In the spring of 1982, I left my computer programming job in Minneapolis and set out in my blue Honda Accord in search of new experiences. (I’ve written about how and why I began this adventure here.) There were a lot of people and places I wanted to see and a lot of things I wanted to do, but at the top of my list was connecting with John Lilly’s Human/Dolphin Foundation.
Lilly had been working on ways to communicate with dolphins since the 1960s, and I’d read all of his books. The workings of human minds, animal minds, and language had long been keen interests of mine, and the idea of working out a way to communicate directly with a non-human intelligent species captivated me. I’d published an article about the intelligence of dolphins and whales in 1981.
After a month of meandering through the American southwest and a few days hanging out in San Diego, I drove up the California coast to Palo Alto on Thursday, April 22. My friend Mike Leonard was attending Stanford University, and I’d arranged to meet him there. Together we drove a few miles north to the Marine World/Africa USA theme park in Redwood City to attend a talk by Dr. John Lilly. Lilly had established a dolphin research center in an area just outside of the public theme park. The event was a benefit for all of the research projects being done at the park. We saw a demonstration of the techniques used in training orcas, and heard from other researchers working with sea lions and dolphins, and the veterinarian in charge of saving beached sea mammals, before Lilly came on the stage.
Lilly was introduced as the man who had inspired most of the research going on at the park – the man with a dream. We saw a film about Lilly’s “Project Janus”, and then he talked in general terms about communicating with dolphins and whales. He spoke of how humbling it is to work with creatures “much more intelligent than humans.” It was clear that he was absolutely convinced of their superior intelligence, speaking as if it were an established fact. In that way he was less scientifically hedging and skeptical than the position he had maintained in his books. He answered a question about extra-sensory communication with dolphins by saying that that sort of communication requires a highly talented person, while the computer-mediated method he was developing could be used by anyone.
I had two personal contacts with John Lilly that evening. I bought a hardcover copy of his book “Communication Between Man and Dolphin,” and during a break went up to where he was talking to someone else and had him sign it. As he was beginning to turn away, I said, “Dr. Lilly?” He turned back to me, and I told him I was a computer programmer interested in working on his project. He quickly passed me off to a young woman named Jennifer, and she gave me a phone number to call during the day.
I wanted to talk to Lilly some more. I wanted to impinge myself on his consciousness. When the event was over I went up to him again. He shook my hand, and I asked, “Have you ever had any experiences where you felt you were in direct mind-to-mind communication with the dolphins?” He said, “Yes, many times.” I asked, “Was that in your isolation tank work?” He said, “Yes, in fact one of the first isolation tanks was right above the dolphin tank in St. Thomas.” I said, “I don’t remember you ever writing about this in your books,” and he said, “No, I wrote the dolphin books and The Center of the Cyclone and that series, and tried to keep them separate. Maybe someday I’ll write a book that ties it all together.” I said, “That would be good, I’ll be looking forward to that book.” He smiled and said “Thanks” and turned away.
My overall impression was that he seemed very tired. Not just tired that evening, but tired after a full life.
The next morning, after fidgeting nervously for a while about making the call, I dialed the number Jennifer had given me. A man answered and told me that Jennifer was busy, and handed the phone to John Lilly. I started to explain who I was, but he just said “Why don’t you call back in half an hour. Jennifer will be free then.” When I called back later, I told her of my background and current situation – that I could do some volunteer work for a few weeks and maybe come back later for a longer-term commitment. She suggested that I set up an appointment so I could meet everyone on the team, especially John Kert, who was managing the project for Lilly.
The goal of Lilly’s Project Janus was to create a whistle-word vocabulary which the dolphins could both understand and vocalize themselves. It was to be the beginning of a language that humans and dolphins could use to communicate. But since humans can’t produce the kind of sounds that dolphins can, the human end of the conversation would be mediated by a computer-controlled whistle-producing device, connected to an underwater speaker in the dolphin tank.
On Sunday, April 25, 1982 I wrote in my journal:
I have ideas about teaching the dolphins arithmetic and studying communication between dolphins. I think the most important short term goal should be to determine and demonstrate the dolphins’ intelligence. Once that is done I expect humans would at least stop killing them, and it would also get enough people interested in them that the communication barrier might be broken through much sooner. Communicating with the dolphins at a high level is certainly one way of demonstrating their intelligence but it might not be the fastest way. If it could be shown that they transmit complex information between themselves it would also demonstrate intelligence, even if we can’t decipher exactly what they say. Teaching them to add, subtract, and multiply might do the same thing. It would also be worthwhile to work out some method of determining their time sense and ability to plan, and other skills that are basic to human intelligence.
