When a young Carl Sagan visited St. Thomas’ Dolphin Point laboratory in 1964, he likely didn’t realize how controversial the setting would become.
Sagan belonged to a secretive group called “The Order of the Dolphin” — which, despite its name, focused on searching for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Also in the group was the eccentric neuroscientist, Dr. John Lilly. His 1961 quasi-sci-fi book Man and Dolphin highlighted the theory that dolphins wanted to (and likely could) communicate with humans. Lilly’s writings sparked a scientific interest in interspecies communication, and that set in motion an experiment that went a bit… awry.
Astronomer Frank Drake headed the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. He’d spearheaded Project Ozma, the search for extraterrestrial life through radio waves emitted from other planets.
Upon reading Lilly’s book, Drake excitedly drew parallels between his own work and Lilly’s. Drake helped the doctor secure funding from NASA and other government entities in order to realize his vision: a communicative bridge between human and dolphin.
Lilly then built a laboratory housing a workspace on the upper level and a dolphin enclosure on the bottom. Tucked away on the picturesque shore of the Caribbean, he called the alabaster building Dolphin Point.
When 23-year-old local Margaret Howe Lovatt realized that the lab existed, she drove there out of sheer curiosity. She fondly remembered stories from her youth where talking animals were some of her favorite characters. She’d hoped to somehow witness the breakthrough that could see those stories become reality.
Arriving at the lab, Lovatt encountered its director, Gregory Bateson, a famous anthropologist in his own right. When Bateson inquired as to Lovatt’s presence, she replied, “Well, I heard you had dolphins … and I thought I’d come and see if there was anything I could do.”
Bateson allowed Lovatt to watch the dolphins. Perhaps wanting to make her feel useful, he asked her to take notes while observing them. Both he and Lilly realized her intuitiveness, despite any lack of training and offered her an open invitation to the lab.
Soon Lovatt’s dedication to Lilly’s project intensified. She worked diligently with the dolphins, named Pamela, Sissy, and Peter. Through daily lessons, she encouraged them to create human-esque sounds.
But the process was becoming tedious, with little indication of progress. Lovatt hated leaving in the evenings and still feeling that there was much work left to do. So she convinced Lilly to let her live in the lab, waterproofing the upper rooms and flooding them with a couple feet of water. This way, human and dolphin could occupy the same space.
Lovatt chose Peter for the revamped, immersive language experiment. They co-existed in the lab six days of the week, and on the seventh day, Peter spent time in the enclosure with Pamela and Sissy.
Through all Peter’s speech lessons and voice training, Lovatt learned that “when we had nothing to do was when we did the most … he was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.”
Charmed might not be the word to describe how Lovatt felt when Peter, an adolescent dolphin with certain urges, became a bit more… excited. She told interviewers that he “would rub himself on my knee, my foot or my hand.” Moving Peter back down to the enclosure each time this happened became a logistical nightmare.
So, reluctantly, Lovatt decided to satisfy the sexual urges of the dolphin manually. “It was just easier to incorporate that and let it happen … it would just become part of what was going on, like an itch, just get rid of that scratch and we would be done and move on.”
Lovatt insists “it wasn’t sexual on my part … sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.”
Meanwhile, Drake’s curiosity about Lilly’s progress grew. He sent one of his colleagues, the 30-year-old Sagan, to check the goings-on at Dolphin Point.
Drake was disappointed to learn that the nature of the experiment was not as he’d hoped; he’d expected progress in deciphering the dolphin language. This was likely the beginning of the end for Lilly and his crew’s funding. Nevertheless, Lovatt’s attachment to Peter grew, even as the project waned.
But by 1966, Lilly was more enthralled with the mind-altering power of LSD than he was with dolphins. Lilly was introduced to the drug at a Hollywood party by the wife of Ivan Tors, the producer of the movie (we can’t make this stuff up) Flipper. “I saw John go from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy,” Lillie’s friend Ric O’Barry recalled.
Lilly belonged to an exclusive group of scientists licensed by the government to research the effects of LSD. He dosed both himself — and the dolphins at the lab. (Though not Peter, at Lovatt’s insistence.) Luckily the drug seemed to have little to no effect on the dolphins. However, Lilly’s new cavalier attitude towards the animal’s safety alienated Bateson and put a stop on the lab’s funding.
Thus Lovatt’s live-in experience with a dolphin ended. “That relationship of having to be together sort of turned into really enjoying being together, and wanting to be together, and missing him when he wasn’t there,” she reflects. Lovatt balked at Peter’s departure to Lilly’s cramped Miami lab with little sunlight.
A few weeks later, some terrible news: “John called me himself to tell me” Lovatt notes. “He said Peter had committed suicide.”
Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project, and Lilly’s friend, validates the use of the term suicide. “Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers like we are … Every breath is a conscious effort. If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and they sink to the bottom.”
A heartbroken Peter didn’t understand the separation. The sorrow of losing the relationship was too much. Lovatt was saddened but ultimately relieved that Peter didn’t need to endure life at the confined Miami lab. “He wasn’t going to be unhappy, he was just gone. And that was OK.”
Lovatt remained in St. Thomas after the failed experiment. She married the original photographer that worked on the project. Together, they had three daughters and converted the abandoned Dolphin Point laboratory into a home for their family.
Margaret Howe Lovatt didn’t speak publicly of the experiment for nearly 50 years. Recently, however she granted interviews to Christopher Riley for his documentary on the project, the aptly named The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins.