Feb 11, 2022

Hello

It's hard to start a conversation with a stranger—especially when that stranger is, well, different. He doesn't share your customs, celebrate your holidays, watch your TV shows, or even speak your language. Plus he has a blowhole.

In this episode, which originally aired in the summer of 2014, we try to make contact with some of the strangest strangers on our little planet: dolphins. Producer Lynn Levy eavesdrops on some human-dolphin conversations, from a studio apartment in the Virgin Islands to a research vessel in the Bermuda Triangle.

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

LULU MILLER: Hello!

LATIF NASSER: Hello.

LULU: This is Lulu.

LATIF: This is Latif.

LULU: Funnily enough.

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: The episode we have to bring you today is called Hello.

LATIF: It’s really about the hardest possible Hello.

LULU: Yeah, yeah. Someone trying to say “hello” across a huge gap. And not just say “hello,” but really communicate and understand the language of another species and possibly even have them understand you.

LATIF: Yeah. We originally aired this in 2014. It was co-reported by producer extraordinaire, Lynn Levy, and a dolphin.

LULU: [laughs] But like actually, kind of. But mostly Lynn, she really did most of the work.

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Okay, let’s say no more for now, except…

LATIF: Except…

LULU: Enjoy!

LATIF: [dolphin noise]

LULU: Oh! Oh! And also, if you are listening with children.

LATIF: There are some uncomfortable moments that may not be suitable for younger listeners, parents…

LULU: Maybe slow fade it out right now…

LATIF: Right.

LULU: Listen to it by yourself, that it. Probably not the best one for kids. Okay!

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: We hope you enjoy. I love your dolphin noise!

LATIF: Thank you very much.

LYNN LEVY: Hello, this is Lynn. Someone on the other side of this?

MARGARET LOVETT: Hey, Lynn. [laughter]

JAD ABUMRAD: So, a couple months ago, our producer Lynn Levy did an interview with this woman... 

LYNN: Yeah, her name is Margaret Lovett. 

MARGARET LOVETT: Yes. 

LYNN: And this was Margaret's first time doing a radio interview.

MARGARET LOVETT: That magic voice. This is so fun.

LYNN: But this was definitely not her first time talking into a microphone.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: One, two, three, four, this is the yellow mark. One, two, three, four, this is the orange mark.]

LYNN: Almost exactly 50 years ago,

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: The following recording was made on November 19, 1964.]

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: At 2300 hours.]

LYNN: Margaret was at the center of this amazing, weird experiment. 

MARGARET LOVETT: Yeah, yeah. 

LYNN: What were you at that time? Like what were you like?

MARGARET LOVETT: Well, I've always had a bit of if everybody's going left, I'll go right.

LYNN: She tried college for a while.

MARGARET LOVETT: Tulane University for a year. 

LYNN: But she dropped out.

MARGARET LOVETT: And I was what? 20 or 19 or something at that point. 

LYNN: And moved to St. Thomas in the Caribbean 

MARGARET LOVETT: I had never been to an island.

LYNN: Got a job at this hotel.

MARGARET LOVETT: Did menus, checked people in and out. 

LYNN: And one day she hears about this strange research facility on the other side of the island.

MARGARET LOVETT: And I thought, “I wonder what that is about?” And I asked a few people and they said, "Oh no, no. They don't like people there." Or "can't go there." And I was told not to go there. So, I went there. 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: Hmm.

MARGARET LOVETT: And that's how it all started.

JAD: And that's how we're gonna start this show. I'm Jad Abumrad. 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. 

JAD: Today on Radiolab, Producer Lynn Levy brings us a couple of close encounters, although not with aliens.

ROBERT: No not — it's not, it's not in outer space because...

JAD: Right…

ROBERT: It's much closer to home in this case.

JAD: Although they are kind of alien like but...

ROBERT: Yes, alien-like.

JAD: Not out there...

ROBERT: Lynn, could you help? 

LYNN: It's a dolphin… 

ROBERT: Yeah, that's—yes!

LYNN: Show's about dolphins. 

ROBERT: Yes. 

LYNN: Yay!

JAD: We're calling this hour:

LYNN: Hello. So, when Margaret got to this mysterious place there were dolphins there. And the—what happened was she ended up becoming roommates with a dolphin.

JAD: Do you mean in the like Bed-Stuy one bedroom apartment sense?

LYNN: Sort of. Yeah, she did end up living with a dolphin for many months in this apartment. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: I-E-A-E.]

JAD: Like an apartment-apartment?

LYNN: Mm-hmm. Had a little desk, had a little kitchen area with a stove.

MARGARET LOVETT: I think it was a little two burner stove or something and a pot and a tea kettle.

LYNN: But the thing that's a little bit weird about the apartment is that the whole apartment was filled with water.

MARGARET LOVETT: It was...

LYNN: Completely filled with water?

MARGARET LOVETT: Well, I wasn't submerged but I was in water up mid-thigh, sort of…

LYNN: It's just flooded with water.

MARGARET LOVETT: Just about there.

LYNN: So, she could share it with this dolphin.

MARGARET LOVETT: A young male, Peter.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Here's your royal highness, Peter.]

LYNN: Peter was a 10-foot-long bottlenose dolphin, young adolescent male. And he lived there with Margaret and like, he would—you know he could like swim under the desk. And there was a balcony, he could like swim out onto the balcony. And…

JAD: The balcony was flooded too?

LYNN: The balcony was also flooded. Yeah, it's really cool.

JAD: And what was the idea? I mean to try and study a dolphin?

LYNN: To study the dolphin, first of all, and take a lot of notes.

MARGARET LOVETT: Extensive notes. 

