If you’re looking for violence and gore among creatures of the deep, you’ll have to wait until Shark Week on the Discovery Channel in August. But if you’re seeking an extremely strange and touching story of oceanic love, sex, and suicide, you’ll have to fly to England to watch BBC Four next Tuesday night.
On June 17 at 9PM the British TV channel will air “The Girl Who Talked To Dolphins,” which details the saga of Margaret Howe and a bottlenose dolphin named Peter, who lived together for weeks as part of a scientific experiment in 1965.
The experiment was helmed by Dr. John Lilly, who later became howlingly insane after repeatedly injecting himself with ketamine and spending a little bit too much time in isolation tanks with these highly intelligent magical sea creatures.
Margaret Howe’s involvement with the ironically named Peter took place in the also ironically named Virgin Islands, because it was here that Peter would lose his virginity—at least to Margaret’s hand.
She was given the task of living, sleeping, bathing, and playing with Peter while trying to teach him to communicate in English. After a few weeks, it became evident that Peter was developing a romantic and sexual attachment to her. According to Margaret:
Peter liked to be [pauses] with me. He would rub himself on my knee or my foot or my hand or whatever, and I allowed that, I didn’t—I wasn’t uncomfortable with that as long as it wasn’t too rough. … In the beginning when he would get rambunctious and have this need, I would put him on the elevator and say, “You go play with the girls [female dolphins] for a day.”
As a BBC announcer solemnly tells it over the sort of cloying music you hear in heartbreaking cinematic love stories where one partner dies of cancer:
But as Peter’s urges grew more frequent, the process of transporting him down to the two female dolphins to satisfy him proved disruptive. And Margaret felt the best way of focusing his mind back on the lessons was to relieve his desires herself manually.
Margaret proceeds to explain how she would relieve Peter of his pent-up cetacean sexual tension:
It was just easier to incorporate that and, and let it happen. … It was very, uh, precious, it was very gentle, uh, Peter was right there, he knew that I 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—we’ll scratch it and we’ll be done with [it]. Move on. And that’s really all it was. [Laughs] I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter.
But right when their relationship began to get physical rather than merely emotional, funding for the project dried up. Peter and Margaret were separated. He was shlepped to a dolphin tank in Florida, where within weeks, he “committed suicide by refusing to breathe, and sinking to the bottom of his tank.”
A veterinarian named Andy Williamson blames the forlorn male dolphin’s act of self-cessation on a broken heart: “Margaret could rationalize it, but when she left, could Peter? Here’s the love of his life gone.”
For her part, Margaret could no longer see him as a mere dolphin:
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. … I did have a very close encounter with — I can’t even say a dolphin again — Peter.
As a famous civil-rights leader once said, the arc of the sexual universe is long, but it eventually bends toward dolphin suicide.