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Season 12 | Episode 10


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(Photo Credit: きうこ)

It's hard to start a conversation with a stranger—especially when that stranger is, well, different. He doesn't share your customs, celebrate your holidays, watch your TV shows, or even speak your language. Plus he has a blowhole.

In this episode, we try to make contact with some of the strangest strangers on our little planet: dolphins. Producer Lynn Levy eavesdrops on some human-dolphin conversations, from a studio apartment in the Virgin Islands to a research vessel in the Bermuda Triangle.


Special thanks for the music of Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra

Produced by:

Lynn Levy

Home Is Where Your Dolphin Is

In the 1960's, Margaret Howe had a very unusual roommate: a bottlenose dolphin named Peter.   

Comments [20]

What Do Dolphins Talk About?

Denise Herzing has been studying the same pod of wild dolphins for 30 years. But this year, things are different.

Comments [6]

Comments [61]

Marisa Vitiello from Tacoma, WA

My art collaborator and I were so taken by this story of Margaret and Peter that we created a storefront installation in downtown Tacoma inspired by it. Check our blog entry at for pictures and more information.

Jun. 12 2015 03:32 PM
Mia Belanger from oviedo, FL

It's interesting how they are trying to teach dolphins English. I thought it was cool she shared a room with a dolphin. I believe dolphins are very intelligent, but teaching them English seems odd considering we don't know everything about theirs. I don't agree with giving dolpfins LSD. It's not natural for their bodies to be exposed to that drug.

Mar. 29 2015 07:33 PM
Elizabeth King

I thought this was super interesting especially in the fact that she literally shared a room with a dolphin. One of the majors I'm looking into is Marine Biology and I personally think that to live in a room with a dolphin, that is half flooded with water would be interesting especially if you are trying to teach it English. Overall this was quite an experiment and just goes to show how interesting a "big dumb fish" really is.

Mar. 23 2015 11:08 PM
Reh from United States

Wait...what happened to peter?!

Feb. 12 2015 05:57 PM
Katniss K. Bond from USA

I think it's a far-fetched idea, but one worth considering. Teaching a Dolphin English would be EXTREMELY difficult, yet at the same time the concept is intriguing. If someone was able to successfully teach one human dialect, I'd be stunned.

Jan. 26 2015 08:10 PM
Agatha Y. Coleridge

The results that they were trying to obtain from the experiment seemed a little farfetched. Although the woman’s dedication to even live with the dolphin for the experiment was amazing, trying to get the dolphin to speak english isn’t physically possible. It made more sense when they made the whistle translator so the humans could somewhat communicate with the dolphins, rather than to train the dolphins to speak to them. If they were to touch up and advance the technology for the device that they created, I would love to know how the dolphin’s mind works.

Jan. 19 2015 08:34 PM
Zakariya Hassouneh from USA

I found this podcast extremley strange. First off, I understand the desire to study dolphins since they correlate to humans in numerous ways but the idea of this money going to something more useful such as research on diseases or medicene seems more helpful. This women was trying to teach a dolphin English. Which seems completley absurd. This isn't a human trying to learn Mandrian Chinese. This is a human trying to learn the language of a completley different species and trying to deceiver what they are saying. We don't even know if this mammal has sense of what we are saying to them. This seems somewhat like a lost cause to me personally.

Jan. 12 2015 07:30 PM
Ferhat from Besiktas

I can not understand why the radiolab broadcast this slaughter about Dolphins.

Dec. 05 2014 04:15 PM
Ferhat from Besiktas

Please, stop the strive with Dolphins.They are not Human's toys.Their homes are oceans and seas.They do not belong the sea world and huge pools.If you do that, they suffer.Please watch The Cove that is movie about Dolphins.

Dec. 05 2014 04:10 PM
Brando Owens from Oviedo

The idea that humans can learn to talk animals has always been my childhood dreams. I found it strange that people were trying to make the dolphin speak english considering the fact doliphins cant make the same noises people can. It's more logical for humans to learn the dolphine language. It would be vary cool to now what a dolphine is thinking.

Nov. 24 2014 11:39 PM
Clint from Utah

I wonder what dolphins will think of our political system when we get to that sophisticated of a conversation. Will they get involved? What will it do to their peaceful life in the ocean? I worry for those dolphins. They don't know what they are talking themselves into.

