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  • from Acting My Age
  • Thomas Farber (bio)


You remember I resisted using the possessive when referring to the cluster of goatfish. My avoidance was first induced—compelled—by sights seen thirty years ago. Just down the coast, there was a marine mammal “laboratory” training—how loaded terms can be!—dolphins. The director, a behavioral psychologist who’d studied monkeys and rats, said he was seeking to “establish two-way communication, admittedly on a very elementary level. We’re not going to talk philosophy.”

In the service of which, two eight-foot, five-hundred-pound females, captured in the Caribbean, were transported to Hawai‘i. For years enclosed (surely intentional euphemism) in separate concrete tanks fifty feet in diameter, five or six feet deep. Within sight, sound, and smell of open ocean, even closer to an adjacent bar’s music and drunk patrons. Late weekend nights in particular must have offered the cetaceans words to learn. Or, if they became fluent enough, to understand what God said about “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Consider ambitions’ premises—stated, unstated. This director’s might have read: interspecies communication is important; communication between humans and other species is the most important; dolphins have large brains, which might allow verbal interaction between them and us. Therefore, take them out of their element to find out. Unstated is why interspecies communication, if vital, would require this strategy, or, how careers for humans in academia are advanced.

Meanwhile, observe the finis in confined.

As Gavan Daws notes in his brilliant “Men, Dolphins, and Biography,” evolution in the water world has evolved “a distribution and processing of sensory information so unfamiliar to humans that we have no way of bringing it together to make it spell conscious-ness, at least in our spelling: oceanic change of temperature, light, color, barometric pressure, chemical and nutritive composition, acidity and salinity of water, and—on a cosmic scale—the pull of sun, moon, and stars, the turning of the earth, acting on the massive ocean currents and the running of the tides.” [End Page 31]

About who gets to tell the story: back then, four decades ago, and now. In 1977, former employees of the marine mammal laboratory took these dolphins to the ocean to “liberate” them. Or, as the anguished director put it, “They stole my dolphins.” And, the director said, “You build a life’s work around something to which you’re not only intellectually but emotionally wedded. There is a sense of a death in the family.”


Bear in mind—I’ll try to bear in mind—that sensibilities change, and that the director of the marine mammal center had done great good for at least one cetacean. In 1995, a forty-foot whale, (human-named) Humphrey, entered San Francisco Bay, headed up the Sacramento River, then into a creek. Nearly seventy miles, a dead end. After a month of rescue efforts, it was the director’s strategy of using recordings of feeding whales that lured Humphrey out to open ocean.

No doubt this humpback would sing out on the director’s behalf, if someone could only do the notating, especially because the director helped a second time when the whale ran aground on a mudflat in San Francisco Bay. And later, to his credit, the director was one of hundreds of marine scientists urging the Japanese government to stop the slaughter of the Taiji dolphin hunts. Good deeds...

Who, then, can predict whether or not verbally fluent dolphins drawn from a jury “pool” would find the director guilty? Who can guess what stories dolphins might tell, though author Ceridwen Dovey ventriloquizes a U.S.-trained combat dolphin in “A Letter to Sylvia Plath.” And Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has dolphins “perfectly capable of communicating” in human language but choosing not to. Aware of earth’s impending destruction, they abandon the water planet with a message containing these last words: so long, and thanks for all the fish.

If—thus far!—we can only imagine what dolphins would say, we might...


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pp. 31-36
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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