Review: ‘Voices in the Ocean’: by Susan Casey

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins. Susan Casey. 302 pages. Doubleday. $27.95.
Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins. Susan Casey. 302 pages. Doubleday. $27.95.

Voices in the Ocean arrives at an interesting historical moment. The success of such documentaries as the Oscar-winning The Cove and Blackfish have amped up worldwide protests targeting theme parks such as Sea World and Miami Seaquarium to end the exploitation of mammals in the name of entertainment. They have also broadened the scrutiny on the capture and butchering of the creatures for profit.

Some of the material in Susan Casey’s latest will be familiar to anyone who has followed the exploits of Miami native Ric O’Barry, the dolphin rights activist whose international profile exploded after The Cove was released in 2009. O’Barry started out capturing and training dolphins — including the five female dolphins that played Flipper on television — at Seaquarium. After experiencing a major epiphany, O’Barry, now 76, has dedicated the last four-plus decades to rehabilitating and releasing dolphins and campaigning worldwide to end the brutal practices of the captive dolphin industry.

Casey devotes passages to the dark, man-made horrors perpetrated at the bloody slaughtering grounds off Taiji, Japan, and a bizarre episode in the Solomon Islands where remote villagers, expecting to be compensated by international conservation groups, instead engaged in a killing spree when corrupt tribal leaders failed to distribute the money.

Voices takes plenty of side trips into the absurd and strange. A charismatic Hawaiian quasi-cult teaches interactive courses on “Dolphins, Teleportation and Time Travel.’’ A female London concert promoter, who marries a male bottlenose that she “courted” over a 15-year “relationship” at an Israeli resort, tells reporters that the marriage hasn’t been traditionally consummated because she’s “not a pervert.’’ Don’t fret, tender readers, others are willing to discuss their human-dolphin sexual peccadilloes.

An early and controversial advocate of dolphin studies, Dr. John Lilly was widely discredited in scientific circles, especially after experimenting with LSD on humans and dolphins in the late 1960s. Lilly built a prototype “flood house’’ in St. Thomas where dolphins and humans could theoretically co-habitate and recruited a local waitress to live with a bottlenose for 10 weeks. What Casey recounts here is nothing short of jaw-dropping: Constantly aroused, the dolphin repeatedly corners the beleaguered, waterlogged waitress until she finally resorts to incorporating regular manual stimulation sessions with her horny housemate.

All that bestial titillation aside, there is plenty of substantive, worthwhile material here. As she proved in her earlier popular science works on great white sharks (The Devil’s Teeth) and rogue waves (the bestselling The Wave), Casey skillfully weaves global adventure travelogues, first-person reportage and deep archival research. She exhibits a flair for peppering her tales with complex scientific concepts but keeps them accessible for consumption by a broader audience without losing the narrative arc or momentum.

When Voices falls short, Casey veers from a sense of natural wonder into the New Age-y, mystical connections between humans and these playful highly intelligent and evolved cetaceans. Still, in the prologue, Casey vividly recreates her own life-altering encounter with a large pod of spinner dolphins while long-distance swimming off the coast of Maui several years ago. She credits this supernatural experience with providing the spark for the book and jarring her out of a two-plus year funk of mourning after the death of her father and a failed marriage. Casey eventually quit her high-pressure gig in Manhattan editing Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine and moved to Hawaii.

“However brief my dolphin visitation had been, it stuck to me, lodged inside my head,’’ she writes. “It was as though I’d been hit by lightning and that one strike had zapped clean through my brain, replacing its usual patterns and wavelengths and nerve impulses with a dolphin highlight reel. I couldn’t forget the way the pod had sized me up, or their peculiar squeaking, creaking language, or how ridiculously fun it was to just cruise along with them. I got the impression there was somebody home behind each set of eyes and the effect was surreal.’’

Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.

Meet the author

Who: Susan Casey

When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Room 8525, Miami Dade College;