(This is an article I wrote for Future Life #2, May 1978, and illustrated with my own photos. I’ll get them posted here when I can find them. Meanwhile, it’s surprising how little has changed in the dolphin world.)
THE WET ALIENS
By MALCOLM BRENNER
Suppose you are tuning your radio, hunting for your favorite music, when the following blood-curdling announcement comes on: “NEWS FLASH: Scientists report the Earth is about to be invaded by extraterrestrial aliens. The invaders range in length from six to thirty feet, and their brains, much larger than ours, suggest a fantastic degree of intellectual development. They are so strong they can leap twenty feet into the air or travel two hundred and fifty miles a day for days at a time without sleep! Their jaws are filled with needle-sharp teeth, and their tails can break bones with a single blow. Furthermore, these aliens possess an unusual ‘sixth sense’ which enables them to look into our internal organs, uncovering our hidden strengths and weaknesses! Their cryptic language, undeciphered by scientists, allows them to communicate ten times faster than we do. They can hear the sound of a single drop of rain falling fifty feet away! And latest reports indicate they possess highly developed psychic abilities which allow them to read our minds and second-guess our thoughts. Prepare yourself!”
“What is this?” you might wonder. “Another War of the Worlds prank? Should I get a gun; clean out the old fallout shelter? Or should I pray?” But wait! Before you can stir, the announcer’s back on the air.
“NEWS FLASH: More on those alien invaders. Scientists report that they are not warlike, but peaceful! Their astounding powers are used only for gathering food and for protection against their enemies. Despite their great strength, they are helpless under Earth ’s gravity and can exist only in a weightless environment. Our air is corrosive to their skin and will kill them in twenty-four hours unless they are constantly bathed in fluids from their home world. Their huge brains have produced no form of technology, and many scientists believe them to be no smarter than dogs. They lack clothes, shelter, and even the most rudimentary tools. They have rescued humans from mortal danger, on occasion, and they have built-in smiles! Congress has imposed fines up to $20,000 and jail penalties up to one year for killing or injuring them; but scientists studying the aliens report several thousand are being held captive around the world, and despite government protection more than ﬁfry thousand of them may be killed next year — accidentally!”
By now you’d know it was a hoax — but you’d be wrong! These aliens are not the dream of a science-fiction writer, nor the creation of some Hollywood special-effects department. They are real. They have existed on Earth for over thirty million years, their form unchanged, their roots going back before the beginning of human evolution. We call them dolphins.
All of the above statements about dolphins are true, including those that seem contradictory — depending on whom you choose to believe. They reflect the current scientific confusion about dolphins, but it’s nothing new. Throughout history, dolphins have either been worshipped as demigods, or devoured as delicacies, with no middle ground. Prehistoric Norwegian hunters carved them on the walls of caves. The author of the biblical Book of Job held a creature called Leviathan in high esteem; we now call the same creature orca, or killer whale, an overgrown dolphin with an overblown reputation for ferocity. The Nabataeans, a pre-Christian race of Bedouin merchants, were so fond of dolphins they carved them into the statutes of their gods, posing a riddle to the archaeologists who discovered their crumbled temples — in the middle of the Negev desert! The Greeks were infatuated with them; killing a dolphin, the sacred beast of Sun-God Apollo, was an unforgivable sin. Greek authors told stories of their friendliness which were considered fantasy until well into the 20th century.
Pliny the Elder, a Greek naturalist, is credited with discovering that they are not fish but warm-blooded, air-breathing mammals, like ourselves. The Romans and Polynesians ate them, but the Chinese and Vietnamese held them to be divine. The truth about dolphins is no less astounding than the many myths surrounding them, but until the 1950s almost nothing was known about them. Dolphins had been kept in oceanariums since the early 1900s, but not until World War II and the development of underwater microphones was their astonishing sense of echolocation (or “sonar,” to use a military term) discovered.
