On a paradise island in the Caribbean, a young woman lives in a laboratory by the sea. She spends every day with a dolphin named Peter as part of an improbable bid to teach the creature how to speak. But as the pair develop a strong bond, events take a turn for the seriously bizarre.
Back in the 1960s, neuroscientist Dr. John C. Lilly was making waves in the scientific community. Having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree in 1942, Lilly subsequently became known for his off-the-wall experiments. He was interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and also researched the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain.
It was Lilly’s work with whales and dolphins, however, that would become one of the scientist’s strangest legacies. After encountering a pilot whale stranded on the beach back in 1949, he then developed a fascination with the size of the animal’s brain.
Back then, it was generally accepted by the scientific community that brain size equated to intelligence in animals. So Lilly began to wonder just how intelligent whales had the potential to be. Eventually, the scientist’s interest in cetaceans led him to Marine Studios in Miami, Florida, where bottlenose dolphins were being kept in captivity for the first time.
After studying the creatures, Lilly then began to formulate a theory that the dolphins’ noises and actions might be an attempt to communicate with humans. He subsequently published this theory in his book, Man and Dolphin, which went on to become a bestseller.
Bizarrely, Lilly’s theories attracted the attention of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, also known as NASA. At a time when mainstream science was engaged in the hunt for extraterrestrial civilizations, it was believed that Lilly’s work with dolphins could also be applied to alien life forms.
With the backing of NASA, Lilly was then able to establish his own laboratory, located on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. His aim was to further study the relationship between dolphins and humans – but even he could not have predicted the strange events that were about to unfold.
In 1964 a young woman named Margaret Howe Lovatt was living on the island. And after her brother-in-law told her about the rumors of a secret laboratory conducting experiments on the island, she decided to go and take a closer look.
Soon, Lovatt’s enthusiasm and curiosity endeared her to the scientists working at the laboratory. And although she had no formal scientific training, she was invited to participate by observing the dolphins. Surprisingly, too, she turned out to be something of a natural.
For Lilly and Lovatt, however, even their state-of-the-art laboratory wasn’t enough. Lovatt regretted having to leave the facility at night and spend time away from the dolphins. So she came to Lilly with a radical idea. What if she never left the laboratory at all?
Lovatt’s idea was to waterproof the upper stories of the building, flooding it with water to create a habitat where both human and dolphin could coexist. Lilly, a fan of radical research experiments, approved the idea, and the bizarre facility was built. Moreover, Lovatt selected Peter, a male dolphin, to join her in her new home.
So, in June 1965, Lovatt and Peter took up residence in the new facility. The entire floor was flooded with 18 inches of sea water, with a suspended bed in the center for Lovatt to sleep on. Meanwhile, a desk for completing paperwork was hung from the ceiling by ropes.
At first, Lovatt’s experiment seemed to go well. For six days a week she and Peter would live in isolation with each other. Then, on the final day of the week, the male dolphin would be allowed to spend some time with the pair of females kept at the facility. Quickly, the pair began to bond.
Lovatt’s attempts to teach Peter English, however, achieved mixed results. Apparently, he had particular trouble with the “M” sound in her name, although he eventually learned to flip over and make an underwater bubble to mimic the sound.
For Lovatt, the most important part of the experiment was spending that much time one-on-one with Peter and learning what made the dolphin tick. Soon, however, Peter’s sexual urges began to get in the way. At first, Lovatt would put the dolphin in with the females whenever he displayed arousal, but she began to resent the disruption to their experiment.
Ultimately, Lovatt decided that the best course of action was to provide manual relief for the dolphin’s sexual urges. Yet although these extreme measures led to the experiments subsequently being sensationalized in the press, Lovatt claimed that the decision was entirely practical, rather than sexual.
Surprisingly, however, it was Lilly’s obsession with psychedelic drugs – rather than Lovatt’s antics – that would lead to the end of the experiment. After Lilly began injecting the dolphins with LSD, the project’s director walked out and the funding was cut. After nearly six months spent living in isolation, then, Lovatt and Peter were forced apart.
Tragically, the story did not have a happy ending – for Peter, at least. Separated from the woman he had grown so attached to, he committed suicide shortly after his transfer to a facility in Miami. According to experts, dolphins are indeed capable of taking their own lives – and they are reported to have done so on several occasions.
Lovatt, at least, had a happier ending: she went on to marry the photographer who had documented her experiment with Peter. Lilly, meanwhile, soon abandoned his work with dolphins to focus on his experiments with psychedelic drugs.
Despite its somewhat strange undertones, Lovatt’s time with Peter continues to inspire others to work with dolphins. Today, though, research tends to focus on understanding dolphins’ own language rather than teaching them to speak our own. And with experiments continuing to this day, perhaps Lilly and Lovatt’s real legacy is yet to be revealed.