On Monday, May 3, 1982 I wrote:
I spent a rather frustrating week at Stanford. I kept trying to get hold of John Kert, and waiting around Mike’s apartment for him to call. Monday afternoon I visited the dolphin project at Marine World – met some of the people involved, saw the dolphins and the truck full of computers and electronic equipment, but nobody there could explain the technical parts of the project to me. Apparently John Kert has done most of the programming. I got generally good vibes from everyone there except for Jennifer, who almost seems to be holding me off, like she doesn’t trust me, or thinks I’m just a spaced out hippy, or something – I don’t know exactly what the problem is.
I finally got in touch with John Kert on Thursday, and made an appointment to talk with him at Marine World on Tuesday at noon.
Lilly had two dolphins at his research site, a male and a female, named Joe and Rosalie. They were in a pair of two round tanks, connected by a narrow channel. I was told by people working on the project that it had taken a lot of time and effort to get the dolphins comfortable with swimming through the channel. This was my first hint at how excruciatingly slow progress would be in this project.
Someone there showed me around the research site. Parked next to the tanks there was a white panel truck. Inside the truck there was one of Lilly’s flotation/sensory isolation tanks, and a desk with an Apple II computer on it. The computer was connected to three devices in the dolphin tank: a microphone, a speaker, and a display monitor. The underwater microphone and speaker had an obvious use: Lilly’s plan was to develop a whistle-based language that the dolphins could learn and use to communicate with humans. The Apple computer would somehow facilitate the translation between human language and this whistle language. I’m not sure what the plan was for the underwater display monitor, but its existence was what gave me an idea for how I could contribute to the project.
Saturday, May 8, 1982:
It is finally paying off – I am starting to work with the dolphins. I feel like I have a plan again, a purpose.
Tuesday I met John Kert, and he explained the technical details of the communication project. I hung around for several hours and watched some of the Janus sessions. I can see how much patience a project like this requires. It goes so slowly – there is such a gulf between humans and dolphins. I played with the dolphins, too – sat on a platform over the water and stuck my arms down in the water. They would swim by so I could rub their backs, sides, and tails. They didn’t seem to like it if I got close to their snouts – they would snap at me and I’d jerk my hand away. But it was my closest contact yet with dolphins. I played with them again yesterday and today. They seem quit temperamental. I guess just about everyone who works with them has problems sometimes. They are young and I suspect not really too happy being confined in a tank.
Today I tried leaving my hand in the water and not letting the dolphin intimidate me. Rosalie would swim up and threaten my hand with her open jaws, and nudge against it, but she didn’t hurt me. I haven’t yet gone into the water with them, but I want to do that some time this week.
Friday I was starting to feel that it was taking a hopelessly long time to get started on my work with the dolphins. I had been put in a position of waiting for other people, over and over, for two weeks. It seemed like it would take months to actually accomplish anything meaningful. So I began to decide that I would stay around one more week and make a good contact with the other people working on the project. In other words, I let go and quit pushing, and decided I would just do what I could do and accept it. And of course as soon as I let go, things began to happen.
I went to Marine World on Friday and John Kert told me that someone was going to put together a little electronic box that could distinguish between three broad frequency ranges: high, low, and medium pitched whistles. I could do whatever I wanted with these inputs. (Previously I had told him I was interested in writing some sort of interactive game for the dolphins.) So I started to familiarize myself with the Apple computer and its Pascal programming language.
I talked with Mike about what I could do, and he helped me come up with some ideas. I decided the first task would just be to get the dolphins interested in interacting with the computer – teach them that that they can control what the computer does. So I decided to write a simple program that would let them draw on the underwater screen. Two sounds mean to turn clockwise or counterclockwise,and a third means to go forward, leaving a line behind. The size of the jumps and the angle of the turns are fixed parameters. I started that program on Saturday and am getting close to finished. It seems like a simple, dumb program but it involves some things that have been hard to figure out, like wrap-around algorithms and a good non-destructive cursor. And I have spent some time battling the Apple. I’m having to learn a new system, never having worked with microcomputers before, and not having programmed in Pascal hardly at all. The system can be flaky, sometimes rejecting my diskettes or hanging for no apparent reason, and these problems have consumed a lot of time, also. But it is keeping me interested, because it is all new to me, and it’s got an interesting goal. As far as I know, nobody has ever written a program to be used by dolphins before.
