An Amazon Best Book of August 2015: Susan Casey’s Voices in the Ocean opens with a near perfect set piece about a swim she once took in Maui. Her father had died two years prior, and she was still struggling with her feelings over the loss. Casey wades out at dusk for a solo ocean swim. The weather is bad and sharks have recently been seen in the area—but, Casey writes, “a strange thing happens when your worst nightmare is realized: nothing much is left to scare you.” Rather than something bad happening to her, she suddenly finds herself, mid-swim, surrounded by spinner dolphins. It is one of those rare moments of real awe, and the experience launches her book and, more importantly, her fascination with dolphins, which leads Casey on a globe-trotting trek around the world to study dolphins, porpoises, and whales. She begins by contacting a woman named Ocean, a New Age believer in the power of the dolphin; in Casey’s words, Ocean entertains “Star Trekian views about dolphins acting as teachers and visionaries and emissaries from other dimensions.” From there Casey expands her research to cover pioneering dolphin studies, human-dolphin encounters, dolphin and whale hunting (which still happens), and the cultural significance of dolphins going back centuries. While Casey touches on a variety of subjects, including dolphin behavior and science (they work together, experience joy, show real purpose and a sense of self), readers will note that she doesn’t shrink from the woo-woo (occasionally bordering on Star Trekian New Age) views that Ocean and others in the book support about dolphins. But this can be read as a positive. Casey loves her subject, and we all know there is something special about dolphins, even if we non-experts aren’t quite sure what it is.
Since the dawn of recorded history, humans have felt a kinship with the sleek and beautiful dolphin, an animal whose playfulness, sociability, and intelligence seem like an aquatic mirror of mankind. In recent decades, we have learned that dolphins recognize themselves in reflections, count, grieve, adorn themselves, feel despondent, rescue one another (and humans), deduce, infer, seduce, form cliques, throw tantrums, and call themselves by name. Scientists still don’t completely understand their incredibly sophisticated navigation and communication abilities, or their immensely complicated brains.
While swimming off the coast of Maui, Susan Casey was surrounded by a pod of spinner dolphins. It was a profoundly transporting experience, and it inspired her to embark on a two-year global adventure to explore the nature of these remarkable beings and their complex relationship to humanity. Casey examines the career of the controversial John Lilly, the pioneer of modern dolphin studies whose work eventually led him down some very strange paths. She visits a community in Hawaii whose adherents believe dolphins are the key to spiritual enlightenment, travels to Ireland, where a dolphin named as “the world’s most loyal animal” has delighted tourists and locals for decades with his friendly antics, and consults with the world’s leading marine researchers, whose sense of wonder inspired by the dolphins they study increases the more they discover.
Yet there is a dark side to our relationship with dolphins. They are the stars of a global multibillion-dollar captivity industry, whose money has fueled a sinister and lucrative trade in which dolphins are captured violently, then shipped and kept in brutal conditions. Casey’s investigation into this cruel underground takes her to the harrowing epicenter of the trade in the Solomon Islands, and to the Japanese town of Taiji, made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, where she chronicles the annual slaughter and sale of dolphins in its narrow bay.
Casey ends her narrative on the island of Crete, where millennia-old frescoes and artwork document the great Minoan civilization, a culture which lived in harmony with dolphins, and whose example shows the way to a more enlightened coexistence with the natural world.
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