guess scientists in his sphere weren’t terribly inclined to write about him?
A lot of people were really angry at him. He sidelined himself, I think. My guess is that the ketamine was a bad choice for him (note: Lilly’s experiments with Ketamine, or Vitamin K and a sensory deprivation tank were the seed for the William Hurt film Altered States). He died on Maui, at 86 years old, in 2001. I know people on Maui who encountered him, and by several accounts, he was pretty incoherent by the end of his life. From what I know of ketamine, taking that much isn’t good for you. I think he probably could’ve gone on taking LSD for a while and come out the other side, lucid, but ketamine is another story.
How long did it take you to research and write Voices in the Ocean? 2010 to last year?
It takes about five years to write a book. The Wave came out in 2010, and now it’s 2015. I was thinking about it, starting in 2010, or maybe even a little before. So, yes, five years. I’d like to get it down to four.
The amount of research you’ve done here is immense. Where did you actually sit down and write it?
I wrote the proposal in New York. I write really long proposals, almost more for myself than anyone else—so I don’t get lost in the woods. It took me about a year to write the proposal, but I wrote the book on Maui.
Not a bad place to write.
A couple times I would just try to run out and spend some time with dolphins, and I could usually find them on the Big Island or on Lana’i.
One part in the book that really struck me was when you were talking about dolphin hunting. It was the Solomon Islands that I found particularly interesting. You distinguished these traditional hunts from the brutal dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan (where The Cove was filmed). What were some of the more interesting places you went, and who were the most memorable people—and dolphins—that you met?
In the Solomon Islands, I think Lawrence Makili is an amazing guy. He’s the guy that the dolphin traffickers tried to assassinate. He fought back. I spent time with him and he’s a larger-than-life character—chewing betel-nut, chain smoking, and he’s a very hardcore environmentalist. Full-on activist, to the bone. He was one of the people that went out in a little boat for Greenpeace when the French were doing those nuclear tests in the ocean, and he just sat there. He’s done protests and campaigns against illegal logging, which is a quick way to get killed in Asia. To me, he was one of my favorite characters in the book.
I loved the Greek, too. The Minoan. The dolphin artworks I got to see in Greece were a real highlight. I want to know more about the Minoans.
In the Minoan palace Knossos, frescos and mosaics of dolphins adorn everything from walls to amphoras and dinnerware.
That really tied everything together for me, that our history with these animals runs so deep and goes so far back, and that our friendship and respect for them does, too. That they were once mythologized, and there was a time when we humans respected them more.
We can’t wage war on every creature that isn’t us and expect to thrive at the end of that. That isn’t going to happen. What’s the other way? It seems that this particular civilization, 5,000 years ago, was doing it differently. At least, their artworks indicate that.
And how about the most memorable dolphins that you met?
I saw, in the Taiji whale museum, a false killer whale. It’s a species that Robin Baird, the scientist that studies the deep-water dolphins, is most intrigued by. Everything I learned about false killer whales made me really want to see one, and the only time I did was in that museum. They’ve packed every kind of dolphin into this horrible museum. It was memorable to me because I knew how exquisite that animal was, and it was in this terrible, terrible place. I’ll never forget seeing it there.
All the spinner dolphins in Hawaii were the first I was up close and personal with in the wild, so I have a soft spot for them. The one dolphin that I talked about in the beginning, the one who was bigger, and eyed me up and down—he was like a security guard for his pod—I’ll never forget that one. It was the first dolphin I really swam with.
You don’t see dolphins all the time on Maui, and I’m in the water all the time. You almost never see them, so it was unique. On the big island you can see them all the time. Pretty typically they’re around in the day. On Lana’i they come into this one bay pretty often.
What were some “known unknowns” that you wanted to cover, and what were some things that you had no idea about and really surprised you?
I knew I wanted to go into the whole history of people and dolphins. Yet, I didn’t know what the details on that would be. I knew I wanted to write about Dr. John C. Lily, but I only knew the briefest outline of who he was and what he’d done. The cetacean brain stuff, the science behind the physiology and evolution of dolphins—the more I found out about that the more curious I became. It’s fascinating, and such a different evolutionary story than our own. It’s so much longer.