It will be new to the dolphins in several ways. They have never interacted directly with computers before, and they have never had the experience of drawing pictures. I don’t know what they will do – they might not be interested at all.
It has occurred to me that I really am very skilled at working with computers and I even enjoy it – I don’t necessarily have to abandon computers altogether. It is just the particular job I was in at Control Data that had become mind-numbing. I just need to feel that the work I’m doing has some meaning besides saving some money for a giant corporation.
I am becoming familiar with the other people who work with the dolphins, and they trust me leaving me in the place alone sometimes and telling me to lock up when I’m done for the day.
Thursday, May 13, 1982:
Today was a good day. I finished my program, and I swam with the dolphins.
It was late in the afternoon and about five of the staff members were putting on wetsuits and masks to swim in the tank. Tom invited me to come in with them. I had my swimming suit in my pack – I’ve been bringing it every day in case I got a chance to go in. I borrowed the top of a wetsuit since it was pretty chilly (but it didn’t fit too well) and a face mask and flippers. I’m not used to any of that gear, and the flippers especially made me feel awkward. But the face mask was nice – I was amazed to find how clearly I could see underwater with it. But I couldn’t look underwater for very long at a time because I didn’t have a snorkel. The wetsuit kept me afloat so I didn’t get too tired from paddling around. Overall it was fun, though it was fast and confusing. It was hard to keep track of the dolphins.
I was cold when I got out. I shivered for a long time, even after taking a warm shower in the trailer. But I sat around in the trailer with the other people drinking hot cocoa and listening to their conversation. I am starting to feel accepted as one of the group, almost. I am also slowly learning more about interacting with the dolphins. Every day I’ve played with them a little from the platform. I try to stroke them, and often they have nipped or snapped at my hands. So I began just leaving my hand in the water when that happened, demonstrating that I’m not afraid. When I do that they seem either to be annoyed or they just ignore me. Yesterday I talked with a guy there, whose name I don’t know, and he mentioned that hands dangling in the water often get nipped, no matter whose they are, and said they’ve been more successful stroking the dolphins with a sponge. So today I used the sponge and got a much more positive reaction. Rosalie came back for more sponge rubs several times, and then initiated a game with an inner tube that was floating in the tank.
I spent quite a bit of time today explaining use of the Apple, and my program, to a woman named Sandra. She’s a writer and is excited about learning to program.
If I’m honest about my motives for working with the dolphins I have to admit I have a lot of ego involvement. MY program will probably be the first computer game – or interaction of any kind – any dolphin has played with a computer. I feel like my motives should be more “pure” somehow but I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m aware of my motives and don’t let them interfere with doing what’s best for the project.
Friday, May 14, 1982:
Today I spent a couple of hours in the isolation tank by the Human/Dolphin area at Marine World. I’ve been wanting to try one, especially since I read The Center of the Cyclone.
The door of the tank was not totally light-proof, so with my eyes open I could barely see a dim streak of light. I discovered later that I could be in total darkness by putting my head at the other end of the tank. It was not completely soundproof, either. Airplane noises in particular came through, and some noises made by people in the other half of the trailer. But it was still very quiet – quiet enough for me to hear my heartbeat.