LYNN: Did you have waterproof paper?

MARGARET LOVETT: No. I had a typewriter on this board hanging from the ceiling.

LYNN: They also had...

MARGARET LOVETT: Microphones everywhere

LYNN: And specifically, the task she was given...

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: A-E-I-O]

LYNN: Was to teach Peter to speak English. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: A-E-I-O [dolphin sound]]

JAD: She was supposed to teach the dolphin English?

LYNN: Yep. 

JAD: Really?

MARGARET LOVETT: Well, I mean, this was John Lilly's project.

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: Just for some context, you know how people get all like a little bit crazy these days about dolphins?

JAD: Yeah.

LYNN: They have like, you know, shirts with dolphins and necklaces with dolphins and everybody has like dolphin hairbands, dolphin blacklight posters, right? So, this all kind of sort of comes from this guy, John Lilly, who was a scientist, a researcher starting in the 40s.

GRAHAM BURNETT: A total right stuff, physics major kind of guy out of Caltech.

LYNN: Man's man, according to Graham Burnett.

GRAHAM BURNETT: I'm a historian of science.

LYNN: But then, According to Graham, John Lilly has this epiphany.

GRAHAM BURNETT: During the Second World War...

LYNN: At the time, people just weren't thinking that much about dolphins in general. like there was not this idea that they were sort of extraordinary beings. They were just like big dumb fish. You know, they were shot for sport. So, John Lilly is doing this research about brain mapping. And he ends up working with dolphins. And when—the story that that he's told goes that he was experimenting on these dolphins and as he's working with them, you know, kind of like shoving things into their brains, they make noises. as with anyone. And when he listens back to the noises, which he's recorded, it sounds to him like the dolphins are trying to speak to him.

JAD: Hmm.

LYNN: To say something to him in, not in a—not in a dolphin-y way, but in a human way. Like trying to speak English to him.

JAD: Really? 

LYNN: Yeah. 

JAD: What did he say the dolphin was trying to say to him?

LYNN: I don't think that we know that. But it sounded to him enough like human speech that he he thought like, something's going on here. This is important. According to Graham, he's said later that it made him realize like we're... 

[MUSIC IN]

GRAHAM BURNETT: We're not the only intelligent organisms out there. 

LYNN: Like we have company.

GRAHAM BURNETT: That maybe humans are what happens when high intelligence evolves in an animal that also has hands. And dolphins are what happens when comparably, if not still more extravagant intelligence, evolves in an animal without hands.

LYNN: What do hands get you?

GRAHAM BURNETT: Well, hands basically get you an appetite for punching people in the head. I—you know, it makes us tool-users, but the distance between, you know, the hammer that you use to knock open your coconut and the hammer that used to knock open the head of that other Cro-Magnon you were never that keen on is, in fact, zilch. There's no difference at all.

LYNN: And by the time we get to the 60s with, you know, like peace and love.

GRAHAM BURNETT: It was exciting to think that the dolphins and the whales have these huge brains, but they don't like—they're not after anything. They're not doing anything with it. They're not trying to hurt anybody. They're not building cities. They're just like being, man.

LYNN: Keep in mind, this is on the verge of the Vietnam War, where you have all this anxiety about...

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: What have they done to the Earth?]

LYNN: Overpopulation, environmental destruction.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP: What have they done to our fair sister?]

LYNN: So very quickly, the dolphins become like this vision…

GRAHAM BURNETT: Of how we might ourselves be so different than we'd come to feel we were tragically. Does that make sense?

LYNN: So, John Lilly was one of the first people to get swept up in all this. He quits his government job, moves to the Caribbean and sets up this lab.

MARGARET LOVETT: John Lilly's Communication Research Institute.

LYNN: To try to talk to dolphins, which is where Margaret ended up.

MARGARET LOVETT: And my feeling was this, that everybody was talking about how bright they were and how smart they were. And it was dolphins, dolphins, dolphins. And then it was, it was the hot topic. And yet every day, everybody at that building would get in their car and go home.

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: And I thought, “What is that?”

LYNN: So, she volunteered to stay.

MARGARET LOVETT: Yeah, yeah.

LYNN: Her bed was on this kind of wooden platform in the middle of the apartment.

MARGARET LOVETT: I was maybe two and a half three inches above the water and Peter was right there and Peter could flip me a little water and wake me up at any point. And that was the whole point of it. I mean, this wasn't just sleep all night and then—excuse me—work in the day and then sleep again all night and then do some work in the day. I might as well go home.

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: So, I eventually, I didn't really shave my head, but I buzzed it...

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: Whatever it's called now, really close. Because any—you know the hair getting wet thing in the middle of the night was very annoying. 

LYNN: Yeah, of course.

MARGARET LOVETT: So, I just got rid of the hair. And, and that was helpful. And then when Peter would come and squirt some water or want to play or throw something at me, then I could just roll off this elevator into the water and be with him and do whatever.

LYNN: She says he was fascinated by the things she brought with her. 

MARGARET LOVETT: A piece of cloth. A teabag. Teabag was a fascinating thing. And I drink, I drink tea. And the tea bag would fall into the water and he would come and get it and sonar it. This creaking noise they make on their sonar, you he'd to look at it and take the string over his beak and sort of swim around very proudly with this tea bag. And then he'd throw it up against the wall and it would stick. [laughter] And then he'd squirt water on it and it would come back down into the water and he would play with this tea bag. Eventually of course he would, would bite it, he has very sharp teeth.

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: And it would break and that was a very exciting thing when the teabag finally broke open. It had babies as it were. [laughter] Zillions of tea leaves floating around and he would sonar them all and wanting to count every single one of them. 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: And what did you think you would find out? 

