The discreet title of Tuesday night’s groundbreaking documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (BBC Four) spoke volumes about the programme.
How narrowly did the film avoid being called something like “The Girl Paid by NASA to have Sex with a Dolphin”? Or “The Mad Scientist Who Gave Dolphins LSD”?
Dealing with the indisputably bizarre experiments that took place in the mid-Sixties in a Carribbean research facility known as Dolphin Point Laboratory, it has been standard practice for reporting to take the raciest possible line. Who, after all, can resist a cocktail as sensational as sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ dolphins?
Yet the anti-sensationalist approach of Christopher Riley’s superb documentary was its trump card, securing – for the first time ever – interviews with the main protagonists from Dolphin Point. The story he laid out with fresh material was moving and complex: a tale of Sixties idealism gone sour.
Dolphin Point was the brainchild of a maverick scientist, Dr John Lilly, who noticed that the dolphins he was studying tried to mimic the sound of his voice. Armed with the thesis that dolphins could be taught to speak English, he persuaded NASA to fund him – if a terrestrial species could learn human speech, he argued, there were clear implications for extraterrestrials.
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A futuristic white structure (now symbolically in ruins) was built out from the island’s shore onto the Carribean Sea; inside, the rooms were flooded so that Peter, the chosen dolphin, could live in immersive isolation with his language tutor, a young and gifted college dropout named Margaret Howe.
Painstaking months were devoted to his lessons: she painted her face white and her lips black so that he could better see the movements of her mouth; at night, he slept in the water beside her suspended bed in the flooded house.
Even had a sexual element not emerged, the mutual devotedness of Margaret and the dolphin would count as one of history’s most curious romances. An unlikely domestic bliss, with Peter cooing in response to her gentle chatting, emerges from the wealth of original sound recordings used in the documentary and laid over photographs or reconstructedteam’s veterinarian immediately noticed: “This dolphin was, well, madly in love with her.”
Yet Peter began to court Margaret more aggressively. At first, she defrayed the tension by sending him out to the wider facility to swim with the other dolphins; later, however, his advances became so frequent that, for convenience’s sake, she decided to administer relief herself. In her words: “It was sexual on his part but not on mine; sensuous, perhaps.”
Since these details – trivial, in Margaret’s bemused view – broke in Hustler Magazine a decade after the experiment was shut down, the ensuing scandal overtook any sense of what the experiment aimed to achieve. At the time, however, what had brought down Dolphin Point was not sex but drugs.
Dr Lilly had become immersed in LSD, his self-administered experiments shading into a permanently hippyish mode of life. Desperate that NASA should maintain funding (their test dolphin had made progress with English mimicry but NASA’s visiting astronomer was insufficiently impressed), Lilly injected his other dolphins with 2cc of LSD in the hope that it would open their minds to the human world around them. It didn’t; but his research team, once drawn by his charisma, now deserted his narcotic eccentricities.
Margaret was parted from Peter. “Well, we couldn’t elope into the sea, could we?” Peter, sent to a more squalid facility in Miami – a tank that was cramped, malodorous, lightless and, above all, loveless – voluntarily quit breathing one year later. In anthropomorphic terms, he committed suicide.
Among the many insights of this exquisite, intelligent film is how perfectly “of its time” Dolphin Point was: its gleaming white lines; its daring methods; its otherworldly ambitions; the LSD-fuelled downfall.
This point, underlined by an optimistic Sixties soundtrack, was driven home when a shining-eyed Margaret was played the 50-year-old recordings of her lessons: “Nice vibe, Peter,” she is telling him. Kazoo-like, he tries to squeak it back: “Nice vibe.” A very dated talking dolphin.
Source: The Telegraph