I found that even with outside distractions cut to a minimum this way I still had trouble letting go of my left-brain thought processes. It is like a noisy kid, constantly yammering away whether it has anything to say or not. It is hard for me to get into a state of just being. I reran conversations and events in my mind, thought about my trip, my computer program, all kinds of random stuff. In other words, I was spending most of my time in the past or the future, and not much in the present. I guess I do that all the time, but the isolation tank makes it much more obvious. There were times when I came clearly into the present, though, and experienced just what I was feeling/seeing/hearing/imagining at that current moment. For some reason it was easier to do that with my eyes open, maybe because when my eyes are closed I fall into my normal “go to sleep” program. With my eyes open I expect to see something, and the oddity of seeing nothing brings me into the present. Also the expectation of seeing something makes it easier to imagine that I’m seeing something. And I did see some things. At first it was pretty spacey stuff – slowly swirling diffuse patterns, like I’ve seen at laser shows. Later I saw abstract images of whales and dolphins. The images were all white on black, no colors. They moved by in slow-motion jerks, as if I was seeing a fast slide show of dolphins leaping and diving. Shapes would change their meaning – for example, I might see a dolphin diving under the water, and then its flukes would become the open mouth of another dolphin. Stuff like that. But it was all very vague, there were not clear images and it was not like “really” seeing — I was aware at all times that I could only see blackness and these other images were somehow played out in another part of my brain. Sort of like when you remember a face or a scene – you get a visual image in your head and your attention is focused on that but somehow at the same time you are seeing whatever is actually in front of you at the moment.
I also experienced some sensations of movement – slowly rotating, or rising or slowly dropping. I tried OMing a little and that seemed to cause a sensation of being lowered downward. Really, though, nothing very dramatic happened.
I don’t really know how long I was in the tank because there wasn’t a clock around, but I think it was 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I think it will take more experience and maybe longer tank sessions before I’m able to control my awareness and internal reality the way Lilly has described. I would like to experiment with it some more, though, and that’s another reason for me to come back and work with the Human Dolphin Foundation.
Wednesday, May 19, 1982
I want to talk with John Kert some more, and maybe the guy who is building the dolphin input box. I would really like to be there when the dolphins first see my program. I’m going to see John Kert this afternoon.
Tuesday, June 1, 1982
I spent last week going in to work at Marine World every day. Sandy showed my program to just about everyone at H/D F and they are all really excited about it. I spent the week twiddling with it and hooking it up to an assembly language routine to read the inputs from the dolphin whistle box. I still don’t know when that will be done but I expect it in the next few weeks.
I also swam with the dolphins a couple more times last week. I don’t really have much contact with them when I’m in the tank. They swim past and sometimes I can stroke them as they go by but I’ve never gotten a ride the way some people do by holding on to the dorsal fins. At best Joe and Rosalie seem to ignore me – understandable since I am so awkward in the water. I’m not used to flippers and face masks and especially snorkels. I tried a snorkel once – the tank is so small that it seemed a safe place to experiment. It was nice to be able to keep my face underwater and still breathe but it felt funny – a little strangling – to have to breath through this thing in my mouth. I didn’t last very long with it. If I’m going to continue swimming with dolphins I’d like to get my own mask, snorkel and flippers, and practice with them away from the dolphin tank.
I also spent another hour or hour and a half in the isolation tank. This time I started out listening to John Lilly’s “Cogitate” tape. I spent less time getting accustomed to the experience this time. I would still like to have regular access to a tank and experiment with longer times.
Shortly after that June 1st journal entry, I realized it was going to be a while before the electronic box would be available, and meanwhile I had nothing in particular to do. So I decided I would drive up to Oregon and visit my friend Doug Brown there while I was waiting.
Monday, June 14, 1982 – In Beaverton, Oregon
I talked with John Kert on Friday. The box is being built and might be done this week. He said to call back Wednesday to see how it’s going, and said they would wait to “plug it in” until I’m there to see it, which I appreciated.
I spent the rest of the summer and fall of 1982 continuing to travel around the USA. I spent some time back in Minneapolis, visited friends in Ohio, drove to New York City and went to the top of the World Trade Center. In September I drove down to Florida, where I watched a space shuttle launch, and ended up spending a few months in Miami with my friend Jim Bowery. Toward the end of the year I went back to Champaign-Urbana to spend Christmas with my family. While there, I called John Kert and asked how things were going with the project.
John told me that they had finally gotten the electronic interface box working and installed. The dolphins had interacted with the program I had written and seemed interested in what was happening on the screen. But then the underwater monitor had developed a leak and quit working.
So ended my piece of Project Janus. But at least the experience left me with the unique distinction of being able to put “Invented a computer game for dolphins” on my resume.
Some photos I took while working on Lilly’s project:
In the photo above, the white pole to the right of the human leads down to where the computer monitor was mounted. You can just barely see the top of the monitor below the surface of the water.
In May 2015, National Geographic published a pretty good piece about the state of dolphin research: It’s Time for a Conversation