tanks to his own stereo headphones and trying to imagine what
it would be like to “see” with sound. And that was pretty far out.
On the grant applicatiOns, however, the central research
project of Lilly’s Caribbean dolphin institute was more straightforward: “communication.” At the most basic level this meant studying the phonations of Tursiops truncatus in an e=ort to understand
if they could communicate with each other, and, by extension, if
we could communicate with them. Like any savvy fund-raiser, Lilly
sold his idea of intelligent and communicative dolphins to di=erent
people in di=erent ways, and he started with those he knew best:
his earliest and most important backers were in the military.
One of Lilly’s old classmates from Caltech, William B.
McLean, had gone on to glory as a wizard of warcraft, developing
the Sidewinder (the first functional air-to-air missile), and rising
to serve as the technical director of the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test
Station (NOTS) in China Lake, California. McLean was struck by
Lilly’s visionary ideas, and had him out to NOTS for a briefing —
where he clearly stimulated some out-of-the-box thinking. Sifting Lilly’s correspondence from these heady and secretive years,
I discovered a magnificently cryptic letter from an excited Navy
researcher at NOTS following up on the visit:
I have wondered whether it might not be feasible to attempt to
develop some mechanical equipment that a dolphin might use
. . . [and] wondered whether it might be at all feasible (and I
realize that this idea may sound a little fantastic) to arm dolphins with some sort of weapon that would enable them more
easily to attack shark . . .
And why not something more elaborate, like,
. . . the possibility of developing some dolphin toys, large complex mechanical devices that might be of some interest to
dolphins in the open seas, that would involve some kinds of
buttons to push that would generate running water, perhaps
with one trained dolphin teaching others.
It is surpassingly unlikely that the Navy was contemplating
mid-ocean dolphin playgrounds at the height of the Cold War.
The veils of euphemism barely conceal that something considerably more germane to national defense was on the drawing
boards at China Lake. Lilly himself, writing a few years later, was
They could be very useful as antipersonnel self-directing weapons. They could do nocturnal harbor work, capture spies let
out of submarines or dropped from airplanes, attacking si-
lently and efficiently and bringing back information from such
contacts. They could deliver atomic nuclear warheads and attach them to submarines or surface vessels and to torpedoes
By 1961, the Navy had developed its own research program
on dolphin communications and intelligence, and two years
later a formal Navy facility for marine mammal study and training had been opened at the Naval Missile Center at Point Mugu,
a little north of Los Angeles. Lilly, however, who was spending
more and more time in his floatation tank trying to commune
with his experimental animals, would soon be persona non grata
at this facility, despite his having had a hand in its creation. The
buzz-headed types had noticed that Lilly was getting a little,
But the Navy was never Lilly’s only paymaster. Persuaded that
he had glimpsed a genuine dolphin “intelligence” in the late
1950s, Lilly also succeeded in selling the nation’s nascent space
administration on the idea that his dolphin laboratory could
provide a model system for “breaking through” to a nonhuman
mind. In the era of Sputnik this meant actual extraterrestrials,
which may sound crazy now, but these issues lay on the cutting edge of national concern in those days: if we met the little
green men (or, more likely, started receiving radio signals from
deep space that looked to carry nonstochastic levels of information), what would we do? Lilly promised that dolphins o=ered
a chance to rehearse, and he positioned CRI as a visionary organization conducting fundamental work in exobiology. In fact,
by 1962, Lilly even presided as the “Grand Dolphin” over a kind
of semiserious secret society of prominent astrophysicists, radio
astronomers, atmospheric chemists, and computer engineers
who called themselves “The Order of the Dolphin,” wore small,
engraved Tursiops insignia (a little like a tie clip), and exchanged
messages in binary code to test each others’ readiness for extraterrestrial contact.
One of these visionary “Dolphins” was a brilliant young Harvard astrophysicist named Carl Sagan, who made his way down
to St. Thomas several times in these years to meet Lilly’s dolphins and muse about alternate forms of life in the cosmos.
By 1964, “Want to come and see my dolphins?” had become
an irresistible invitation.
that was Because by the early 1960s Lilly and his dolphins
had become a national, indeed an international, phenomenon.
In the wake of the initial flurry of interest in his 1958 claims
about the linguistic abilities of Tursiops truncatus, Lilly seized a
trade-book contract and gave free rein to his exuberant imagination. The resulting volume— Man and Dolphin, published by