Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey

When it comes to whales and dolphins, the only distinction is one of size. They are both cetaceans, with dolphins being a numerous branch of toothed whales. Dolphins continue to fascinate us due to their extraordinary intelligence, something that only really came to light via sadistic experiments during the twentieth century, especially those of Dr. John Lilley. In one bizarre case, he gave his captive subjects mind-altering substances:

It’s hard to know how Lilley determined that the dolphins enjoyed their LSD trips; notes indicate that after being injected with the drug, the animals floated stoically and silently in their tanks.

Voices in the Ocean

Surprisingly, Lilley and many other people involved in studying captive dolphins underwent a complete change of heart. Just like Ric O’Barry, who trained the various dolphins used as Flipper in the 1960s TV show, Lilley became a campaigner for the defence and protection of these incredible animals.

Dolphins desperately need this protection now. In this study of our troubled relationship with these cetaceans, Susan Casey shows how we have responded to dolphins’ natural urge to socialise with us by slaughtering and trapping them for our own entertainment.

She places a particular focus on the rampant killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, where hundreds of animals are hacked to death every year. There is nothing traditional about this slaughter. The Taiji dolphin hunt began in 1969, which means it isn’t even as old as Star Trek.

The slaughter doesn’t take place for food either, because dolphin and whale meat is high in heavy metals:

“There is a real danger in whale and dolphin meat, but word is not getting out,” … Tetsuya Endo from the University of Hokkaido, whose lab did many of the tests, told the New York Times … “It’s not food!”

Casey goes on to show that the Taiji and many other dolphin hunts take place to feed the highly profitable aquarium trade. The few survivors are transported worldwide for millions of dollars, where these social, wide-ranging animals are held in atrocious conditions.

Behavourial biologist Toni Frohoff, who studies stress in captive dolphins, has watched the animals gnaw on cement enclosures until their teeth are ground down, and bang themselves repeatedly against the walls.

The record is damning and it is clear that the age of whale tanks and performing dolphins needs to come to an end as soon as possible, even if some countries have appallingly lax regulations regarding the treatment of mammals in captivity:

“You could literally dig a hole in your back garden, fill it with your garden hose, and put a dolphin in there,” O’Barry said. “It’s completely legal in Ontario.”

Casey is a brave and diligent investigative journalist, but she is also an inspirational writer. This account of her own growing love for dolphins is also rich with more positive accounts of her experiences. The book is expertly constructed, so that nightmarish tales of vivisection are juxtaposed with far-out trips to the ocean along with the whacked out hippies of Hawaii.

Voices in the Ocean is both haunting and inspirational, informative and challenging. Casey has an easy writing style that allows her to convey her powerful message in measured but always heartfelt tones:

killer whale mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers pass on so much essential knowledge that calves removed from their influence are as ill-equipped for wild orca life as children raised by wolves would be … if dropped into Mid-town Manhattan.

Voices in the Ocean is, without hesitation, my book of the year for 2015.


7 responses to “Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey

  1. Coincidentally the news today is full of the fact that Seaworld in California is going to stop its killer whale shows at last. Maybe in another hundred years or so mankind will have evolved enough to be a responsible inhabitant of Earth… maybe.

    • We can but hope. I do wonder what is going to happen to the captive orcas now though because I don’t believe for a minute that they’re going to be returned to the open ocean (if they could even survive now).

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