Book review – Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

Voices in the Ocean is very much a reportage; the author picks a topic, delves into it, and reports what she learns along the way. For Susan Casey it was a chance encounter with a pod of spinner dolphins while swimming in Honolua Bay, Hawai’i, that sparked a fascination with dolphins and in this book we follow her as she travels around the world for two years to explore the multitude of ways in which the worlds of humans and dolphins intersect. And in so doing this book covers a lot of ground.

Voices in the Ocean

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins“, written by Susan Casey, published by Oneworld Publications in September 2015 (hardback) and May 2017 (paperback) – 310 pages

An obvious first place to start if you want to learn more about dolphins is to talk to marine biologists. Casey delves into the archives of John Lilly at the Stanford campus, who pioneered research into dolphin intelligence in the fifties. Though an important first step, his later work, in which he used LSD on both himself and his research subjects, caused him to fall into disrepute and haunted serious research attempts on dolphins for decades to come. Casey visits Lori Marino, a neuroscientist who specialises in dolphin brains and has published widely about its architecture, morphology, and evolution. And later she meets up with Robin Baird, whose work focuses on deep-water dolphin species and who has extensively documented the devastating effects on cetaceans of the use of loud underwater sonar by the U.S. and other navies. A lot more scientific work is mentioned and sprinkled throughout the text.

At the other extreme, dolphins also have the dubious honour of being the poster-child of the New Age movement, a movement for whose ideas and beliefs I personally have little patience. Casey meets psychologist-turned New Age dolphin guru Joan Ocean, who, not surprisingly, was mentored by Lilly. She leads a community of people in Hawai’i calling themselves “Dolphinville” that regularly go on open-water swims in the vicinity of dolphin pods. Through meditation, Ocean, whose practice as a counselling psychologist put her in the middle of human suffering, became convinced that dolphins were trying to communicate messages of love and wisdom, and took it upon herself to seek them out, and introduce other people to them. Now in her 70s, she has probably logged over twenty-thousand hours in the water with dolphins. Impressive, but if all you have to show for that is bizarre notions of dolphins being multidimensional beings who are here to communicate to us, telepathically or otherwise, encoded messages from other planets, and you run workshops with titles such as “Dolphins, Teleportation and Time Travel”, I think I will now go and comfort the scientific method, which is silently weeping in the corner over there. From the point of view of giving as wide as possible an overview of how dolphins affect human beings, one could argue these chapters merit inclusion, but I could have done without them.

“I think I will now go and comfort the scientific method, which is silently weeping in the corner over there”

Other topics Casey explores are the numerous accounts of dolphins who break away from their pods and associate with humans, when she visits Ireland’s Dingle peninsula, home to a resident bottlenose dolphin named Fungie. She even dips into archaeology during a visit to Greece, where she explores the importance attached to dolphins by the Minoans. This civilisation, at its height around 1700 BC in the Aegean Sea, has left a rich legacy of ruins and cultural artefacts in which dolphins feature prominently.

But a large part of this book reads like a catalogue of the many atrocities we inflict, directly or indirectly, on dolphins and other cetaceans. Already mentioned was underwater sonar and other noise pollution, such as the air guns towed by ships employed by oil and gas companies for seafloor prospecting. These send 250 dB blasts into the oceans at 10-second intervals, sometimes for months at a time. Industrial pollution is another topic that is mentioned many times in passing. But, foremost, there is the keeping of cetaceans in marine amusement parks around the world. The mortality statistics of these captive animals she digs up are astonishing, and her first-hand observations in several parks of the many lethargic animals are saddening. The darker underbelly of this is the trade in captured dolphins that supplies these parks in the first place. She meets Flipper’s former trainer Ric O’Barry, now an ardent activist, and travels to the Japanese seaside town of Taiji. Every year, bloody drive-hunts take place here, made known to the wider public in the documentary The Cove. She also risks life and limb visiting the Solomon Islands, where locals still use dolphin teeth as a currency, and which got to play its own murderous role in this story when an arrangement between locals and non-profit organisation Earth Island to stop killing dolphins in return for financial support in community development backfired. As money disappeared down the black holes of corruption, villagers avenged themselves by slaughtering hundreds of dolphins. In 2002, Canadian marine mammal trainer Christopher Porter stepped into this mix, offering locals cash for their help in capturing dolphins. Casey later also gets to interview him, which makes for revealing reading.

Ultimately, this book is a good entry point if you are new to dolphin literature. A vantage point from which to read deeper into a topic that interests you – given the breadth of topics covered many things are not covered in-depth. The book’s strongest trump for me is the reporting on captive cetaceans in marine parks, and the trade that supplies them. The selection of scientists covered is somewhat haphazard, and I feel other important voices could have been added, perhaps at the expense of some other chapters. I enjoyed Casey’s writing though, and the book is hard to put down once you start it.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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