Nov. 11 2014 08:23 PM
Sherlock D. Whiler from United States

This makes me think. The fact that one would try to teach a dolphin English is very weird. The whole experiment seems off, and leads to more questions than answers. Keeping in mind that this test was created about 50 years ago, I would think that one would know it just would not work. We cant speak English with dolphins, or any animal for that matter. Every animal has their own form of communication. And to keep a dolphin in such a closed space for a long period of time. That is borderline crazy.

Nov. 09 2014 03:31 PM
Becky K. Woolf from Hooville

The intensive research on dolphins is quite interesting. The fact that it is even possible we could mildly understand dolphins in unbelievable. The podcast goes on to speak on how intelligent dolphins are. Just as intelligent as humans, it says. Throughout the years and history, more and more interests in dolphins was piling up. Studies upon studies are drilled into dolphins but only few dedicated their life to it. Margaret decided to stay with her. To understand one, she chose to be one. To be yourself in the shoes of the dolphin was Margaret's goal and she succeeded and learned more than expected.

Nov. 03 2014 06:30 PM
Becky A. Yeats from earth

I am blown away that a person actually attempted to board with a dolphin in attempt to make it learn English. I have never heard of an experiment where they were actually trying to teach it an actual language. You would think since they have occupied the earth with us so long that they would've picked up on it by now. Dolphins are extremely intelligent creatures but the likelihood of them actually learning a language is next to nothing. They can make signals, blow whistles or hold up signs. But teaching them English would have an extremely difficult considering they have a blowhole instead of other dominant species. If they do get this dolphin to obey them and "learn.

Oct. 27 2014 10:46 PM
Lyra A. Swift from behind you

The fact that dolphins can learn a human language to any significant degree is extremely interesting. However, the fact that no results were able to be published from this study doesn't surprise me much. Trying to teach a dolphin English seems like it would be too abstract of a way to get any sort of useful data. Testing something more specific about the dolphin's brain, such as its memory, how quickly it learns new behavior, or even its ability to solve puzzles would measure the dolphin's intelligence on a scale more comparable to a human's.

Oct. 20 2014 10:20 PM
Katniss B. Sinclair

It's very interesting how a human can communicate efficiently with a Bottle-nose Dolphin. However, this was taken to a new degree. This women was part of an experiment to become roommates with a Dolphin, and to teach him English. Dolphins have huge brains, very similar to the structure of humans, so they tried to examine the extent of their "smartness." I am blown away by how smart they really are, and that they actually tried to communicate back to her. Just like humans, their tones and pitch replicate their moods, and Peter the Dolphin would practice in a mirror the lesson he was taught that day. This was very interesting to learn about and way too much information to type about.

Oct. 20 2014 08:40 PM
Catniss J. Plath

This was a very intriguing episode about communicating with dolphins. The background sounds of the dolphin interacts was very useful for imagery. The whole concept of living in that environment with a dolphin and trying to teach it English is remarkable. It definitely sounds like a hard job.

Oct. 20 2014 07:31 PM
Antonia Neruda from Florida

Although it is usual, I find it unusual that any person would "room" with a dolphin. Also, it is very strange that she would do a project on how to teach a dolphin to speak English. Dolphins have very different brains than us, but they are very intelligent animals. It is an interesting thought that maybe they could speak our language, but it is nearly impossible. They understand the sounds we make but not the actual words itself. Peter, the dolphin, was a very good "student" and seemed committed to wanting to learn the language because he did practice on his own, surprisingly. This podcast was very interesting and inspiring towards what animals could possibly learn our language.

Oct. 18 2014 10:16 PM
Kyle from Memphis

I echo the last commenter: "like, like, like." She even sucked Jad into the habit as well. Please, please--teenagers are pushing us in that direction quickly enough. Be a last holdout of intelligent discourse as we've come to expect.

Oct. 09 2014 08:07 AM

This was a really interesting episode but I was shocked at the reporter's zealous overuse of the word "like"...she sounded like a 19 year old and it was very hard for me to take her seriously even though she clearly put a lot of thought and time into this story. Don't you guys edit this stuff??!!

Oct. 05 2014 06:22 PM
noneya from noneya interesting....

