Thursday Reads “The Dolphin Who Loved Me”

dolphin sex

Good Morning!!


Dolphin sexuality has been in the news for the past week or two, because of the release of a new BBC documentary, The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins. It’s a fascinating story of 1960s intellectual icons Gregory Bateson and John Lilly and their research on dolphins. From The Independent UK review:

During the 1960s, Lilly and his collaborators used funding from Nasa to create “Dolphin House” in the American Virgin Islands, essentially a flooded beach-side villa where the young research assistant Margaret Howe Lovatt lived side by side, six days a week, with a dolphin called Peter. Archive stills showed the glamorous Lovatt at work, looking like Audrey Hepburn in a swimsuit advert. Unfortunately, these charming photographs seem to have been of much more lasting value than the scientific research she conducted.

This was a very Sixties tale, involving sexual liberation, space exploration and injecting dolphins with LSD…

But of course what the media fixated on was that Lovatt described a sexual relationship with Peter the dolphin. She said he was young and coming of age and had so many sexual urges that she relieved them manually. She said it wasn’t sexual for her; she just didn’t want distractions from her primary work. You’ve probably seen the lascivious stories floating around the internet. The same thing happened back in the ’60s after Hustler Magazine got a-hold of the sexual sidelight of the research.

I found the story interesting in light of the personalities involved–even Carl Sagan weighed in at one point! The best article to read on the documentary and the classic study is at The Guardian UK: The dolphin who loved me: the Nasa-funded project that went wrong. It’s a very long article; I’ll give you a few excerpts.

Margaret Lovatt at the Dolphin House on St. Thomas

Margaret Lovatt at the Dolphin House on St. Thomas

Lovett had been interested in communicating with animals since early childhood. She was living on St. Thomas in the Caribbean. In 1963 she heard about a laboratory that was doing research on dolphins. She found the place and introduced herself to Gregory Bateson, who took a shine to her and invited her to come back anytime. She did and eventually she went to work with John Lilly and his three dolphins.

“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!'”

Lovett thought that if she lived alone with a dolphin, she might be able to learn to communicate with it, and Lilly went along with her idea.

Lovatt selected the young male dolphin called Peter for her live-in experiment. “I chose to work with Peter because he had not had any human-like sound training and the other two had,” she explains. Lovatt would attempt to live in isolation with him six days a week, sleeping on a makeshift bed on the elevator platform in the middle of the room and doing her paperwork on a desk suspended from the ceiling and hanging over the water. On the seventh day Peter would return to the sea pool downstairs to spend time with the two female dolphins at the lab – Pamela and Sissy.

By the summer of 1965, Lovatt’s domestic dolphinarium was ready for use. Lying in bed, surrounded by water that first night and listening to the pumps gurgling away, she remembers questioning what she was doing. “Human people were out there having dinner or whatever and here I am. There’s moonlight reflecting on the water, this fin and this bright eye looking at you and I thought: ‘Wow, why am I here?’ But then you get back into it and it never occurred to me not to do it. What I was doing there was trying to find out what Peter was doing there and what we could do together. That was the whole point and nobody had done that.”

Audio recordings of Lovatt’s progress, meticulously archived on quarter-inch tapes at the time, capture the energy that Lovatt brought to the experiment – doggedly documenting Peter’s progress with her twice-daily lessons and repeatedly encouraging him to greet her with the phrase ‘Hello Margaret’. “‘M’ was very difficult,” she remembers. “My name. Hello ‘M’argaret. I worked on the ‘M’ sound and he eventually rolled over to bubble it through the water. That ‘M’, he worked on so hard.”

For Lovatt, though, it often wasn’t these formal speech lessons that were the most productive. It was just being together which taught her the most about what made Peter tick. “When we had nothing to do was when we did the most,” she reflects. “He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.”

John Lilly with dolphin

John Lilly with dolphin

Lovatt was serious about her work, but ultimately Lilly’s obsession with LSD experimentation sidetracked the project.

Lilly had been researching the mind-altering powers of the drug LSD since the early 1960s. The wife of Ivan Tors, the producer of the dolphin movie Flipper, had first introduced him to it at a party in Hollywood. “John and Ivan Tors were really good friends,” says Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project (an organisation that aims to stop dolphin slaughter and exploitation around the world) and a friend of Lilly’s at the time. “Ivan was financing some of the work on St Thomas. I saw John go from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy,” he remembers….