Like bats, dolphins emit high-pitched clicks, which sound like a door with rusty hinges. Originating in the larynx and in nasal sacks below the blowhole (nostrils), these clicks are reﬂacted off the dolphin’s concave skull and through an oil-filled ‘acoustic lens’ in its domed forehead. By varying the shape of this lens, the dolphin can spread a wide beam of sound for miles under the sea, or focus it with laser like intensity to nearby objects. The “sonar” pulses are ultrasonic to humans, but the dolphins hear their echoes bouncing off objects. By listening carefully, a dolphin can determine the size, distance, and shape of an object; what it is made of; whether it is alive or nonliving; whether it is approaching or retreating, and how fast; whether it is hollow or solid, textured or smooth — everything but its color! Since animal ﬂash is 75% saltwater, dolphins can “X-ray” each other — or humans – with harmless beams of sound. A dolphin’s enormous and complex brain enables it to process all this information instantly. The brain of a bottlenose dolphin — the species seen in oceanariums and on TV — is about 10% larger than a human brain, and appears to be superior to ours as a thinking machine. It has more folds on the neocortex, where rational thought originates, and the density of its neurons is greater. The only animals with larger brains are elephants and some whales, the dolphins’ distant cousins. Some scientists believe the extra brain matter is occupied with controlling the dolphin’s large bodies, or analyzing their complex echolocation. But whale sharks and dinosaurs possessed huge bodies and very small brains, and bats are able to use their “sonar” with brains that fit on a dime!So these theories do not wash.
Given this fantastic biological computer, you might think scientists would have long ago recognized the dolphin as a creature of unique intelligence. Not so! Dolphins lack hands and, being self- sufficient, have no need for human technology. Their oceanic lifestyle makes them difficult to observe. Not until 1955 did anyone wonder what the dolphins might be doing with all those brains, aside from chasing fish. In that year Dr. John C. Lilly, a young psychiatrist and neurophysiologist, was conducting sensory-isolation experiments for the Air Force to determine what would happen if an astronaut were cut off from contact with Earth. Lilly simulated weightless outer space by immersing himself in a tank of warm sea- water. Breathing through a facemask, isolated from all sensory inputs, Lilly experienced incredible hallucinations and proved that the brain can generate its own ghostly form of reality from within. He also began to wonder what the mind of a creature living under such conditions would be like. He conducted a series of experiments on the dolphins at Marineland near St. Augustine, Florida. While anesthetizing them to implant electrodes he made his first startling discovery — when a dolphin loses consciousness, it stops breathing! Unlike other animals, each breath for a dolphin requires an act of will. His first few experiments proved fatal to his subjects and angered the Marineland staff, some of whom have not yet forgiven him. After developing more humane techniques, he was able to “map” the dolphin’s brains and determine which areas controlled what behavior.
During these experiments, Lilly noticed that the dolphins in his laboratory behaved more like curious humans than white rats or rhesus monkeys. They second-guessed his experiments and tried to imitate the voices of his assistants! Fascinated, Lilly ended his brain research and began studying the dolphin’s sound emissions. He found they produce complex trains of whistles and squawks with which they communicate. In 1961, convinced of the existence of a dolphin “language,” Lilly received a NASA grant on the ground that his research might help us better understand communications from other planets — when we receive them.
He quickly encountered hostility from other scientists. Like early UFO investigators, Lilly found himself up against a wall of mockery and prejudice. His recordings of dolphins mimicking human speech were not convincing to untrained ears. His remarks were sensationalized by a press more eager for headlines than the plodding methodology of science. His stories of “intelligent” behavior were laughed at by cetologists familiar only with robotized oceanarium dolphins. Even the basic premise of his research was challenged; any idiot could see that human beings were the most intelligent creatures on earth — otherwise the dolphins would be keeping us captive!
Undaunted, challenged by the alien mind of the dolphin, Lilly began a series of experiments on his own mind, using sensory isolation and the then-legal drug LSD. Tripping among his dolphins, he realized that, if he was right, keeping them captive was not just an insult; it changed them, in the same way involuntary imprisonment changes a free man into a slave. The dolphins locked in his lab were not the same creatures as those roaming the wild seas; they were products of his experimental parameters.