Sep. 26 2014 09:38 PM
H Jones from New York

Several sources indicate that Peter, the dolphin, committed suicide by ceasing to breathe after this experiment lost its funding and he was moved to a less ideal tank in Miami (without Margaret, of course). If an animal bonds with a particular person during an experiment, is there any ethical obligation to follow up with its well being after the experiment is over?

Sep. 23 2014 12:54 AM

Has anyone tried using pictures or symbols to communicate with dolphins? Know they have been trained to do things like finding something and such with symbols. Or maybe how they do with monkeys where there are shapes on a board that they could touch with their beaks and get the image on a screen. Guess it wouldn't be so good with wild dolphins perhaps... Great program though and thank you. Now how apologize for having slaughtered these amazing creatures to ‘eat’. Humans are a blight on this planet.

Sep. 10 2014 08:21 PM
Julie from Ojai, CA

I was stunned by the fact that Radiolab allowed a full minute of (almost) silence during this episode to illustrate the dolphin being affectionate and falling to the floor then coming up to breathe. Incredibly effective use of silence that painted a vivid picture in my mind. Wonderful episode.

Sep. 09 2014 12:58 PM
CB from Los Angeles

Do most of the commenters realize the Lilly experiment took place 50 years ago? It's not like this happened last week. The story is interesting because of the era in which it occurred. We've come a long way since then, both scientifically and ethically. A lot of strange things happened in the 50s and 60s in the name of science. This is one of those stories.

As an aside, the reason that Lilly was doing the language experiments, in the first place, was to try to convince the world that dolphins were sentient beings in order to prevent their slaughter. While he may have been severely misguided in his attempts, he was actually trying to find a way to protect the species.

Sep. 08 2014 09:51 PM
your internet boss from Chicago, IL

Those complaining about Dolphins learning English, is the episode TL;DL ? The third segment of the show talks about a researcher who is trying to communicate with Dolphins using the Dolphin's own squeaks and whistles. Maybe listen to the whole episode before sparying venom on us all.

Sure, teaching a Dolphin English is perhaps not the most inspired idea, but it is a starting point and remember that this chapter takes place way back in the 60s. On the cosmic scale 50+ years is a stupid small blip, but in terms how much our little species is starting to understand the world, it might as well have been the dark ages.

Sheesh, I should have never read the comments first. It almost ruined a delightful episode of RL for me.

Sep. 08 2014 04:50 PM
JFS_II from Toronto ON

Why is it that we try to teach an animal without vocal words and a tongue/mouth like ours to try and speak our language? Why not approach it from the idea of - what sounds can we BOTH make? Then attempt to create a rudimentary language with that?

Sep. 08 2014 11:42 AM

Really wish to know what happened to the dolphin of the first show. Captivity of these noble creatures is abusive. Anyone working on learning their language rather than forcing these creatures to learn ours?

Sep. 06 2014 12:26 PM

Agreed, the idea of trying to get a dolphin to speak human words, especially the English language is utter stupidity. If anything, dolphin communication is far more interesting than our dialect.

Sep. 05 2014 08:53 AM
Chris from New York, NY

What a travesty this episode was. A dolphin, learning english, crammed in an apartment. Did the producers think about what sort of myopic self-indulgent view one must have to think they could teach a dolphin to speak english? Forgetting what maybe construed as cruelty for a second, was any real actual science done?

Sep. 03 2014 09:43 AM
Cali Lili™ Cali Lili Indies™ from venice beach, los angeles

OMG i am SOOOOOO happy to hear this episode .... i have always been in LOVE with dolphins and i have recently discovered radiolab ... i wasn't able to listen yesterday and really was looking forward to the podcast ...but now that i am listening to this amazing story ... and i know a bit of it from the movie "day of the dolphin"??? but i am in heaven ... Thanks for this episode and ur gr8 work !!! back to listening ... : )))))

Sep. 01 2014 09:27 PM

My biggest question after listening to this is where did the dolphin semen go? Is she living with every sticky thing that comes out of that dolphin around her ankles or did they have some kind of filtration system in the apartment?

Sep. 01 2014 12:42 PM
Guy from GA

Has anyone tried magnetic imaging of dolphin brains to find out what might be occuring while speech is going on?

Aug. 31 2014 06:30 PM

Oh my God. Absolutely crazy story. Thank you so much for sharing, radiolab.