MARGARET LOVETT: I didn't know. You know I was not coming at it—at this from a science point of view. That, that's not what I was bringing to the table.

LYNN LEVY: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: I just— I had no idea. I, I was programmed by John to work on the speech.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: [dolphin sound] A-E-I-O]

MARGARET LOVETT: He had sort of declared that that they could probably speak. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: A-E-I-O! [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: But when you're trying to have a conversation with someone...

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Peter. [dolphin sound] Here is A-…]

MARGARET LOVETT: One person speaks.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: I-O.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And the other one listens. And then you speak and I listen. And people sort of normally do that back and forth. But when you start with a dolphin making airborne sounds once they get the idea, there's a lot of screaming that goes on.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: They're very show off-y and they want to override you.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: No, Peter. I am not—[dolphin sound] no Peter! No, no.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And so, you have to spend a lot of time getting it down to, I'm talking now.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: I can speak now.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And now it's your turn. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Come on. I can speak now.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And yet if he's upset about something, he'll override you.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: [dolphin sound] Oooh! Peter.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And it's annoying. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Now, listen again. [dolphin sound] Now, aaah, watch this, come on, Peter. One, two, three! One, two, three! [dolphin sound] Three! Now start again. One, two, three. [dolphin sound] Yes. One, two...]

MARGARET LOVETT: But he learned very quickly to listen to me.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: One, two, three, four. [dolphin sound] Yes, baby. Good!]

MARGARET LOVETT: And not to pick up my instructions. If I would say, "No, no, no, Peter, I don't want you to do that. I want you to do this, this, this."

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: He would give me back this, this, this. A parrot will often say, "No, no, no. Polly want a cracker." They will repeat the whole thing of whatever you said. 

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: But Peter would, would pick up what I wanted when he was being a good student. 

LYNN: And he was a good student. 

[MUSIC IN]

MARGARET LOVETT: There seemed to be—with this one dolphin, anyway, can't speak for all of them—an interest in what we were doing. 

LYNN: Mm-hmm.

MARGARET LOVETT: He wanted to practice, he wanted to get it right. He—there was a mirror and he would spend long periods of time by himself, didn't want me to be part of it. And he would practice whatever it was we had been doing in the lesson that day over and over and over and over. He wanted to get it right. [imitating dolphin] No. [imitating dolphin] No, that's not right. [imitating dolphin] And he would work at that for no reason. He's not getting fish/ I'm not interacting with him and nothing—he just wants it right.

LYNN: Like doing homework.

MARGARET LOVETT: Like homework. Exactly.

LYNN: And after a few months of this...

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: One... [dolphin sound]]

LYNN: Peter did start to sound really different.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: One, two. [dolphin sound] One, two, three. [dolphin sound] Better. Call. [dolphin sound] Good!]

MARGARET LOVETT: He kept getting better. It's extremely difficult for them.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Hello. [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: They just have a blowhole. They do not have the apparatus to really—S's are almost impossible.

LYNN: Huh.

MARGARET LOVETT: I would feed him my name. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Margaret.]

MARGARET LOVETT: And M is very hard. He would eventually roll over almost into the water with the blowhole to muffle… [imitating dolphin]

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Margaret.]

MARGARET LOVETT: The thing

LYNN: Really? You're saying he would, he would use the water as a way to help him make the sound? 

MARGARET LOVETT: Yes.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: Margaret.]

MARGARET LOVETT: With that word. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE, MARGARET LOVETT: [dolphin sound] Good!]

MARGARET LOVETT: And, and...

LYNN: Do you think he knew that was your name?

[MUSIC IN]

MARGARET LOVETT: I don't know. But nevertheless, we were a pretty good match. He—I knew his mood, his temperament. And he and he knew mine. He knew when I was sick. And I would get sick. And you're in the water all the time, you're bound to get a cold or something. He, he just loved my anatomy. He wanted to know what my knees were doing. 

LYNN: Hmm.

MARGARET LOVETT: He would go behind my knee and sonar and look at it and feel it and push it and find out which way it would and wouldn't go. He just—and I gave him the time—because I wasn't going home—to look at my knee, to look at my feet. He was enormously interested, oddly enough, in the spirit between my fingers. 

LYNN: Really? 

MARGARET LOVETT: Not the fingers so much. But he would— I mean, you know, his beak could just barely fit there but he wanted to put in between each finger and see what that was all about. The same with the toes. He didn't have any spaces anywhere. 

LYNN: Yeah.

MARGARET LOVETT: He—you know, he had solid flippers, but no space in between them. 

LYNN: Do you he was so interested in your fingers and toes because he didn't have any?

MARGARET LOVETT: Yes, I do.

LYNN: Margaret and Peter ended up spending about nine months living together. But towards the end, things kind of started to unravel. First of all, they weren't really results from this experiment. They never were able to publish any scientific papers. And there were other problems. Lilly got very involved in drugs.

MARGARET LOVETT: Especially LSD. He did bring it down. He did give LSD—he says he did, I believe him—to, to, to the dolphins. I would not let him give LSD to Peter. I wouldn't allow that. 

JAD: Why would he give them LSD?

LYNN: Well, it's not 100% clear. But it seems like he was trying to find a way to get the dolphins to open up, to connect. Maybe to talk. In any case, by 1965-66, his funding had started to dry up. And when people heard about Margaret's work, they tended to focus on like one particular part of the story. 

LYNN: You don't have to answer, but a lot has been made of your sort of sexually engaging with Peter. And I just want to ask—because you don't seem like a shrinking violet—I just want to ask, is there anything you want to say about that?

MARGARET LOVETT: Um, what would I like to say about that? I think the sensational side of it is...

