Susan Casey explains how our understanding of dolphins continues to evolve and surprise
Pacific Ocean water temperatures along the California coast peak in August, and Santa Cruz beaches crowd accordingly, swimmers eager to finally “skin it” in water that usually demands a wetsuit as the price of admission.
Cold water is never a barrier, however, to the abundant population of sea life beneath the waves. From the great white sharks that cruise our underwater canyons to the humpbacks that show off for tourists and sea lions that lounge among the pilings beneath the wharf, we are blessed with the comings and goings of creatures that have long sparked our collective imagination.
Perhaps the most likely to delight beachgoers, swimmers and boaters alike are dolphins. There are many species here—Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, and the incredibly sleek and finless Northern Right Whale dolphins, to name a few. What these gregarious and highly social mammals have in common is a keen intelligence and seeming self-awareness that continues to challenge our notions about what defines a sentient being.
Writer, former editor of O magazine, and marine adventurer Susan Casey has always claimed her best life to be aquatic. She has shared this fascination with the ocean through books like The Devil’s Teeth, about great whites and the Farallon islands, The Wave, which takes readers on an adrenaline-fueled ride down the faces of some of the world’s biggest waves, and her newest book, Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins.
Two years after her father died, Casey was still in mourning when she took a swim in Honolua Bay, off the coast of Maui. A pod of about 50 spinner dolphins surrounded her, and as they dove and leapt and played in her presence, they sparked a curiosity that took her on a journey around the world. The result is an evocative, meticulously researched attempt to understand why these animals evoke such an emotional response in humans. “I’ve come to the conclusion that they really are a sort of mirror of us,” Casey says. “When you look in the eye of a dolphin, there’s recognition.”
Through pioneering (and controversial) work by early researchers like John Lilly, and follow up by renowned scientists like Lou Herman and countless others, Casey helps us understand the depth of language and communication skills that dolphins exhibit. They count, they grieve, they deduce and seduce. “They understand syntax in sentences,” she says, “also concepts like presence and absence. They innovate, and understand subtle changes in language. In Herman’s work, at the end, I believe they understood something like 2,000 sentences, and picked up new things quickly, as well.”
The connection we feel to dolphins is heightened by tales of their coming to our rescue and bonding with us in wild settings. Casey presents great stories of such events, like the dolphin loyal to an Irish village, and the pod of dolphins who rescued a girl who attempted suicide. She even writes about New Age enthusiast groups like Dolphinville that swim with wild spinner dolphins reliably found along the Kona coast. She readily acknowledges that Dolphinville’s beliefs about alien life and DNA messages encoded in dolphin sonar are “clear nonsense,” but can’t help feeling enchanted by their loving approach and respect for the animals.
She notes, as well, the dark side to our fascination with these magnetic creatures. Casey travels to Japan and the Solomon islands, where the brutal slaughter of dolphins plays out annually in staggering numbers. She exposes the truth behind a multi-billion-dollar captivity industry where dolphins are rounded up for sale to marine parks, debunking any illusions we might have about interacting with dolphins in a manufactured setting. She lays out the threat of pollution, habitat destruction from overfishing, and military sonar, imploring us to do better.
But she leaves us on the sunlit island of Crete, among the beauty of faded frescoes that depict our truly ancient kinship with dolphins, in hopes that our shared history, mutual intelligence, and continuing sense of wonder can forge a better co-existence.
Susan Casey will discuss ‘Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins’ at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 14, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Free.