Sally Hall: Whales, Dolphins and uneasy relationships with humans

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For me, last weekend was all about one thing – the troubled relations between humans and marine mammals.

First off, I had a great night out watching Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low’s production of The White Whale – a dystopian interpretation of Moby Dick staged at Leeds Dock.

Set in a not-so-distant future where humans rely on oil gleaned from whales to keep their cars running, the play touched on epic themes.

It was also a spectacular visual experience, with a two-tonne floating platform that rose from the waters like a Leviathan at the beginning of the play.

It was thrilling to sit at the water’s edge, legs dangling, listening to eerie whale songs and gasping at the special effects – flumes of water from the monstrous white whale; walls of fire at the play’s dramatic climax; vats of whale oil smoking with inferno-like intensity.

I loved this production, but I confess I never did like Moby Dick.

Studying literature at university, I tried to read Herman Melville’s tome at least twice, only to be beaten back on each occasion by its dense prose and the utter stupidity of the quest at its heart.

I do get it – this is a story that touches on some of life’s Big Themes, exploring the limits of human knowledge and the futility of obsession.

But, as one of the characters in The White Whale points out, how can a man attribute malice to a whale?

I just can’t take seriously such a daft idea.

So, if I drifted off at times during Ahab’s mad rants, it didn’t indicate a lack of enjoyment of Slung Low’s brilliant spectacle.

It was more that I was distracted by the tale of another marine mammal – the bottlenose dolphin – I’d heard earlier that day.

It seems I missed the story of Peter the dolphin when it was broadcast as a BBC4 documentary, The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins, back in June.

But an American radio programme, Radiolab, recently updated the story – complete with all its most salacious details.

Peter was a frisky young dolphin who was the subject of an experiment initiated in 1965 by wacky scientist Dr John Lilly (a pioneer of LSD-based experimental protocols).

The dolphin lived together with 23-year-old Margaret Howe in a flooded flat at Dolphin Point Laboratory on the Caribbean island of St Thomas.

For 10 weeks, Peter and Margaret were flatmates. Margaret waded around the thigh-deep water to cook, do housework and engage in serious inter-species interaction. At night she slept on a platform surrounded by a shower curtain to ward off Peter’s frenzied splashes. But during the day, most of her time was spent trying to teach Peter to speak English – oh, and providing him with the sort of pleasure of which David Attenborough would never approve.

Poor Margaret – persuaded by an eccentric scientist to live intimately with a marine mammal, endlessly intoning ‘A,E,I,O’ (she always missed out the ‘U’ – don’t know why…). No wonder Peter got ribald.

Increasingly, Margaret found there was only one way to control him. The young dolphin subsequently fell in love with her – but never did become much of a conversationalist.

Unsurprisingly, this experiment was widely discredited. But as a rejoinder to Moby Dick, perhaps it provides a surprisingly powerful corollary.

Because if Moby Dick is the ultimate story of male single-mindedness and self-destruction, Margaret and Peter’s tale shows us how far a woman will go to please the man in her life. Even if that man is actually a dolphin.

Sarah Champion MP

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