One of Dr. Lilly’s experiments, pictured above, involved locking Margaret Howe Lovatt in a flooded home with a sparky male dolphin named Peter for 10 weeks. Margaret was supposed to introduce Peter into the world of academia, but it wasn’t long before Margaret realized that a curriculum of times tables and the alphabet weren’t going to hold poor Peter’s attention. Peter began making sexual advances to his instructor. At some point during the course of their time together, Lovatt wrote in her journal, she gave into his desires, hoping it might better serve Lilly’s research. But she found his sexual appetite to be tiring and insatiable. Photo: Lilly Estate.
This idea of a seriously big, convoluted, elaborate, high-functioning brain which is about 55 million years old, as opposed to ours, which is about 200,000 years old. To me, that’s super intriguing.
Then I met Lori Marino, the woman who studied the dolphin brain. I could’ve talked to her for years. I didn’t know anything about neuroscience or the brain before I began this book, so it was a bit of a crash-course. I just kept reading, reading, and reading. I came out of it with a mesmerized appreciation of the dolphin brain. I’m so curious to see what we’re going to find out. However, I also worry that we’re not going to spend enough resources looking at it, because we’re so self-referential. All our neuroscience focuses on primates, because we’re primates. Meanwhile, here’s this other brain, wired completely differently, and it’s ancient. We could learn so much from it, and I wonder why there aren’t more people studying it intently.
I have the same question to ask NASA–who once upon a time funded Lilly’s dolphin research–about the ocean.
I feel like people think that if it’s not happening on land, it’s not happening. It’s just so insane. 95% of this planet is saltwater, and we act like all the action is going on in the little places where humans are, and only there.
It’s a shame, it would be nice to see a little more interest and progress in that direction, but maybe we’re getting there. Who knows. What do you think are the most pressing issues facing dolphins in the wild?
Overfishing, and destructive fishing is big. Persistent pollutants that are taxing their immune systems like mercury, flame-retardants, dioxins, PCBs, the kind of stuff that we outlaw but that doesn’t just vanish in a puff of smoke—it’s still in the ocean. And because they’re predators with blubbery bodies, it bio-accumulates. A lot of this stuff binds to fat really well. Once a dolphin has a body burden like that, they’ll be more susceptible to viruses like morbillivirus and some of the others that can lead to huge die-offs.
There have been some really big die-offs of dolphins in the past five years. There was a huge one in Peru, with at least three thousand dolphins. There’s been a big one in the U.S. that started around the Gulf oil spill, but is probably attributable to a couple other things like pollution and really weird ocean conditions—probably due to climate change. The Gulf oil spill was devastating to dolphins. Worldwide, there are issues with pollution, and of course, with noise. Navy sonar, oil and gas prospecting air guns—those are the big three, I would say.
And now they’re working their way up the Atlantic seaboard with seismic testing and oil exploration.
I can’t believe that it will happen, because it’s very destructive to commercial fisheries. Once you get into that realm, you’ve got a politically connected industry. I really can’t believe that’s going to continue to be allowed for very long. It’s crazy. They’ve found that when those guns are let off, that it even kills larvae.
I’d imagine so. It’s just a big shockwave.
At 250 decibels, that approaches the loudest noise we’re physically capable of making.
That’s louder than a jet plane even, isn’t it?
Oh, way louder. Even 180 decibels is louder than a jet plane. 250 decibels is louder than an atomic explosion. It would cause instant death on land.
Above: The vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Photo: Flip Nicklin, Minden Pictures/Corbis.
What do you know and think about the plight of the vaquita in the Sea of Cortes?
It seems like a war between the fishermen and the environmentalists, and it doesn’t appear that the fishermen are willing to do anything to help the situation. It may be at the point now that even if the remaining vaquita were not killed, the remaining few might not even be genetically viable as a species anymore. I remember being in Baja with two scientists one time, and finding a fish dump. There were so many carcasses, including tiny little baby hammerhead sharks, and we found two juvenile white sharks. It was clear that they were hauling so much stuff out of the water that was illegal. That place is being hoovered.
I don’t know what efforts are being made in there to help, but I should find out.
You’d hope there would be someone in there doing something like what happened with Cabo Pulmo. That worked.
It did, but now they’re trying to open up some huge resort there.
Did you finish the book hopeful about dolphins and their future, or are you largely pessimistic?