LYNN: Here's what Margaret told me. Peter was a young dolphin, he was horny and he would hump her leg a lot, kind of like a dog might do, which was getting in the way of their work. 

MARGARET LOVETT: So eventually, I just said, “The heck with it.”

LYNN: And she used her hand to, you know...

MARGARET LOVETT: And, and it would quickly satisfy him. And then we could go back to doing what we were doing. And I never really gave it another thought. I never thought, "Ooh, don't let anybody know." I never thought, "Ooh, this shouldn't be." I never...

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: But because of details like this and the drugs, this experiment became extremely controversial. Almost untouchable. People didn't want to be associated with Lilly. Nobody wanted to fund anything that sounded like Lilly. It's just got this like aura of... 

JAD: Don't go there. 

LYNN: Don't go there. Even people who wanted to do really rigorous work with human dolphin communication had a tough time getting any funding. And that lasted for a long time. The thing is, even though there are so many reasons to disapprove of this experiment, when you talk to Margaret, you can't help but want to be in that apartment with them.

MARGARET LOVETT: He would come over and when he was in what I call his sweet mood—and Peter had a lot of very, very sweet mood to him. He would sink to the bottom and take my foot in his mouth. And he wasn't sonaring and he wasn't looking at anything. It was almost like a little kid comes and just wants to hold your hand and he would just sink to the bottom and close his eyes and just hang on to my foot. And then he'd have to come up and...

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]

MARGARET LOVETT: Breathe and then he'd go back down. And he just grabbed my foot. And he would do this for a good while. 

[ARCHIVAL TAPE: [dolphin sound]]

ROBERT: We'll be back in a moment with another encounter.



JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today…

ROBERT: Hello.

JAD: Yes. 

ROBERT: Or as a dolphin might say...

JAD: How would a dolphin say it?

ROBERT: I don't know. 

[MUSIC IN]

JAD: Well, then—you know what? That is exactly kind of the question of this next segment. I mean, the dream that a human being and talk to a dolphin, or any animal really, get in their heads, cross that gap. 

ROBERT: This is a dream that humans have had for since like forever. 

JAD: Yeah. St. Francis of Assisi goes way back. Now, and so far as dolphins are concerned, after the John Lilly situation, researchers did get a little tepid.

ROBERT: Yeah, but they didn't stay tepid, as you say, for long. 

[MUSIC OUT]

  1. DENISE HERZING: No. 

[MUSIC IN]

JAD: Because along came this woman.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Dr. Denise Herzing, Director of the Wild Dolphin Project.

JAD: Who basically decided to take John Lilly's experiment and flip it. Rather than have the dolphin speak English, let's have the human speak dolphin. Or at the very least, let's create a shared language where humans and dolphins can speak.

LYNN: Or at least whistle.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Well, you know, it's about finding, finding a place you can meet.

JAD: Back to producer Lynn Levy.

LYNN: Okay, so for Denise this dream of finding that meeting spot it goes back to when she was a little girl.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Well, when I was 12 years old, I used to page through the Encyclopedia Britannica in the days when we had books.

LYNN: Mm-hmm.

  1. DENISE HERZING: And I would always stop at the whale and dolphin page, look at the dolphins and go, "Wow, I wonder what their brains are like. Because they've evolved in the water..."

LYNN: You were thinking that when you were 12?

  1. DENISE HERZING: I was. I was [laughter]— I was a total nerd. In fact, I entered this contest in Minnesota like, what would you do for the world if you could do something? And I actually wrote, "I would build a human animal translator so we could figure out what was going on in the minds of animals." So yeah, I don't know. I got the bug early and here I am.

ROBERT: You have—were you having a fantasy about what you might learn? With a...

  1. DENISE HERZING: A fantasy? No, I was just curious. So, I don't know, you look in their eyes there's definitely something behind there. You just want to know what it is. 

LYNN: Fast forward many years. Denise got a boat.

  1. DENISE HERZING: And I went out to the Bahamas.

LYNN: She was like, if I'm gonna study these dolphins, I'm going to do it in the wild. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: That's where they live. 

LYNN: So, she tracked down a part of wild dolphins. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yep, yep. 

LYNN: And she just tried to blend in.

  1. DENISE HERZING: I actually anchored the boat in one spot most of the time. 

LYNN: This spot in the Bermuda Triangle.

  1. DENISE HERZING: The middle of, I call it, "the dolphin highway."

LYNN: Where dolphins come and go.

  1. DENISE HERZING: They could come by if they wanted to. And if they didn't, they didn't.

[MUSIC OUT]

LYNN: When they would come by, she and her team would just slip into the water.

  1. DENISE HERZING: And behave ourselves.

LYNN: Just sort of watch. Paying attention to who was who, which dolphin had a crooked fin, which one didn't.

  1. DENISE HERZING: And when they'd leave, we'd get out and that's really how we operated for the first five years, and it worked fine.

JAD: Five years? she spent five years just watching? Not doing anything else. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yes

ROBERT: Doesn't this take an enormous amount of patience?

  1. DENISE HERZING: Well sure, I mean, but after about five years they started realizing, well these guys aren't going to grab us and poke us and prod us. So, they started just going about their own business.

LYNN: Like feeding, mating...

  1. DENISE HERZING: Nursing...

LYNN: And talking. [dolphin sound] Or at least making a lot of noises. [dolphin sound] Which she and her team would record. [dolphin sound]

JAD: Wow! That's all dolphins squeaking?

LYNN: Well dolphins make—they make all these—Yeah, like that. That's like a—there's like a clicking, kind of queaking sound that they make. [dolphin sound] 

ROBERT: Oh.

JAD: Sounds like a zipper.