“I felt,” he has since admitted, “like I was running a concentration camp for dolphins.”
As he considered closing the lab and setting his subjects free they began to die mysteriously, starving or drowning themselves. In 1967 he released the survivors, ending his research. Lilly remains much-hated among professional cetologists, partly for his “unscientific” theories, partly for his early brain-probings, and partly for his drug experiments, which nearly cost him his life on two occasions. If he were the only person to report such experiences with dolphins one might well doubt him, but a small number of scientists and laymen, fascinated by the idea of an Earthly non-human intelligence, began their own investigations. Some supported Lilly’s theories; others sought to disprove them. Still others wavered.
This is typical of the problems scientists encounter when they attempt to measure the dolphin’s intelligence. Its sense and thought processes are so different from ours that it’s hard to develop a meaningful test! But there are still profound mysteries surrounding them. For almost every fact postulated by a respected dolphin researcher, an equally illustrious scientist can be found to contradict it!
For example, Lilly claims that dolphins can produce a “distress whistle” when in danger or pain. This call, described by him as a whistle of rising, then falling pitch (like an inverted V) brings other dolphins to the rescue. Rene-Guy Busnel, a French cetologist who works with Jacques Cousteau, agrees about the “distress whistle” but insists it’s exactly the opposite — falling, then rising in pitch (like an upright V)! The Caldwells, equally respected, maintain there is no such thing as a distress whistle. According to them, dolphins have only one whistle apiece, which they repeat over and over to tell other dolphins “here I am,” like Kurt Vonnegut’s mythical Mercurian harmoniums.
Are you sufficiently confused?
One person who shares Lilly’s views is Ric O’Barry, formerly a trainer for Ivan Tors’ Flipper TV series. After working with dolphins for years, O’Barry concluded that the dolphins were not only smarter than he was – they were sometimes able to read his mind, learning complicated tricks faster than seemed possible. He now devotes his time to saving the whales and dolphins from extinction.
Another believer is Michael Greenwood, formerly dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and CIA. Greenwood became interested in marine mammals during the Navy’s Sea Lab program. Dolphins can dive to 600 feet and return in three minutes without being crushed by the pressure, equal to 200 atmospheres, or dying from the bends. Having gained some experience training sea lions, Greenwood was asked to take over a top-secret dolphin project in the Florida Keys. The mission, under a conservationist cover story, was to train dolphins to run intelligence missions against communist Cuba, planting instruments on atom-powered Soviet warships which would transmit data on the size and power of their nuclear reactor. The CIA and Navy factions on the project were warring with each other; the electronic equipment malfunctioned; and the dolphins were poorly trained! Greenwood became convinced it was immoral to train such intelligent and friendly creatures for warlike ends. He, too, came to believe they could telepathically read his mind. He now fears they are facing a slaughter by the world’s naval powers, who are unable to tell an innocent dolphin from one trained for espionage.
But the dolphins are already facing a wipeout. For the past fifteen years, tuna fishermen have been killing hundreds of thousands in the huge purse-seine nets used to trap yellowfin tuna, which are packaged for sale as “chunk light.” The dolphins and tuna stick together — no one knows why — and when the fish are netted the dolphins panic. Their “sonar” beams pass uselessly through the net’s mesh, and in their confusion they may become tangled and drown, or, worse yet, be dragged on board and crushed in the machinery. In 1971, an estimated 320,000 were killed. Since then the numbers have been dropping, thanks to new types of nets, new catching techniques, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which sets yearly quotas on the number killed. But the battle isn’t won: the tuna fishermen, chafing under what they feel are unfair restrictions, talk of taking their boats to nations without quotas.
Dolphin ESP is a highly puzzling issue, one that is infrequently discussed. Studies on humans show that, contrary to most science fiction, strong emotions, rather than powerful intellect, are responsible for telepathy, and this also seems true in human-dolphin mental contacts. People who see dolphins as highly intelligent are more open to psychic contacts than those who regard them as big fish; familiarity with dolphin ways also increases the likelihood of interspecies ESP. People who have had psychic experiences with dolphins find them difficult to describe.
