Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dolphin Book Review: Voices In The Ocean by Susan Casey

What exactly is it about dolphins?

Why do we find them so intriguing? They charm us with their smiles and acrobatics. For millennia we've told stories of dolphins rescuing humans, we've used their images as decorations, and we've yearned to understand their language. We've believed we have a special friendship, a spiritual bond. There are even those who think dolphins are alien spirits sent to teach us.
Why is that?

And how is it possible that in a spectacular case of cognitive dissonance we, at the exact same time, terrorize and slaughter dolphins, eat them, kidnap their babies, and imprison them appalling conditions?

Voices In The Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins  is Susan Casey's search for an answer to these questions. If you love dolphins (and who doesn't?) this book is a must-read.

Researching across the globe, Casey snorkels in Hawaii with a New Age dolphin guru and describes being "sonared" by spotted dolphins. She interviews experts ranging from Ric O'Barry to the "Darth Vader of Dolphins". Susan Casey has  big journalistic chops, used here brilliantly. 

Casey's portraits of dolphin societies include the scientists who study them. She describes the researchers' fascination with the mysteries that astound and perplex them at every turn. She glides through the history of modern scientific research on dolphins, including the most mystical of all, John Lilly and his quixotic quest to teach dolphins to speak with us. (There's some serious woo-woo there - at one point Lilly used LSD and sensory deprivation tanks. Simultaneously.) Though discredited, his work laid the foundation (and more rigorous standards) for modern studies.

This is the "good" side of human-dolphin interactions. Casey doesn't shy away from the bad and the ugly though.  She visits the infamous cove at Taiji, Japan and the dolphin-killing villages of the Solomon Islands. She speaks with people involved with the captive dolphin trade, and those who protest dolphin captivity for entertainment (SeaWorld is the most familiar example; orcas are the largest dolphins). 

Lolita the Orca
I'm not going to lie to you, those three chapters are tough to read. It helps that Casey is mostly unemotional in her reporting. She doesn't sensationalize or have hysterics. She doesn't need to. The facts and witness accounts make plenty of impact on their own. Be bold and carry on  - without the darkness you can't truly appreciate the light shining in the last part of the book. 

Casey believes that a paradigm shift is occurring in our relations with cetaceans. She cites global outcry after the documentaries "The Cove" and "Blackfish" were released.  So-called "Darth Vader" had a change of heart and business model, from mercenary dolphin captor to promoting his virtual-reality dolphin interactions to keep dolphins free. The courts denied the Georgia Aquarium's bid to acquire 18 new beluga whales.   SeaWorld pledged to end its orca shows - and just  pledged to stop breeding orcas. Even the U.S. Navy has been called on (and successfully sued) to limit using a sonar that leads to mass strandings.

 Casey takes us along to the ancient Minoan society on the island of Thera, where thousands of years ago people used images of dolphins as talismans or icons all over their buildings and artifacts. Perhaps we are rediscovering what ancient people knew: that dolphins, intelligent for millions of years before apes evolved, are one of the only animals in this world with a kinship with us in our societies, body and vocal language, playfulness, and creativity.

I myself have moved from total ignorance of how dolphins end up in dolphin shows, which I once loved. A few years ago we visited the Georgia Aquarium, where I watched what would be my last dolphin show. Later we watched the belugas stereotypically circling their swimming pool. One had abrasions where it bumped the wall on every pass. I was saddened by their boredom and the poverty of their prison. A few months later I watched "Blackfish" and it blew my mind. I started reading more about cetaceans in captivity. 

A recent dialogue about a future vacation to Roatan sums up my own change of heart. My husband wanted to visit a new resort. When I learned that they kept dolphins for shows and guest swims, I explained that I could never support that with our tourist dollars. Guess where we won't be staying?

Back to Voices In The Ocean - a wonderful book! You'll be entertained, educated, and entranced. Casey's writing is a kind of sorcery. She and the dolphins will work their magic as you read this book, and by the end you'll love and respect them more than ever before.

Feel like seeing what else people are doing to help whales and dolphins? Try these links:

Eva Saves The Whales

Petition SeaWorld: Stop Breeding Dolphins

Lolita's Hope - BRING ME HOME

U. S. to Ban Captivity of Some Beluga Whales (article)


  1. there is a totally brilliant tv series on PBS - called dolphins - learnt so much that I didn't know - like they sleep with half their brain at a time - the other half stays awake so they can breath and keep a watch for predators.

    1. That sounds amazing! I'll keep an eye open for it. Wish we could sleep with half a brain at a time - I'd get a lot more done :)

  2. Oh I do so love a smiling dolphin. While on a cruise in Alaska in 2005 we had Dall Porpoises
    swimming by us often. Adorable and to see them in their environment was amazing. We were there too early to see the Orcas.
    Wonderful post and thank you for the book info.

    Tell Toby as soon as madi figures out how to teleport Carrots she'll send him ours.

    1. Lucky you to go on a cruise like that! I've heard its incredibly beautiful there.

  3. What a wonderful book, I'll put in in cue for Kindle reading.

    We have avoided "diving with captive dolphins" while in Roatan. We did enjoy our diving experience at Coco View though, and would recommend them highly if your main goal while in Roatan is diving.

    1. We love Coco View! They are wonderful for scuba, the best dive masters we've found anywhere. I was referring to another resort there. It's so cool that you're a diver too! We love Buddy Dive in Bonaire, have you been there?

  4. it looks great I swam with captive dolphings years ago and now i regret it even though I wanted to see the dolphins close up it was gift from my mother in law for our honeymoon 15 years ago. they deserve to be in the wild

    1. We didn't know better then :( but it's never too late to learn and do better. Susan Casey got to swim with wild dolphins out in the open sea, where the dolphins choose whether they want to be around you or not. Sounds like it would be an amazing experience.

  5. Dolphins are cool, loved seeing them when I went to Florida.


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