ROBERT: Zipper. Yeah,

LYNN: Yeah, they make like whistles that are more kind of distinct, and then they make sounds that are like longer and weirder. And...

JAD: And do you have any sense that each of these sounds means something different?

LYNN: Well, that's exactly what we don't know.

  1. DENISE HERZING: I could tell you what kinds of sounds are correlated with fighting and with mating or disciplining a calf. What we don't know is: are there detailed kind of words in there? Is there more kind of encoded information?

LYNN: But what they do know is that each dolphin seems to have its own kind of signature whistle.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Which is basically a name. Every individual has its own name.

MARGARET LOVETT: Peter had a name. Nobody's ever asked me that. 

LYNN: Here's Margaret again. 

MARGARET LOVETT: And his name was... [imitating dolphin sound]

LYNN: Really?

MARGARET LOVETT: It was almost saying, "Peter here."

  1. DENISE HERZING: Right. So, I can call you "Lynn" by your whistle, and you "Robert" by your whistle.

ROBERT: So, I could be a dolphin going [imitating dolphin], Lynn!...

  1. DENISE HERZING: Exactly.

LYNN: Do they do that?

  1. DENISE HERZING: They do. 

JAD: Huh.

LYNN: Not only that. Apparently, dolphins will use the names of other dolphins who aren't even around. Like they can't see them.

JAD: Like they'll talk about each other behind their backs?

LYNN: Yes? Maybe.

JAD: Wow, that means that they're using representations of things which aren't in front of them, which is sort of like the beginning of language,

LYNN: If that's what they're doing—and we don't know—but if that's what they're doing, then yeah, that's kind of like the edge of language. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: So, you know, it gives us hope that there's probably more information going on there than we know. 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: And now finally, she has that device. 

JAD: Which device again?

LYNN: The magical you know, human animal translator device that she was dreaming of and writing about when she was 12.

JAD: Yeah.

LYNN: She has this box that can generate dolphin noises and it can recognize dolphin noises. And if it works, the way that, you know, that she's dreaming, it will work. It could be the first like real two-way back and forth conversation between a human and a wild animal. 

[MUSIC OUT] 

  1. DENISE HERZING: So, we're looking forward to the summer and getting out and getting more data and really exercising the boxes and see what happens. 

[MUSIC IN]

  1. DENISE HERZING: Good, we're ready. 

LYNN: So, I begged my way aboard.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Everybody good? Seasick pills for tummies. 

LYNN: We left on July 8 from Florida and headed for the Bahamas to see this pod that she has been following kind of forever.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Almost 30 years now. 

RADIO: I just saw Stenella. 

LYNN: Boat is called the R/V Stenella. Stenella is the scientific name for this particular type of dolphin, the spotted dolphin. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Have you seen a spotted dolphin? 

LYNN: I've never seen one in person. [radio chatter]

JAD: What is this boat like?

LYNN: It's like, not a tiny boat, but it's not a big boat. And it was just absolutely full of humans

ROBERT: And who is— who are your humans?

LYNN: Well, there's Denise, obviously.

  1. DENISE HERZING: How's it going?

LYNN: And you got a captain.

KEAR SMITH: My name is Kear Smith. 

LYNN: First Mate….

DANIELLE DABROWSKI: Danielle.

LYNN: Research assistants. 

ALYSON MYERS: Alison Meyers. 

LES NATHAN: Les Nathan.

BETHANY AUGLIERE: Bethany Augliere.

NATHAN SKRZYPCZAK: Nathan Skrzypczak.

LYNN: Volunteers... 

DREW MAYER: Drew Mayer. 

LYNN: There's a acoustics expert.

MATTHIAS HOFFMAN: Matthias Hoffmann.

LYNN: For a long time, I couldn't even figure out where everybody was sleeping because the boat seems so small. I was like there's not room for all these people on this boat.

THAD STARNER: Behind you, there's a hot soldering iron next to the fridge.

LYNN: And I haven't even gotten to this guy.

THAD STARNER: Don't get into it. 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: His name is Thad Starner.

LYNN: So, you didn't have like, any dolphin experience before this right? 

THAD STARNER: Oh, hell no. 

LYNN: He's one of the guys who invented Google Glass.

THAD STARNER: I became a computer programmer, so I'd never have to leave air conditioning. Right? And I'm out here in—what is this? —100-degree weather to do what?

LYNN: So, his job on the boat is to— he's in charge of these, these boxes.

THAD STARNER: These— those boxes probably costs 100k at this point. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: We're looking for funding.

THAD STARNER: We're looking for funding.

LYNN: So, he's the tech whiz.

  1. DENISE HERZING: When he came down to visit my lab, I was telling him about the two-way work and the difficulty with underwater stuff and he said, "Oh, I build wearable computers." I said, "Oh, can you build me an underwater wearable computer?"

THAD STARNER: Sure, that shouldn't be hard. [laughter] Four years later.

ROBERT: What does this machine look like that you...?

LYNN: Well, it's like what—a toaster? Like one of those fancy chrome toasters, except you wear it on your chest.

ROBERT: Are they silvery, in fact?

LYNN: They are silvery. They have a bunch of sort of knobs and buttons and speakers on them. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: It's got pre-programmed whistles in it. I can punch a key and it projects Whistle A [whistle] or Whistle B [whistle] or Whistle C.

LYNN: She's programmed in signature whistles of some of the dolphin.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Rat, Palatch. [whistle]. Bijoux. And we made signature whistles for ourselves. 

LYNN: Oh. 

ROBERT: Oh. 

JAD: She can call their names and they can call her names. That's, that's what she's saying?

