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Video: Scientist on LSD Interrupts Woman’s Tryst With Dolphin


A new documentary about Dr. John Lilly's famous talking-dolphins experiments reveals a tragic love story and a scientist who goes psychedelic.

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“I did have a very close encounter with—I can’t even say ‘a dolphin’ again—with Peter.” Photo via BBC/The John Lily Estate

Call it Romeo and Juliet in the psychedelic age.

Romeo was a frisky young dolphin named Peter. Juliet was a curious young woman named Margaret. They fell in love and lived together in a house filled with water on an island in the sun until a mad scientist on LSD came between them.

Margaret Howe Lovatt is 97 but she remembers every detail as if it happened yesterday. (Christopher Riley‘s documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins will air on BBC Four on June 17 at 9 pm.) She met Peter in the dolphin laboratory of Dr. John Lilly in the Caribbean. Lilly was a US neuroscientist who, after discovering that dolphins communicate with one another through a sophisticated system of sounds they make through their blow holes, was attempting to teach them the English language in order to establish human-dolphin communication. It was 1963 and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

“There were three dolphins,” Lovatt told the Guardian. “Peter, Pamela and Sissy. Sissy was the biggest. Pushy, loud, she sort of ran the show. Pamela was very shy and fearful. And Peter was a young guy. He was sexually coming of age and a bit naughty.”

Lovatt was in her early 20s and game for anything. She joined Lilly’s team at Dolphin House, spending her days putting Peter, Pamela and Sissy through their daily lessons, noting their progress or lack thereof, recording the data for scientific purposes and otherwise petting, playing and splashing about with them. The Guardian reports:

Audio recordings of Lovatt’s progress, meticulously archived on quarter-inch tapes at the time, capture the energy that Lovatt brought to the experiment—doggedly documenting Peter’s progress with her twice-daily lessons and repeatedly encouraging him to greet her with the phrase ‘Hello Margaret’. “‘M’ was very difficult,” she remembers. “My name. Hello ‘M’argaret. I worked on the ‘M’ sound and he eventually rolled over to bubble it through the water. That ‘M’, he worked on so hard.”

She soon concluded that the communication gap between the two species was too wide to bridge with a mere eight-hour day. “Every night we would all get in our cars and pull the garage door down and drive away,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Well there’s this big brain floating around all night.’ It amazed me that everybody kept leaving and I just thought it was wrong.”

The state-of-the-art facility was converted into a “domestic dolphinarium,” with waterproof rooms for Lovatt filled with three feet of water and furniture suspended from the ceiling. Now she could carry Peter from the large tank he shared with Pamela and Sissy on the ground level to her upstairs place.

Being a hot-blooded mammal despite his cool marine exterior, Peter put the moves on Lovatt and events took their natural course. “I allowed that,” she recalls. “It wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.”

Then history—in the form of the Sixties—intruded on their paradise. Lilly, whose 1961 book Man and Dolphin became a best-seller and the basis for the 1963 movie Flipper, was introduced to LSD on a visit to Flipper’s producer in Hollywood. Given his visionary if monomaniacal bent, Lilly took to acid like a fish to water.

Back at Dolphin House, the neuroscientist traded his white lab coat for tie-dye and paisley and set about revising his quest for human-dolphin communication to include mutual mind expansion. But when he wanted to inject the drug into Peter—Dolphins on acid!?! How cool!—Lovatt put her foot down. Animal abuse was not on her list of turn-ons.

As so often happens when man meets hallucinogen, Lilly quickly lost interest in the tedium of science, language, time, space and other people, human and non-human alike. Things fell apart. He abandoned his dolphin experiments. He lost his island lab.

The progress, for lack of a better word, that Margaret and Peter had made together came to a brutally abrupt end. “For Lilly, it didn’t have the zing to it that LSD did at that time,” she recalls. “And in the end the zing won.”

And love lost. What happened next is too sad for summary. Read it here.