In 1978 we sailed out to meet a pod of spotted dolphins we'd be told about by a treasure diver. After two days of sailing we found the school, made contact and swam with them on a glorious late afternoon. Our next approach to establish contact was to put an underwater "piano" in the water. The results were phenomenal and opened a relationship that has lasted more than thirty years.
The following sequence comes from The Voice of the Dolphins.
As Steve prepared his gear, Ray went back to bail out the whaler and found a dead barracuda in the bottom of the boat. No one could explain how a barracuda might have gotten there. We hadn’t been fishing. Could it have jumped in by accident? Then I noticed the dead fish had a set of teeth marks on its dorsal side behind the head that matched the shape of a dolphin jaw. The only possible answer seemed to be that one of the dolphins had somehow killed it and placed it in our dingy. Was this the barracuda that had been annoying some of us the previous afternoon? Could the dolphins be concerned about our safety or even our state of mind? Was it a joke or a display of their powers? That mystery would last several years before later events led to a plausible answer.
The camera team put on scuba gear and slipped into the water. John lowered what we called “the piano” over the side to Steve, who was worried the rise and fall of the swells would slam his precious instrument against the hull and damage it before he could put it to use. The instrument was essentially a keyboard attached to a synthesizer with an underwater speaker clipped to the side. This was housed in Plexiglas, just like underwater cameras of the day. Steve held it in his hands. Nothing connected him to it except a line from his scuba tank. The contraption was about the size of an accordion. It weighed nothing when in the water but was slightly awkward and subject to the currents.
He pushed off from the side of the boat, exhaled, and descended, regulating his breathing to provide air to power the instrument. Although there were no dolphins in sight, Jack and Jim assumed positions to film whatever happened.
Steve was kneeling on the bottom at a depth of about eighteen feet when he began playing. A couple of minutes passed, and nothing happened. I was looking around and wondering whether I should associate myself with this bizarre undertaking. Five minutes passed. Steve was still playing, but I was already shaking my head and mumbling to myself that I’d never really thought this music business would work. I walked to the bow . . .
A squadron of dolphins appeared, moving at phenomenal speed, flying more than swimming. They covered three hundred yards in a matter of seconds, and when they reached Albury’s bow, they dove, wheeling and turning around the source of the music.
For Steve their arrival came as a complete surprise. The film footage Jack shot shows him snapping his head up and left as the dolphins flew past him like fighter jets on a strafing run. He changed his music instantly from fugue to a kind of polka, and pushed off the sand to swim about six feet above the bottom. The dolphins took up positions just ahead of him and matched their speed to his as though they were enjoying the show. Before long, dolphins and humans had calmed, and if you didn’t think too hard, all that was happening was that a man with an underwater piano was playing a concert for a school of dolphins thirty miles from the nearest land.
Aboard Albury, all we could see were rippling dark shapes against the white sand bottom. But it was clear that the dolphins were staying very close to Steve. And the cameras were rolling.
A group of four young dolphins swam slowly just in front of the Plexiglas box, leaving only long enough to rise to the surface for a breath of air, then gliding back to be near the music. Six older dolphins swam in the mid-water, curious but unwilling to approach as closely as the juveniles. They kept up a steady but relaxed stream of clicks and whistles, occasionally flicking their tail flukes and whistling with some energy. Steve felt they were attempting to interact with his music through their vocalizations but he couldn’t be sure. The sounds dolphins make are at the upper range of human hearing and we register only a tiny fraction of their vocal output. In addition, it’s difficult to determine which dolphin is vocalizing at any given moment. Sound travels five times faster in water than it does in air, so the ability we normally have to directionalize is lost.
After half an hour of hard breathing, Steve returned to Albury for a fresh tank of air along with the cameramen who needed to reload. Scuba tanks were changed and camera housings dried and opened so magazines could be swapped out.
The dolphins lingered around our boat roughhousing among themselves. Steve came on deck. He didn’t want to wrestle with the underwater piano any further. Now he wanted to sing into a microphone connected to underwater speakers hanging from the boat’s starboard side. It would be another experiment. He crooned a few phrases. We looked up and the dolphins had vanished. Steve looked very hurt. But at least we were learning what dolphins like and don’t like.
With the dolphins gone, Captain Mike began to organize us for the return to Marsh Harbor. As we hauled anchor and took up an easterly course, I stared at the unbroken, featureless surface of the sea. At an earlier time, I might have described the scene as desolate, but now I knew that beyond this looking glass was a world peopled by friendly and curious dolphins.
I remember little of the return trip to Marsh Harbor. Michael and I were convinced that we had a fantastic film in the can. Nothing like this had ever been filmed before. But more than that, my thoughts were of the dolphins themselves. Visions of individual faces and memories of moments of contact played behind my eyes as I stared, without focusing, at the sea, the outside world barely a distraction.