LYNN: That is the idea, yeah. And if they do call her name, this name that she's made for herself, then the box should be able to recognize it. And can tell her that she's been called by name. It'll actually say into her ear in English, "Denise."

JAD: Huh

  1. DENISE HERZING: This is real time—I call it real time sound recognition—but it's real time whistle recognition underwater. 

JAD: Well, how—how does—if she's made up this name for herself, how is it that they're gonna know that that's her name?

LYNN: Well, the idea is that they're learning. So, she gets into the water over and over and she says, you know have the equivalent of, "Hi, I'm Denise. Hi, I'm Denise" over and over and over. And they learn it you know they develop this...

JAD: Oh, like maybe they'll just start to use it and call her.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yeah. So, you hope—you hope they call you—[laughs]. I'd be really sad if they didn't call my name but.

JAD: But I guess at the very least, she could call their names and see how they react.

LYNN: Right.

ROBERT: Well, see. That would be a eureka moment I think, if you hit the Lolita button and Lolita suddenly turned and looked right at you with a shock...

  1. DENISE HERZING: Exactly.

ROBERT: What the heck?

  1. DENISE HERZING: Wow! That human called me by my signature whistle. Whoa.

ROBERT: That—has that happened yet?

  1. DENISE HERZING: It hasn't happened yet.

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: And this is something I just did not appreciate. For a while I was on this boat I was like, why is this so hard? Like seems like it should be—these people are so smart, like this should be easy... But they're just like constantly being defeated by the ocean, basically, which I— the ocean is like a worthy foe. But it's like the first year...

THAD STARNER: First year was a complete disaster trying to get the hardware to work.

LYNN: What happened the first year?

THAD STARNER: Everything broke.

LYNN: It was leak city. Basically, the boxes just kept shutting down as soon as they would get in the water.

[MUSIC OUT]

THAD STARNER: That's not good. 

LYNN: It's not good. That's sort of not what you want.

  1. DENISE HERZING: No. 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: And last year...

THAD STARNER: We had the boxes working but then we couldn't find the dolphins.

LYNN: The dolphins just disappeared.

[MUSIC OUT]

ROBERT: Where did they go?

  1. DENISE HERZING: Uh, you know they went 100 miles away to another location.

LYNN: They don't know why.

THAD STARNER: I kept up with my side of the deal, Denise.

  1. DENISE HERZING: I know! 

THAD STARNER: Your dolphins stood you up. Geez.

LYNN: And one of the reasons I was on the boat is it felt like everybody was thinking, like, this is it. This is the year. We're gonna go out there, we're gonna find some dolphins and we're gonna make some history. 

LYNN: You ready? 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Ready. Excited. 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: Now. Any minute now. 

[MUSIC OUT] 

LYNN: Okay, it turns out it's not that easy to find these dolphins. They're not tagged, you know. They're wild dolphins. So, you just like, you go to where you think they might be...

THAD STARNER: [whistles.] Do you know that song? [whistles]

LYNN: You stare at the water and you wait. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yeah, what is that?

THAD STARNER: [whistles]

LYNN: For the first three days pretty much I would...

  1. DENISE HERZING: Oh!

LYNN: We were just driving around.

THAD STARNER: Game of Thrones. 

LYNN: Game of Thrones. 

THAD STARNER: Yeah.

LYNN: In circles. like literally in circles. You know, I feel like I had like a, like a five-hour conversation about Game of Thrones. I've never even seen an episode of Game of Thrones.

LYNN: Any dolphins, any dolphins anywhere? [laughs]

THAD STARNER: Oh, right.

  1. DENISE HERZING: No.

LYNN: There is nothing else to do. 

THAD STARNER: [sings] Come on dolphins. We need you now. Come on dolphins, come on dolphins, come on dolphins, come on dolphins, to kick in...

LYNN: [sings] Dolphins. Dolphins!

LYNN: You see a piece of seaweed, it would look like a dolphin. 

THAD STARNER: [sings] Come on dolphins. 

LYNN: [sings] Dolphins.

LYNN: A wave, it looks like a dolphin. 

LYNN: I have to say that I'm, like, everything looks like a dolphin to me right now.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yeah. There are days like that. 

THAD STARNER: [whistles]...Yep. Dolphins! 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: [cheering] Oh yeah. They are right there. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Woo! Woo!

LYNN: All of a sudden out on the water we see one fin, two fins, three fins 

LYNN: Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Oh, there's so many of them. And they're so cool! 

LYNN: And as we're all standing there watching them, Denise turns to me and she goes...

  1. DENISE HERZING: You want to go in? 

LYNN: I don't know. Do you recommend it? 

LYNN: And I was not prepared for her to say that. And also, I was holding recording equipment everything. And so, I just I ended up just having to go in like in my clothes. [laughs] Like wearing like my shorts and like a bra. And I had like, I had all modesty aside—like thrown aside. They were like, "you can go in." And I was like, "Okay, okay, okay! Go on."

LYNN: Jesus Christ. Here I go. 

[MUSIC OUT]

JAD: We'll be right back.

 

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today...

ROBERT: The show is called Hello.

JAD: Back to Lynn.

LYNN: I mean it's a total sensory shift. The temperature changes, everything goes quiet. It almost feels like this like classic Through the Looking Glass moment. Where you like, you go through the looking glass and like everybody's walking on the ceiling.

ROBERT: Huh. 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: And I jumped in and there were two pretty big dolphins coming right at me. Like maybe two feet from my head and staring at me and I was like uhhhhh. I don't know what I know. [laughs]

ROBERT: What did you do?

LYNN: I stayed very still. I pretty much froze.

JAD: Now, how far were they from you?

LYNN: Two feet.

JAD: Oh my god.