Aug. 31 2014 01:43 PM
dvekaki from on the couch

no way, lily, ofcourse u top it off robert

Aug. 31 2014 01:09 PM
Ryn from Ohio

I disagree with trying to teach animals our langauge. It feels arrogant that humans would try to make a animal (with thier own unique way of communicating) speak English. Attempting to speak another animals language seems mor approperate and kinder. i also in general disagree with the whole concept of Zoos and animals on display for enertainment. If you want to see wild animals, visit a national park. Thanks for letting us comment! I usually love the show!

Aug. 29 2014 06:13 PM
Ulises from London

Poor Peter. This episode reminds me of Lucy. The cruelty of "scientists" is mind blowing. You guys sound a little too excited when talking about this case. Please consider reflecting on the ethics of that... not on the surface, or for the sake of "science."

Aug. 29 2014 04:52 AM
EmilyDickinson from Seattle

Fascinating, BUT! We HAVE a Dr Dolittle; we HAVE had 2-way communication with wild animals (albeit, not in "the wild.") We HAVE had this species breakthrough for some 40 YEARS!!!! Where is mention of ALEX!!!!! the African Gray PARROT who was taught to speak meaningfully by Irene Pepperberg, PhD HARVARD UNIVERSITY [Theoretical Chemistry]. It amazes me that people don't know ABOUT ALEX; let alone many "bird people haven't heard of him; let alone "animal language" researchers. It ASTOUNDS ME when ALEX and Dr. Pepperberg's incredible achievements are not even recognized. Many parrots can mimic human sounds with ease; why make it difficult by using dolphins, charming as they are?. Pepperberg devised a model-rival system to teach Alex MEANINGFUL human speech and used his vocabulary to test his intelligence. Check it out! If you find this dolphin broadcast interesting, you will be stunned by ALEX. ALEX was so famous that when he died his obit appeared in national and international!! newspapers and magazines: NYTimes, Wall St Journal, you get the picture. Pepperberg had an uphill battle proving that parrots are not just mimics, not virtual tape recorders. She succeeded MAGNIFICENTLY, SCIENTIFICALLY. PLEASE, HOW CAN WE/YOU FORGET ALEX????? He already did it.

Aug. 28 2014 12:33 AM

A really disappointing episode. No factual, science-based balance to frame these so-called experiments for what they really were – pseudo-scientific claptrap.

Aug. 27 2014 04:04 PM
Steve from Long Beach

Oh man, you guys missed your chance. During the closing answering machine acknowledgment/introductions, you should have had one or more of the boat crew identify themselves with their dolphin squeak names. I would have liked to have heard that. (And if any dolphins were listening in to the podcast...; come on, get inclusive!)

Aug. 25 2014 07:26 PM

First, thank you for treating Ms. Lovatt and her prior work with dignity and focus on her larger effort. Even in these comments, where one might least expect it, there is juvenile snark, misplaced indignation and outright misappropriation.
Second, this is a fascinating area of research and I hope that you will at some point do a follow-up to see what progress may have been made even if it is likely to be 'none' or 'incremental'.

Aug. 25 2014 01:52 PM
tunie from maui

Denise Herzig should contact animal communicator Anna Breytenbach.

Aug. 25 2014 08:13 AM
sepiae from the gunky oceans

That was a wonderful one, and as always brilliantly made.
I was smiling all the way through the 2nd story.

Aug. 25 2014 05:22 AM
chris from Murray, KY

Very happy to hear this story tonight. In retort to Ben Rogers from Australia, I'm not sure that we are desperate as much as curious. This type of communication could provide a great understanding to the evolution of language and the barriers we have to understanding how to actually coexist with other cohabitants of this planet. I think this research is clunky but wonderful and inspiring.

Aug. 24 2014 10:30 PM
Ben Rogers from Australia

Depressing to think that some people are so desperate to communicate that they turn to animals to anthropomorphize their way of life.

Be thankful that dolphins don't talk and tell you to "get a life"

Aug. 24 2014 08:00 PM
joe from New York, NY

Is it just me or did anyone else have Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in the back of their mind while listening to this?

"So long and thanks for all the fish!"

Aug. 24 2014 07:30 PM

Could we have more information about what happened to Peter? Thank you so much. I loved the story.

Aug. 24 2014 07:20 PM

I would have liked a warning that some content may not be appropriate for children. I was listening with my 6 year old and was surprised by the sudden discussion of sex with dolphins.

