A young woman had a sexual relationship with a “naughty” dolphin who later seemed to commit suicide when their affair came to an end.
In the early 1960s, young Margaret Howe Lovatt talked her way into becoming part of a NASA-funded project to communicate with dolphins.
The idea was that – given that dolphins have brains that are at least as large as ours – we could develop techniques for communicating with extraterrestrials by learning how the intelligent species “talk” to each other.
Margaret, just 20, charmed project director Gregory Bateson into letting her work with the dolphins neuroscientist John Lilly was keeping on the Caribbean island of St Thomas.
There were three dolphins, Margaret said, named Peter, Pamela and Sissy.
“Sissy was the biggest,” she later said.
“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.”
Peter and Margaret developed a unique bond. He became jealous if she spent too much time with the other dolphins and the feeling was, at least to an extent, mutual.
“That relationship of having to be together sort of turned into really enjoying being together, and wanting to be together, and missing him when he wasn’t there,” Margaret told the BBC.
Peter, more than his two companions, became quite skilled at forming English words by forcing air through his blowhole, although some words were more difficult than others.
“‘M’ was very difficult,” she recalled. “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.”
Peter and Margaret became more and more close, and the closeness became physical: “He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it.”
According to a notorious profile published in Hustler magazine, Lovatt took to giving Peter sexual relief whenever he became too sexually aroused to participate in her experiments.
“It was just easier to incorporate that and let it happen,” she said. “It was very precious, it was very gentle.
“Peter knew I was right there, Peter was right there … again it was sexual on his part, it was not sexual on mine — sensuous perhaps.
“It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch, just get rid of that, scratch it and we’ll be done and move on.”
“It seemed to me,” she added “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,” she explained.
“[The sex] wasn’t private” she went on “People could observe it.”
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But eventually NASA sent a young astronomer, Carl Sagan, to report on the progress John Lilly was making and soon after that the agency pulled the plug on the experiments.
And that spelled the end for Margaret and Peter’s strange relationship.
Soon after being separated from Lovatt, Peter drowned in what appeared to be a suicide.
Dolphins need to surface regularly to breathe, and he appeared to deliberately stay submerged until he suffocated.
It’s not an isolated event. Ric O’Barry from animal rights organisation The Dolphin Project explained: “Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers like we are. Every breath is a conscious effort.
“If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and they sink to the bottom. They don’t take the next breath.”
Life was apparently too unbearable for Peter.
“He wasn’t going to be unhappy, he was just gone,” said Margaret. “And that was OK.”