In the 1960s a small selection of neuroscientists like John Lilly were licensed to research LSD by the American government, convinced that the drug had medicinal qualities that could be used to treat mental-health patients. As part of this research, the drug was sometimes injected into animals and Lilly had been using it on his dolphins since 1964, curious about the effect it would have on them.

The drug had zero effect on the dophins, because drugs affect different species in different ways; but Lilly insisted on continuing the injections anyway. Lovatt was totally against it, but she wasn’t the one in charge. (In an interesting sidenote, Lilly was turned on to LSD by the director of the movie Flipper.) Eventually Bateson resigned over it and NASA cut Lilly’s funding. Sadly, the dophins were sent to cramped lab in Miami, where the dolphins didn’t get enough sunlight and exercise.

“I got that phone call from John Lilly,” she recalls. “John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide.”

Ric O’Barry corroborates the use of this word. “Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers like we are,” he explains. “Every breath is a conscious effort. If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and they sink to the bottom. They don’t take the next breath.” Andy Williamson puts Peter’s death down to a broken heart, brought on by a separation from Lovatt that he didn’t understand. “Margaret could rationalise it, but when she left, could Peter? Here’s the love of his life gone.”

“I wasn’t terribly unhappy about it,” explains Lovatt, 50 years on. “I was more unhappy about him being in those conditions [at the Miami lab] than not being at all. Nobody was going to bother Peter, he wasn’t going to hurt, he wasn’t going to be unhappy, he was just gone. And that was OK. Odd, but that’s how it was.”

Lilly’s ideas about dolphin communication most likely inspired the book and movie The Day of the Dolphin. The movie starred George C. Scott and was directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay was by Buck Henry.

A couple of reactions to this story:

The New York Daily News reports on a man who claims to have had sex with a female dolphin: ‘Wet Goddess’ author shares details of his 6-month sexual relationship with Dolly the dolphin.

Another self-confessed dolphin lover claims he had a six-month consensual affair with one of the sleek marine animals — and insists it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Malcolm Brenner, 63, shared his story with British newspaperThe Mirror in the wake of a BBC documentary that featured Margaret Howe Lovatt, an animal researcher who said she had sex with a dolphin in the 1960s as part of a NASA-funded study.

Brenner, a writer who also admits to having prior sexual experiences with a dog, said he fell in love with Dolly the dolphin in a Florida amusement park in 1971.

Dolly “came on to him,” he told The Mirror — and he was heartbroken when she died about nine months after they met.

The two had their interspecies intercourse after conspiring to elude the male dolphin that shared Dolly’s pool, Brenner said.

Margaret Lovatt today

Margaret Lovatt today

Salon: Human-on-dolphin sex is not really that weird. Author Tracy Clark-Flory writes that Lovatt’s behavior with Peter wasn’t unique in science:

Judging from the collective horrified response, you would think that a human giving a handy to an animal was an aberrant, unthinkable act. But such fondling isn’t unheard of in the realm of animal research.

There are two major published examples. The first: In 1970, anthropologist Francis Burton published “Sexual Climax in female Macaca mulatta.” She wanted to answer the question of whether female monkeys experienced orgasm. Burton placed the primates in dog harnesses and cat collars to restrict their movement. Then the researcher put a “penis-simulator” into “the animal’s vagina with vaseline as lubricant,” and moved it at a pace of two to five thrusts a second. Burton wasn’t able to definitively conclude that female monkeys could orgasm, but she did identify an excitement, plateau and resolution phase, as Masters and Johnson had identified in humans.

“I think in the field it is generally thought that a similar study would never get through an institutional animal use and care committee,” says Kim Wallen, a psychology professor at Emory University who specializes in primate sexual behavior.

The second case is that of psychologist Frank Beach and his research on beagles in the ’80s. “Most of the work he did was behavioral, looking at the effects of prenatal androgens on sexual differentiation, but some of his treated animals were unable to copulate and he wanted to know if they showed normal genital reflexes, even though they did not copulate,” says Wallen. So, he masturbated the dogs and observed their responses.

Clark-Flory notes that it is common for researchers to sexually stimulate animals to “collect semen for breeding purposes.” I just hope Rick Santorum doesn’t find out about this.

I hope I haven’t bored you silly with this post. I don’t know what got into me today; I just couldn’t write about news of politics or war. It’s either writer’s block or I’m just plain sick of news and politics today. I’ll add a few news links in the comments, and I hope you’ll do the same. Have a great Thursday!!