Author Susan Casey just might be obsessed with water. Her most recent New York Times bestseller “Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins” is the third book she has written covering the watery realms—her previous two focusing on specific subcultures of the world’s oceans, including great white sharks (“The Devil’s Teeth”) and the obsession with, and science behind, freak and rogue waves (“The Wave”).
“One of the reasons I like to write about the ocean is that it is such a massive part of our planet,” said Casey during a break from the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference this past July. The other reason might be that, as a former competitive swimmer, Casey is comfortable in the watery mass that represents about 98 percent of the living space by volume on our planet. In fact, it was after a chance encounter with a pod of spinner dolphins during a solo swim in Honolua Bay on Maui that she became infatuated with the science and mystery of dolphins.
Casey’s experience in the waters off Maui began a five-year journey into the world of dolphins. Along the way, she explored the science behind dolphin communication and navigation, the unique structure of the dolphin brain, and the various cults, myths, beliefs and practices surrounding this family of toothed whales, or cetaceans. What she discovered during countless interviews, research and investigation, was that the dolphin-human relationship is even more complicated than we can possibly imagine.
“Dolphins are at the junction of where the land meets humanity,” stated Casey, who feels we are at a critical juncture on our plant in relation to our oceans and the creatures in them. “Nobody is unemotional around a dolphin,” asserted Casey. She points out that dolphins are large-brained, air-breathing mammals, just like humans. And she reminds us that they have evolved in a way that allows them to successfully live and thrive in the dominant ecosystem on our planet, but that they have done so in harmony and in balance with the systems that sustain them. It is an adaptation that many human cultures are still working to navigate.
“Scientists have determined that cetaceans learn emotionally, they pass along information and build on it,” Casey said, citing scientific studies that indicate that dolphins use cooperative language and signals, and are even given a unique name by other members of the pod, a call or whistle that stays with that individual for life and can be recalled by other dolphins 10 or 15 years later.
The case for dolphin intelligence is a strong thread throughout Casey’s book, a belief that is supported by preeminent dolphin researcher and biopsychologist, Dr. Lori Marino. Casey quotes Marino as follows: “If an alien life form had landed on this planet 100,000 years ago and asked to be taken to our most intelligent creatures, they would have been led directly into the oceans to meet the dolphins and whales because they have been on the planet 34.8 million years longer than we have.”
You get the sense that there is a lot more there than we are able to understand.
“I’m not a scientist,” claimed Casey. “I am a person who wants to venture into a world really deeply and talk to the great scientists, because they are the ones with the amazing facts and stories. It’s my job to gather all that information and create a narrative template that enables me to put in the science in a way that I know the lay person can understand it completely.”
Casey believes that if she can understand it, others will, too. And she believes it is of vital importance for us to understand it.
“I want to take people into the ocean,” Casey continued, reiterating her adherence to marine biologist Sylvia Earle’s belief that what we do in the next 10 years will determine the next 10,000 years on our planet.
Susan Casey hopes that we have the intelligence and heart to realize that we are part of nature, and it is part of us. And maybe, just maybe, through that understanding, we will be able to embark upon a period of relearning and, in the process, discover the resiliency of our oceans and how to live in balance and harmony with them in a similar manner to the dolphins and whales—the other intelligent life on the planet.