Susan Casey hadn’t given that much thought to dolphins when she went for a swim off the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Maui one afternoon in July 2010. In fact, she was more worried about sharks. The weather was bad – low clouds and a stormy sea – and there had been a recent spate of shark attacks in the area. It was dusk and no one else was in the water.
But Casey was drawn to the shoreline. She was flying back to her life as a magazine editor in New York city the following day and this was the last chance she would have to kick out against the waves.
There was another reason she chose to swim in such perilous conditions. Two years previously, her father, Ron, had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 70. Casey had struggled with the shock of his death. For months, she had been feeling untethered and lost. Situations that might previously have scared her now elicited only numbness. So she put on her goggles and headed out to the water, unaware that what she was about to experience would change her life for ever.
As Casey was swimming, looking down at the seabed, she saw a shadowy body pass diagonally beneath her. Then she caught sight of a dorsal fin. From below, several more shadows appeared and soon she found herself circled by a pod of 40 to 50 spinner dolphins. It was unusual for them to approach in this way; spinner dolphins are renowned for their aerial acrobatics and they normally jump around on the water’s surface and leap through the air.
“They were sort of surrounding me,” Casey says now, drinking a green tea in a beach restaurant in Maui, a few miles down the coast from where she was swimming that day five years ago. “I just remember it was sort of amazing because they can be so fast and I wasn’t even swimming at that point so they were obviously trying to stay around me.”
There was, she recalls, “a definite sense of presence”. One of the bigger spinners approached. Casey and the dolphin looked at each other, exchanging what she describes as “a profound cross-species greeting”. She thought about the grief she was feeling at her father’s death and she wondered if it were possible the dolphins had somehow sensed this. “Did they know?” she says. “Could they tell?”
From this single interaction, Casey was inspired to spend five years writing and researching Voices in the Ocean, a fascinating book of non-fiction reportage about the haunting and extraordinary world of dolphins, published in August in the UK.
It’s not unusual for people to have such a strong reaction to swimming with dolphins. The animals have long held a visceral allure for humans. They are among the most intelligent mammals on the planet and use sophisticated internal sonar to navigate and to detect objects several miles away in a process known as echolocation. Research has shown that dolphins communicate with each other through clicks, trills and whistles. They are even thought to speak in dialect. Plus, as Casey points out in her book: “Maybe we are hard-wired to love any animal that looks like it’s always smiling.”
Whatever the reason, that encounter with the spinner dolphins changed her.
When she got back to shore, Casey says: “I felt high … I dried off, started driving away and I started thinking how incredible, beautiful they were. I was really present and really happy in this very deep way. I drove for about 20 minutes and all of a sudden, it occurred to me I’d forgotten to feel sad. It didn’t last, but something lifted in that moment that was interesting.” She pauses. “It was really interesting.”
To put this into context, it is important you know that Casey is not a New Age, touchy-feely type. She is not much given to sentimental hyperbole or gushing spiritual insights. At the time, she had one of the plummest jobs in journalism: editor of O, The Oprah Magazine which regularly shifted one million copies a month.
Before that, Casey had been the editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated Women and had a spell as creative director at Outside magazine, a highly regarded publication for literary writing about the outdoors. (During her time there, Casey commissioned the writer and mountaineer John Krakauer to write about the base camp at Mount Everest in 1996. His 17,000-word piece about a disastrous expedition during which several climbers died became a book, Into Thin Air, which has just been adapted into the blockbuster film Everest.) She is the author of two previous works of non-fiction, the New York Times bestseller, Devil’s Teeth(about sharks), and The Wave (about giant waves).
“I was happy in New York,” says Casey, “but I really did feel I had this urgent – I’m not sure I’d call it a mission – a need to connect with nature.”
Read full story: The Guardian