LYNN: Yeah, yeah. Dolphins are not small and they were looking at me in a way that was like, "we see you." And also, they're—they make these [dolphin sound] sort of clicking sonar-y sounds which are like...

ROBERT: Do you think they were talking to you? Or just talking about you?

LYNN: Well, no. What I mean, what I think they were doing is, [dolphin sounds] is sonaring me.

ROBERT: Oh, I see.

LYNN: Sort of looking at me with their—with sound. I mean, my head was vibrating.

ROBERT: Whoa.

LYNN: I mean they can see not just body shape, they can see your bones.

[MUSIC OUT]

JAD: Oh.

LYNN: They can see into you. Like you really feel looked at. 

JAD: Wow.

LYNN: It was heart stopping. 

LYNN: That was un****ing believable. 

THAD STARNER: That's what I was waiting for...

LYNN: Oh! It was so cool. 

LYNN: At that point, I was like the trip could end now and I go home happy. You know and everybody was like, "Calm down. Those weren't even the right dolphins."

ROBERT: What do you mean?

LYNN: Well, those were bottlenose dolphins. Denise studies spotteds. 

ROBERT: Oh.

[MUSIC IN] 

LYNN: But the next day...

LYNN: Alright onward for spotteds. 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Spotteds or bust.

LYNN: We set out again. Go for a few hours. Bethany does this dolphin dance

BETHANY AUGLIERE: Me being energetic. Spotteds! 

LYNN: And...

THAD STARNER: Oh! Got some.

LYNN: Yeah!

THAD STARNER: You saw him, right?

LYNN: Yeah, right there. 

THAD STARNER: Yeah, there we go. Gotta be spotteds, right? 

LYNN: So then, everybody's like, you know, it's like all hands-on deck situation. Everybody's like strapping on the boxes and strapping on headphones. 

LYNN: What are you doing?

ROBERT: Oh, so there's a lot of scrambling?

LYNN: There's so much scrambling. 

THAD STARNER: Oh, there's one off the bow here.

LYNN: It's like a fire— it's like a fire drill. Now...

  1. DENISE HERZING: I'm putting on my box.

LYNN: Here's the problem.

  1. DENISE HERZING: So, I'm just testing. 

LYNN: Unlike a captive dolphin, wild dolphins they have other things to do, they have you know, fish to catch. You kind of have to entice it into having a conversation otherwise it'll just swim away. But how do you do that when you don't know its language?

[MUSIC OUT] 

LYNN: Well, turns out dolphins are just crazy for scarves.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Scarf high, scarf low. [dolphin sound]

[MUSIC IN] 

LYNN: When you throw them a scarf, they sweep it up with their tail fin and then they let it go and it wafts through the water and another dolphin comes up and sweeps it up with their rostrum. So, the idea is you use the scarf as kind of like a bridge. Denise and another diver will get in the water with a scarf.

  1. DENISE HERZING: We'll get in the water and we'll just start… 

LYNN: Passing it back and forth 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Human to human.

LYNN: Like, "Hey look at this fun thing we're doing."

  1. DENISE HERZING: Let them watch. If they want to get in the game, we let them in the game. So, we'll take the toy over to them, show it to them and press the word for scarf. [whistle] Say, "Hey this is a scarf."

JAD: They just made up a whistle for scarf?

LYNN: Yep, and ideally—and this is the key—the dolphins will pick up the word and use it too to ask for the scarf. If and when they do that, then you've got like a tiny bit of common ground that you can build on. Okay...

[MUSIC OUT]

LYNN: Who you got?

DIVER: We have four spotted dolphins.

THAD STARNER: Yeah!

DIVER: Little candidates, Sisten and Pallet.

LYNN: Yes, you've been waiting for them, right?

DIVER: We have!

LYNN: Just before they jump into nice walks another diver through the game plan.

DIVER: Oh.

  1. DENISE HERZING: So, you're gonna hold it and you're not going to give it to him.

DIVER: Okay.

  1. DENISE HERZING: You're going to entice it with him. You're gonna be like, "Oh this is so nice."

DIVER: Should I like, dive down with it and like wave it or? 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yeah, first start at the surface and just really get them with you.

LYNN: Moments later...

DIVER: All clear! 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Good. We're ready. 

LYNN: Denise jumps in, followed by three other divers.

  1. DENISE HERZING: We're in the water.

JAD: Were you in the water this time?

LYNN: No, I actually had to watch the whole thing from the deck. And like you can see from the surface three or four adolescent dolphins...

RESEARCH ASSISTANT: See, Denise's right up next to one of them. 

LYNN: You see the back of her head and her little snorkel. 

THAD STARNER: Oh. That's good. She's surrounded right now. 

LYNN: What are they doing? 

THAD STARNER: I'm not sure. 

LYNN: Oh, they're kind of like twisting around each other.

LYNN: I will say this, she is tremendously graceful in the water. She gets in the water and she's like, totally at home. 

ROBERT: So maybe she is a dolphin? 

LYNN: She might secretly be a dolphin.

LYNN: Going like around and around. There, she goes under. Man, what is happening under there? 

LYNN: This is what it sounds like underwater. [dolphin sounds]

JAD: This is the actual sound from the scarf dance? 

LYNN: They record everything that goes on under there.

JAD: Oh.

LYNN: I mean, a lot of that is the dolphins just doing whatever they're doing. But some of it is Denise with the box making this scarf whistle over and over like, scarf! You want the scarf? Yeah? Scarf? 

JAD: Because she's like trying to get the dolphin to say the word, right? 

LYNN: Yeah. Eventually she in the dolphin surface and...

THAD STARNER: He's got the scarf, right there.

