Monday, 9 June 2014

The dolphin who loved me

In the 1960s, Margaret Lovatt was part of a Nasa-funded project to communicate with dolphins. Soon she was living with 'Peter' 24 hours a day in a converted house. Christopher Riley reports on an experiment that went tragically wrong


The Observer, Sunday 8 June 2014

Like most children, Margaret Howe Lovatt grew up with stories of talking animals. "There was this book that my mother gave to me called Miss Kelly," she remembers with a twinkle in her eye. "It was a story about a cat who could talk and understand humans and it just stuck with me that maybe there is this possibility."

Unlike most children, Lovatt didn't leave these tales of talking animals behind her as she grew up. In her early 20s, living on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, they took on a new significance. During Christmas 1963, her brother-in-law mentioned a secret laboratory at the eastern end of the island where they were working with dolphins. She decided to pay the lab a visit early the following year. "I was curious," Lovatt recalls. "I drove out there, down a muddy hill, and at the bottom was a cliff with a big white building."

Lovatt was met by a tall man with tousled hair, wearing an open shirt and smoking a cigarette. His name was Gregory Bateson, a great intellectual of the 20th century and the director of the lab. "Why did you come here?" he asked Lovatt.

"Well, I heard you had dolphins," she replied, "and I thought I'd come and see if there was anything I could do or any way I could help…" Unused to unannounced visitors and impressed by her bravado, Bateson invited her to meet the animals and asked her to watch them for a while and write down what she saw. Despite her lack of scientific training, Lovatt turned out to be an intuitive observer of animal behaviour and Bateson told her she could come back whenever she wanted.

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