From what I see right now, I’m not very optimistic. But, I don’t think the way forward is to talk about how bad everything is. I didn’t want to shy away from the hard stuff, like Taiji, but more than that, I wanted to enchant people. That way, they could decide for themselves that this is really important, and that we need to start doing things differently. By engaging their emotions in a positive way: “Look at how cool this is!” You never want to tell people what to think or do, and as a storyteller I just want to tell stories and engage emotions. I don’t want people to put down the book and want to kill themselves, I want them to put down the book and think, “I had no idea how cool these animals were. The ocean is filled with this kind of stuff. I want to find out more, and I’m going to do something.” Because if everybody did something, we’d get somewhere.
Well, you’ve got me thinking about it, I think in part because of how unabashed you were in your approach to all the weird, even perverse things that go on between cetaceans and humans, including the ones in captivity. I think you’ll surely l intrigue people and get them thinking.
The best analogy for them is us. To take a wild-caught dolphin and put it in a sterile swimming pool—it’s like you’re walking along the street with your brother, and someone comes down, takes him, and puts him in a closet for the rest of your life. How would you feel about that? And if it’s a captive dolphin, it’s like giving birth to a kid and making it live there. To me, captive birth isn’t the answer, either.
No, not at all. And you made it pretty clear that Flipper spurred this whole aquarium craze. It certainly made me want to go see one. Though, I have to say, that when I did get to Sea World as a kid, it just made me cry. I was only about six. And I didn’t even have much of a conscience then. I just felt it from the animals. Whatever they were giving off, I felt it.
I’ve heard that from a lot of people.
“A dolphin’s smile is the greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they’re always happy.” -Ric O’Barry (above), former trainer of all five Flippers. He now condemns cetacean captivity, and is currently an outspoken activist, especially in Taiji, Japan, where the world’s largest dolphin hunt takes place each year. Photo: Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project.
On the whole, would you say that Flipper was a good thing? On the one hand, it certainly engaged interest and probably a good deal of research, and funding for research into the species, but on the other hand, we have two new swim-with-dolphin programs in the Caribbean each year.
A lot of them are pretty small facilities, but lucrative. That might be a better question for Ric O’Barry, the trainer for Flipper who later became an activist. I used to encounter this question a lot when I was working for Outside magazine, “Should we not do a story about this park? Because if we do, a lot of people will go there, and the park will get ruined.” I don’t really know how to navigate that. First of all, I don’t know if Flipper was bad or good. But it happened. People would’ve encountered dolphins in some way, even if Flipper had never happened. Right now, a lot of people who go to Sea World every week have never seen Flipper. So pinning it all on that—it isn’t that simple.
I guess I’m growing old; Flipper isn’t so hot anymore.
But the way things are now, it would’ve been hard to keep dolphins a big secret. It’s better to educate people about them, and at least the show showed people how unique they are. I know that Ric O’Barry feels bad about his role in Flipper. That’s what drives him.
Pelorus Jack was just one of the countless dolphins throughout history that have engaged in long-standing rapport with humans. Thanks to him, the Risso’s dolphin was, at one time, “the only ‘fish’ in the world protected by Act of Parliament.” (Of course, we now know dolphins are no more a species of fish than we are.) Image via Movin2NewZealand.
I was sitting on the Cook Strait when I read the chapter about Pelorus Jack, the Risso dolphin that used to navigate for ships crossing that tortured body of water, and I just about died. I got chills. That story was probably the most amazing out of all the charismatic dolphins that you profiled.
If you Google Pelorus Jack, you’ll get several accounts. But I found a book by Antony Alpers. It’s a book of historical stories about dolphins. He had a much more detailed account of Pelorus Jack. I was so excited when I found it.
Do you think that dolphins and humans will ever converse, verbally? If so, is it worth pursuing?
Well, they don’t have vocal cords, which is a little bit of an issue. I purposely didn’t spend a lot of time in the realm of translating dolphin sounds—which John C. Lily began, and other scientists have taken up—because I think they do communicate. I guess because theoretically they do have the ability to talk to us, and the intelligence to talk to us, so the possibility of cross-species communication is just too tantalizing to give up. That would be like something out of Alice in Wonderland. I don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t think we’ll see that in our lifetime. I’m half-interested in those studies, but as Ric O’Barry would put it, “I don’t need to talk to them. I know what they’d say: ‘Leave us alone!’”
Read Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins, and follow Susan Casey on Facebook and Instagram.
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