LYNN: Oh! Ahh, he's got the scarf! 

LYNN: One of the dolphins is holding the scarf. 

JAD: Hey!

LYNN: It's like this flash of red. 

THAD STARNER: Yep.

LYNN: And then they all go back under. [dolphin sounds]

THAD STARNER: And if Denise comes back up with it, that's real good.

LYNN: Alright. Wait and see. 

LYNN: After about a minute, she surfaces.

THAD STARNER: I think Denise has it now. 

LYNN: She dives one more time. [dolphin sounds] A minute later, dolphin has the scarf. And this went on and on. They were passing it back and forth so fluidly that I thought maybe the dolphin has begun to ask for the scarf by name. Eventually, Denise gets...

  1. DENISE HERZING: Gravity sucks!

LYNN: Hauled back up onto the boat. And we all just sort of gather around like, well, well?

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yeah, the two juveniles picked up the scarf right away. And we played some signature whistles and played some scarf whistles and then some Sargassum came floating by...

LYNN: Piece of seaweed.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Showed them that, played the Sargassum whistle. 

LYNN: You think you got the name in?

  1. DENISE HERZING: Nothing that triggered the system. But you know, we'll see what it looks like. Whew! It's exhausting.

JAD: Wait, she didn't get anything?

LYNN: Well, I mean, nothing the box recognized as a match. You know, nothing that indicated the dolphin like learned a word.

[MUSIC IN]

JAD: Aww. 

ROBERT: Aww.

JAD: So like, they were right there!

[MUSIC OUT] 

LYNN: But there was this one thing that happened. She said that when she addressed one of the dolphins by its name, the dolphin turned around and looked at her and kind of cocked its little dolphin head.

ROBERT: Really?

LYNN: Yes.

[MUSIC IN]

ROBERT: Oh. I so was hoping that you'd say that! [laughter] Wow!

LYNN: Also. there was this moment where Thad and Celeste were looking at the data later. 

THAD STARNER: Who is that?

LYNN: And they saw that right after Denise made her signature whistle...

THAD STARNER: Is that somebody responding with her signature whistle?

LYNN: Another dolphin made its signature whistles.

THAD STARNER: Sweet. 

CELESTE: Whoa. That's pretty cool.

JAD: You mean like, she said, "Hi." And it said "Hi" back?

LYNN: Yeah. 

ROBERT: That's amazing.

LYNN: Well, maybe. I mean, the thing is, dolphins make their signature whistles all the time. 

[MUSIC OUT]

JAD: Oh.

LYNN: So, it could be nothing. Or it could be this... 

[MUSIC IN]

LYNN: Moment. I mean, she's a very rigorous scientist, like she wants that to happen another 30 times.

  1. DENISE HERZING: Before even starting to take it seriously. 

LYNN: But still, it does make you think about the possibilities. 

LYNN: What do you want to ask?

  1. DENISE HERZING: Oh, I don't know. I want to ask everything. So.

LYNN: Like, what? 

  1. DENISE HERZING: I'd like to know what their lives are like when we're not around. I mean, how do you spend your day? You know, do they think about things? I mean, do they think about the future? They think about the past? I mean, we know they have long term memories. You know, do they remember their calves from 10 years ago? 

LYNN: Do they think about death? 

  1. DENISE HERZING: Yeah, they certainly see it. Could be anything you'd ask your friends, right?

JAD: Although part of me wonders like, are they ever going to even get there?

ROBERT: What do you mean? 

JAD: Well, if the goal is to have a conversation and you're gonna do it this way where you're in the wild and you can't touch them and you've got to verify every whistle 35 times, well— are they ever actually going to have a conversation?

ROBERT: Well, because of the like—day one of the language lesson. I could...

JAD: Yeah, I get it. But like, don't you feel like Margaret was—all the problems of that experiment aside, was—she was actually getting somewhere with Peter? Like they were actually having a real exchange?

ROBERT: In the moment, perhaps. But thinking forward, I believe that what you can accomplish by talking, by having a two-way conversation, is just infinitely greater.

JAD: And I totally agree. But if it's taken her 30 something years to get to a maybe hello.

LYNN: Yeah.

JAD: She doesn't even know if she got to hello yet. And if all she has is just a limited amount of time with these dolphins every summer, then 15 more times is gonna take her 15 more years. And I'm just like, oh God, the planet is gonna be 17 degrees warmer by that point. Dolphins are going to have all migrated to some other spot. It just feels like, ugh, come on. Just get in the pool and hold—Let the dolphin hold your foot.

ROBERT: [laughs] She's already got the hello going for her, maybe, so that's like a start. And then, yes, in 50 years, she may have moved past hello to...

JAD: A three-word sentence. 

ROBERT: How's your mackerel today?

LYNN: Yeah. I think that to. A three-word sentence, yes. I would put money on a three-word sentence in 50 years. The question is, do we ever get to the point of...

ROBERT: Exploring death? 

LYNN: Yeah.

ROBERT: Yeah, I don't know.

JAD: Lynn, do you have faith?

LYNN: Hmmm. I have faith that if Denise continues with what she's doing, that we'll be able to talk about concrete things. We'll be able to talk about seaweed and we'll be able to talk about coral and we'll be able to have a scintillating conversation about scarves. I do believe that. And that is not nothing. I mean, that is pretty impressive in its own way. 

[MUSIC IN]

JAD: Big thanks to our producer Lynn Levy. I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: Thank you guys for listening.

Speaker 1: Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our execute producer, Dylan Kief is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwan, Alex Neason, Sara Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Carolyn McKusker and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.

AMANDA DARBY: This is Amanda Darby, calling from Rockville, Maryland. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org

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