By 1967 Lilly was giving experimental dolphins LSD, which he took liberally himself. The animals made frightened noises, and several died from mysterious causes. His reputation in the scientific community already strained, he received no public money for research after that.
Despite his questionable experiments, Lilly’s spellbinding lectures and books spawned a generation of dolphin enthusiasts. “These cetacea[ns] with huge brains are more intelligent than any man or woman,” he declared. Once we learned to talk to dolphins, we would discover “ideas, philosophies, ways and means not previously conceived by the minds of men.”
One huge Lilly fan was a young New York set designer and stage performer named Diana Reiss, who read everything he wrote. “His stuff was so way-out,” she says today. “I’m reading this stuff, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, he flooded a house?’ From the perspective of someone who knew nothing about dolphins, the whole thing was very cool.”
By 1977 Reiss had enrolled in a Temple University Ph.D. program in bioacoustics and speech science, with an eye toward cetacean studies. Still not working with dolphins, she cold-called scientists for some suggestions. One of them, John Lilly, urged her to visit Betty Brothers, who fed dolphins off her dock in the Florida Keys. That summer, supported by a $2,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Reiss sat in a quiet, reedy cove near the water, setting up recording gear to eavesdrop on dolphin communications.
Her data were never published, but Reiss developed a conviction that would become the underpinning of her life’s work. It came as the dolphins repeatedly threw bits of seaweed onto the beach for her to throw back. “There is someone in there. It’s not a human, but it is a someone,” she says. “I felt that very strongly in Florida in my first foray into working with dolphins. I felt that someone. Much of my work since then has been informed by that feeling, trying to find out more about that kind of someone. What is that mind like?”
Reiss left Florida with an idea for an invention: an underwater keyboard that she could use to decode dolphin communication and understand their vocal learning ability by giving them as much control over the experiment as the humans. Hoping to gain insight into how to build such a device, she spent two years at the Laboratory of Physiological Acoustics in France, studying alongside René-Guy Busnel, an expert in bioacoustics, especially dolphin whistles and human whistle-based languages.
Reiss returned to Temple in 1980 to finish her Ph.D. and implement her keyboard, but she had neither animals to study nor the money to begin. So she tried cold-calling again, this time reaching Barney Oliver, founding director of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories and a scientist involved in SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). If he wanted to communicate with intelligent aliens, Reiss told him, dolphins were the place to start. By the end of the conversation, Oliver agreed to a meeting at HP headquarters in Palo Alto, California. By 1982 he had helped fund a research facility at nearby Marine World in Redwood City, meant to house “reject” dolphins that could not perform in Marine World’s shows. Those rejects—Circe, a female too timid to perform, and Gordo, a fat male with a hormone problem—had been allocated to dolphin petting pools, environments Reiss saw as intrusive and inhumane. She was more than happy to rescue them, pamper them, and provide them with better, less stressful lives while she observed their behavior in larger pools of her own.
A year later, Reiss had a neighbor. Using money partly provided by actor Burgess Meredith (who played Rocky Balboa’s grizzled trainer), John Lilly had acquired a set of smaller pools not far away, where he was still trying to teach dolphins English—an effort that most researchers branded futile. Mostly, camp Reiss and camp Lilly went their separate ways, with Reiss established in a small office and Lilly working out of a van, though occasionally bursting into Reiss’s space. Once, he crept up behind her while she was near a pool and spun her around. “He pressed his thumb to my forehead, like where your third eye is supposed to be, and said, ‘You are going to be the one to break the code,’ ” Reiss recalls. “He meant it in the nicest possible way.”
Lilly was short on results but had one asset that Reiss would later cherish for years: a dolphin named Terry, labeled aggressive by Lilly but cooperative under Reiss’s gentle care. Terry joined Circe and Gordo, and Reiss set out to win her dolphins’ trust. “I would sit by the side of the pool until they invited me in,” Reiss explains. “Then I would go in and stay at the side.”
Over the next decade, Reiss spent most of her working hours with Terry, Circe, and their calves. They became something more than research subjects—something akin to family. Many years later, when Reiss was on maternity leave, Circe’s calf, Delphi, was sold without Reiss’s consent to a facility in the Florida Keys. There, she was killed by falling debris during a hurricane, and Reiss went into deep mourning. “I don’t think I could have felt any worse if one of my closest family members had died,” she says. “I’m still not over it. You have a long-term relationship that you establish over time. Babies were born in the facility; I watched them grow up.”
Terry’s and Circe’s calves participated in Reiss’s first big experiment: her long-planned underwater keyboard, a panel with several keys that yielded distinct computer-generated whistles and rewards when touched. The rewards were a toy, a fish, or an affectionate rub.
Reiss used the keyboard to understand how dolphin communication worked, following her charges from birth. At first a baby dolphin would hit a key and imitate the noise. A couple of years later, the dolphins were associating the sound with the reward or even using it to call an object by name. Delphi, for instance, would hit the ball key, whistle the ball sound, and start playing with the ball. The dolphins incorporated the keyboard sounds so thoroughly, in fact, that they even tweaked them to make them more their own. Along with researchers like Louis Herman, a University of Hawaii scientist who found that dolphins can quickly recognize human gestures like pointing, even when a person is on TV, Reiss was shepherding dolphin science into the modern age.