Aug. 24 2014 07:17 PM

this was painful to listen awareness of the rights of intelligent sentient beings. I had to stop listening to this unacknowledged, completely clueless ANIMAL ABUSE

Aug. 24 2014 03:00 PM
davey from everett wa

Hi radiolabrians,
I am not entirely certain but I read some of lily's writings on cetacians and most all of his psychedelic adventure writing about 25 yrs ago. As I recall the dolphins had a much more room than just the small apartment. The apartment was connected to the an enclosed part of the ocean. In lilys defense, he did come to realize the cruelty of captivity and he did release the dolphins his program was holding.

There is another issue I really want to raise though. I may have received this idea from someone else, but it appears to be if not original, at least greatly underappreciated: Dolphins communicate and, in a very real sense, see with sound. This being the case, a representational use of sound would be clunky and unlikely. It is more likely that their vocalizations create imagery in a less mediated way. They may manifest thoughts and feelings as sensory objects of perception in a way that is very hard for us to even imagine. This is what I would guess they use their vocal abilities and massive brains for. Also, I believe their very large cortical regions are much more dedicated to processing emotional experience. This would also argue for a very different kind of "language". One thing seems certain. Evolutionary forces would not favor the existence of energetically expensive higher brain function if they weren't using it!

Aug. 23 2014 10:30 PM
dtich from hell-a

great piece lynn! been meaning for years to find out whatever happened with all that dolphin research.. every time i see 2010 (the movie) it reminds me.. i've done a lot of swimming with dolphins myself and this ep really made me wanna get back out there... great work, as always. thanks!

Aug. 23 2014 04:12 PM
J from New Mexico

This was a great episode! Spending a little more time with each episode was a great was to go deeper with the content. Such interesting stories, and a great blend of curiosity and science! Thanks Radiolab!

Aug. 23 2014 01:59 PM

Should we have any hesitation to have sex with Dolphins? Who would not have sex with someone you have lived with for the last 9mos if you like them in a special way? Someone you know that well. The key is feeling & knowing inside that you love them. It's really not important whether you have the same anatomy or genealogy. C'mon people, wake up! Its just not that big of a deal. If you are having a spiritual connection and forgetting about your body, its really not an issue.

Aug. 23 2014 08:51 AM
Andrew from Canada

i didnt even know dolphins were capable of understand human speech. This story was amazing keep up the good work radio lab!

Aug. 23 2014 01:56 AM
Janie from Baltimore

Hate hearing about animal experiments/animal exploitation/animal manipulation. So cruel. Had to stop listening. Radiolab is getting so disappointing.

Aug. 23 2014 12:06 AM
hollie from Minneapolis, MN

Why do "scientists" think that ANY animal will act or learn normally in anything other than their natural habitat? Of course this dolphin was interested in her, of course he watched himself for hours in a mirror, of course he was horny....poor, intelligent thing! Ever see an animal in isolation rocking back and forth? They're so BORED! Oh well, humans "will never learn" yet we have so much to learn. Especially from animals.

Aug. 22 2014 03:44 PM

Well that got weird for a little bit...

Aug. 22 2014 02:06 PM

If Koko can do it, why not Flipper?

Aug. 22 2014 11:53 AM

Just like humans to cram a 10foot dolphin in a small apt to force it to speak english....disgusting

Aug. 22 2014 09:35 AM

Language is not just propositional. Even if we take as given that dolphins have "language" ) for the sake of argument), dolphins may not in fact have the social ritual of greeting or use sounds to refer to objects. A dolphin "conversation" may be in a form unintelligible to us as conversation because they don't have an adjacency pair part structure (A says, then B says, then A says...) but something entirely different. Just think when you go to a different country or region of the US, how it is permissible and makes sense to talk to people can be jarringly different. Also since language is tied up with cognition (see linguistic relativity), dolphins probably don't process the world in the same way humans do. Anyway, all this to say that I doubt dolphins and humans will ever have a conversation about scarves. The complexity of this undertaking having nothing to do with amount of words per sentence or the concrete ness of subject matter, rather the reshaping of a social and cognitive disposition.

Aug. 22 2014 02:29 AM
Andrew Banas from Buffalo New York

The old audio sounds kind of edited...? Especially with the '1...2...3!' bit.

Aug. 22 2014 12:47 AM

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