If dolphins could talk, they’d probably say, “Hello, Margaret!”
At least that’s what one young male dolphin learned to say in the 1960s.
Peter was one of three bottlenose dolphins who were being trained to speak with humans. They were housed at the Dolphin House, a state-of-the-art research facility in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, where neuroscientist John Lilly experimented with various ways to teach them English.
The Man-Dolphin Connection
Peter, Pamela, and Sissy starred in the NBC TV show Flipper before they were flown to the Caribbean as participants in a decade-long study that began in 1958.
A few years into his research, Lilly found that the dolphins were mimicking the sounds of his speech. He would say something and the dolphins would go, “Wuh… wuh… wuh…” Then his female assistant would say another thing in her high-pitched voice and the dolphins would try to imitate that.
In 1961, Lilly published his bestselling book Man and Dolphin. The book proposed that dolphins may be interested in communicating with humans. Unsurprisingly, it captured the imagination of many and went on to become a bestseller at that time.
The book also caught NASA’s attention, which offered to finance Lilly’s research, along with the US Navy. The goal, of course, was to use Lilly’s research on dolphins to teach aliens to speak English.
In 1963, Lilly opened the Communication Research Laboratory, which is more fondly called the Dolphin House. He worked with an audacious young lady who, despite never having had formal training, had the rare gift of being able to communicate with animals.
A Bold, New Experiment
Margaret Howe was in her 20s when she came up with a daring experiment idea.
She reasoned that if human babies learned to talk by interacting with their mothers all the time, maybe a dolphin could do the same.
Lilly liked Margaret’s idea well enough to go with it. They chose to work with Peter. Unlike the girls, Peter never had any sort of training in human speech before. He seemed to be the best candidate for the bold, new experiment.
Margaret went on to work waterproofing the Dolphin House. The entire second floor of the building was flooded up to just above the knees—enough for Margaret to walk around and Peter to swim with her wherever she goes around the house. Even the balcony was filled with water so that Peter could swim out to bask in the sunlight.
By 1963, the makeshift dolphinarium was complete.
For six days, Margaret spent her waking and sleeping hours with Peter. She worked on a desk that hung from the ceiling and slept on a cushion that was always soaked with water. Peter slept next to Margaret and would wake up when she woke up.
For the next six months, dolphin and human would eat, sleep, work, and play together six days a week. On the seventh day, Margaret would release Peter to the lower pool to play with Pamela and Sissy.
What to Do With a Horny Dolphin?
Margaret and Peter had lessons twice every day. He proved to be an expert at inflection, but enunciation wasn’t his strong suit. Peter had a hard time saying, “Hello, Margaret!” He had to roll over to the side and make bubbles to make the M sound.
But according to Margaret, it was the time in between the lessons where she developed a close bond with Peter. The pubescent dolphin showed great interest in her. He would swim up to her while she was at her desk and would stare at her legs for hours, perhaps wondering what they were for.
Within a few weeks of being alone together, Peter began developing another sort of feelings for Margaret. Dolphins have a lot of sexual urges and Peter, after all, was a male bottlenose dolphin at the peak of his prime.
He didn’t hesitate to let Margaret know. He would gently rub himself on her foot or knee. Sometimes, when the urge is strong, he would hit her shins with his nose or flippers. Margaret had to wear boots to protect her legs and use a broom to stave off the dolphin’s advances.
The solution was to send Peter down to the lower pool to visit the two girls. But carrying a 300-kilogram dolphin and transporting him via elevator each time he felt the urge to have sex proved to be too disruptive. The researchers were also worried that Peter would forget his lessons in being human if he spent too much time with the other dolphins.
In the end, Margaret decided to jerk Peter off herself.
It was a process she had come to look at with respect. The dolphin was clearly in love with her, but it wasn’t sexual on her part. To her, Peter’s sexual urges were nothing more than an itch you had to scratch to make it go away. And in the process of scratching, she realized their bond grew deeper because they were now always together.
Unfortunately, some people didn’t see it that way. Hustler magazine came out with a horrific story titled “Interspecies Sex: Humans and Dolphins.” To Margaret, the article clearly didn’t reflect her experience, but that didn’t stop it from shining a bad light on the Dolphin House and the experiment with Peter.
The Dolphin Experiment Comes to a Close
Sadly, there were more problems more serious than the Hustler article that kept the experiment from moving forward.
By the mid-1960s, John Lilly had become increasingly interested with LSD. Not surprisingly so, since he was always interested in anything that promised to expand consciousness. In fact, he was the first scientist to build the world’s first sensory deprivation tank. He had a burning question in mind: If the brain loses sensory stimuli, do we remain conscious? (If you’re curious, the answer to that is a big, fat NO.)
Lilly would inject Pamela and Sissy with LSD, perhaps with the hope that they would get better at learning English while high. But nothing happened. Margaret pleaded with him not to use LSD on Peter, to which he obliged. But Lilly continued to use the trippy drug on the female dolphins.
By 1966, Lilly’s colleagues began calling him a full-blown hippy. He was known to have taken more LSD than any man alive.
By 1966, Margaret’s experiment with Peter was coming to a close. Lilly’s fascination with LSD became a blow to his reputation. Around that time, his colleagues began calling him a full-blown hippy. Lilly was known to have taken more LSD than any man alive.
NASA wasn’t happy with Peter’s progress nor did it care for Lilly’s predilection for LSD. The US government decided to pull out funding at the same time as Lilly’s enthusiasm in dolphins dwindled.
Margaret’s had to decommission the dolphinarium and send the three dolphins to another lab in Miami. The new facility was located in an old bank building. It was by no means anywhere near the comfortable abode that was the Dolphin House. Pamela, Sissy, and Peter had smaller tanks and enjoyed little to no sunlight at all.
Within weeks, Peter’s health quickly deteriorated, perhaps because he was hundreds of miles away from Margaret. Lilly himself called her to break the news. Peter had committed suicide.
Unlike humans, dolphins can control their breathing. Peter took one last breath, sunk to the bottom of his little tank, and refused to take another breath.
While Lilly continued to experiment with human-dolphin communications, he never quite recovered enough to receive further support from the government.
John Lilly died on September 30, 2001.
Up to his final day, he lived by the following:
“In the province of the mind there are no limits.”
For more information, you can watch Christopher Riley’s documentary The Girl Who Could Talk to Dolphins.