Don’t rush down to your local oceanarium expecting to pick up dolphin brainwaves, however. While you might, it is highly unlikely, unless you’re exceptionally psychic. As Dr. Lilly discovered, captive dolphins are a different breed from their wild counterparts. While some thrive in captivity, many more have died from it, and the survivors frequently display spirits broken by the rigorous behavior-modification techniques used to produce oceanarium shows. Conditions vary greatly from one establishment another: some take great pride in maintaining healthy, happy specimens, while in others the death rate is staggering. Stories of trainers mistreating their dolphins out of malice or ignorance are confined to backroom discussions, where the public can’t overhear.
Sometimes the dolphins bear mistreatment stoically; sometimes they retaliate! Some dolphins have been kept for years in lagoons with nothing more than a line of ﬂoats keeping them in; others have ripped steel fences apart to escape! It’s impossible to generalize about dolphins for the same reason it’s impossible to generalize about humans: no two are alike. But there is no doubt that the “happy dolphin” image perpetuated by oceanariums and the media is a lie.
The Flipper series shows them as happy-go-lucky types, fawning all over their human masters, Kenny and Bud. The movie The Day of the Dolphin, while somewhat more realistic, still showed dolphins as being childlike, naive, and gullible. Trainers know better: dolphins can be sweet, even sexy, but they can also be deceptive, arrogant, and demonically cunning. The recent movie Orca, the Killer Whale did little to change the image of the most maligned creature since the snake. Although the orca saves the heroine, Rachel Bedford (a sympathetic biologist played by Charlotte Rampling) from a shark at the beginning, and spares her life at the end, in between these chivalrous deeds it devours Jack Campbell’s (Richard Harris’) crew, sinks a fishing fleet, sets a town on fire, and rips a woman’s leg off! Dino De Laurentiis would be well advised to restrict his swimming to pools from now on.
Paul Spong, a Canadian biologist who has studied orcas for the past six years, knows better. When a group of orcas swim by his research station in Alert Bay, Spong may hop into a one-man kayak and paddle out to meet the “deadly” killer whales. When he plays his ﬂute to them, the whales stop roaming and listen raptly. If we stop to think about it, aren’t humans the real monsters? Orcas are captured for oceanariums with concussion grenades, and catchers show no qualms about breaking up pods that may have existed for centuries.
The future holds greater promise for interspecies communications. While the scientific community wrangles, several groups are planning to decipher the dolphins’ language. The Dolphin Embassy Project, based in Australia, is headed by Doug Michaels, of San Francisco. This group is building a ferroconcrete “ﬂoating embassy,” loaded with electronics, which will function as a meeting place where humans can observe and interact with wild dolphins along the Great Barrier Reef. Plans call for the expedition to begin in April, 1978.
Members of the Canadian Greenpeace Project have, for the last several years, been literally laying their lives on the line to save the great whales. Using rubber Zodiac boats operating from a converted fishing vessel, Greenpeacers have been harassing Soviet and Japanese whaling fleets in the North Pacific, gathering evidence of illegal undersized kills and producing a documentary film. On two occasions Russian whalers have fired harpoons at whales the group was guarding, narrowly missing the humans!
Dr. Lilly, too, is returning to the dolphins with a new plan. He is programming a sophisticated computer to act as a human-dolphin translator, linked by radio to communications equipment in a sailboat. Lilly hopes that, by working with wild dolphins, he will both avoid the problems that plagued his earlier work, and vindicate his theories.
If any of these groups are successful, the benefits to humanity could be endless. We will have established communication with minds perhaps greater than our own; we will receive an outside view of ourselves from creatures who watched us evolve. The dolphins and whales could help us control ocean pollution and aid in the search for undersea energy sources. They might be able to shed some light on the persistent myth of Atlantis. And who knows? By the time we encounter real aliens from outer space, we humans might be able to say “Hello!” to them in their own language — with the smiling dolphins by our sides.
The Greeting, © 1970, 2010 Eyes Open Media.