Fiction and Drama
A Letter to Sylvia Plath
Dolphins in wartime
Dear Ms. Plath,
I’d like to try to get the story of my death out of the way: no more of this terrible anticipation. This is the soldier in me speaking. I have the US Navy to thank for training me to do the deed, then deal with the deed, though it’s in failing to deal that I died. Word games as primers, Ms. Plath, you’d appreciate that.
The other animals who have told their stories here are not as burdened by previous and often foolhardy attempts at cross-species communication as I feel I am. We have a ridiculous history together, humans and dolphins, made more ridiculous each time a dolphin raises her head from the water and hams it up for the camera, or performs another inane trick for the sake of a tossed fish. Scientists have tried to transform us into serious objects of study, but even then there is something a bit off about what happens when they get down to work. Marine biologists start writing tacky utopian tracts about the possibilities of telepathic communication with us; animal behaviorists can’t resist trying to get us to tap away at underwater keyboards to break codes. Science-fiction writers generally use their poetic license to imagine screwing us, which is unsurprising; we have long understood that we occupy a special place in the human erotic imagination.
So when I was first asked to tell my story, I thought, Absolutely not. But the brief became more interesting when it was suggested I think about a human writer who meant something to me, and let my thoughts of him or her infuse whatever I decided to say. I said I’d participate only if I could use the third person, to avoid becoming a parody of myself, the self-aware dolphin wielding “I” like a toy ball propped between my fins. But, as it turns out, “I” is irresistible.
I began by rereading the work of your ex-husband, the British poet Ted Hughes, thinking I might be inspired by him. His famous animal poems were already familiar to me, but I realized, as I read them again, that I had misunderstood them on first encounter. Back then, I had admiringly thought he was trying to understand the human by way of the animal, but now I can see that in fact he wanted to justify the animal in the human. I saw right through his mythologizing of the poetic process, the animal as symbol of the poet getting in touch with his deepest, wildest, most predatory instincts. The poet as shaman, returning to primordial animal awareness. The poet saying, You have no idea how alive you can feel when you’ve been fishing all morning and fornicating all afternoon! Go forth, fish and fuck yourselves stupid, and you can thank me afterward. We’re animals, after all!
Hughes collected animal skins to put on the floors of the homes you and he lived in together, and I imagine he laid them out with great reverence, with not a hint of ironic kitsch. He justified hunting wild animals thus: “Do you know Jung’s description of therapy as a way of putting human beings back in contact with the primitive human animal?” It was all a license to behave badly. I’ve got nothing against bad behavior per se, but men — dolphin or human, and here again we are similar — do tend to weave a web of intricate justification around any wrongdoing, and it’s this that drives me nuts. Women behave badly and then, because we don’t have the ego necessary to sustain the same justificatory web, die of guilt.
I turned to the animal poems Hughes wrote for children, fables that he claimed would help them understand their unconscious thoughts and feelings. This is going to make us money, he told you, his young wife, as he churned one out every morning of your honeymoon in Benidorm before settling down to his real writing. Let’s sell them to Disney! You didn’t mind, you were worried about money. But the poems didn’t make much, perhaps because most of them are wholly inappropriate for children, full of lines about carving knives, murderous relatives, stiff brandy, shark attacks, and one rather bizarre bent hypodermic. The only poem that got it right, “Moon-Whales,” which is both tender and off-key in the way children like, happened to be inspired by my own species (dolphins are toothed whales, but not many people think of us as such). For a while I thought I might write my contribution from the point of view of his mythical moon-whale, the most magnificent of all the creatures he imagines living on the moon.
But still it didn’t seem right. I wondered, What is it I’m resisting here? I turned to your own work — your journals, your poetry — at first to counterbalance the relentless maleness of Hughes’s writing voice. And you helped me understand what it was. That human women need no reminder that they’re animals. So why do your men keep shouting it from the rooftops as if they’ve discovered how to transform base metals into gold? Imagine a male dolphin who has to keep having epiphanies to remember he’s an animal! But we’re special, your men declare, we’re a special-case animal, and part of what makes us special is that we ask the very question, Am I human or animal?
So I ask them in turn, Can you use echolocation to know exactly what curves the ocean floor makes in every conceivable direction? Can you stun the creature you would like to eat using sound alone? Can you scan the bodies of your extended family and immediately tell who is pregnant, who is sick, who is injured, who ate what for lunch? The tingling many humans report feeling during an encounter with us isn’t endorphins, it’s because we’ve just scanned you to know you in all dimensions. We see through you, literally. Special case indeed. Perhaps you should be asking yourselves different questions. Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals? And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as humans?
I floated all this with a friend I’ve made recently out here, the soul of Elizabeth Costello, an author and philosopher of sorts. She was unimpressed by my ranting. She feels attacking Ted Hughes for harnessing animals for his primitivist poetic purpose is not doing him justice, and that it would be thoroughly unoriginal to take him to task for it.
“It is an attitude that’s easy to criticize, to mock,” she said. “It is deeply masculine, masculinist. Its ramifications in politics are to be mistrusted. But when all is said and done, there remains something attractive about it at an ethical level.”
When I protested, she cut me short. “Writers teach us more than they are aware of,” she said. She suggested I focus instead on what I want to say to you, Ms. Plath. “Why a letter?” she wanted to know.
I explained that Hughes thought of letter writing as good practice for conversation with the world. I agree with him about that, though clearly not about much else.
Then she pointed out that despite my determination to get it out of the way early, I’ve been avoiding the issue of my death, and rather well too. It’s harder to get around to than I thought it would be. In part, I think, because when I decided to write this letter to you, it had less to do with the way we both died and more to do with the connection I felt to you as a fellow mother. I have one child; you had two. You might not know that the Greek root of our name, delphis, means “womb” — we are the womb fish — but I think you would have liked the term, even used it in one of your poems.
By far my favorite parts of your journals and poems are the insights you share into the quicksand, joyous minutes and hours and days and weeks and years of mothering, and how you did not think of this experience as something that encroached on your other identities, but as something which enriched them. You were not a frustrated housewife forced to stick your head in the oven and turn on the gas because your desire to write had been subsumed by the mundane, miraculous hourliness of being a mother. You describe your priorities so poignantly in one of your journals as “Books & Babies & Beef stews”; and for a while, you had the promise of all three — writing in the mornings, caring for your babies in the afternoon, cooking rabbit stew in the evenings if your husband had shot one in the woods, reading at night. Virginia Woolf, as you noted in your journal, described in her own diary receiving a rejection letter from a publisher and dealing with it by frying up a big panful of sausage and haddock in her kitchen. Though you vowed to go one better than Woolf: “I will write until I begin to speak my deep self, and then have children, and speak still deeper.”
And that deep self spoke animal truths of which Ted Hughes could only dream. You took enormous creaturely satisfaction in food, in sex, in smells, in your own body and its workings. The smell of your pee first thing in the morning, the texture of your snot when you wiped it beneath a table, the feel of the sun tanning your belly brown and the fine hairs on it blonde, the “cowlike bliss” of breastfeeding your infant son by starlight. You didn’t need any symbolic scaffolding to describe your experience as female animal. Hughes sometimes sounded jealous of animals, for being “continually in a state of energy which men only have when they’ve gone mad.” But women have that energy when they’re mothering. If he’d observed you a little more closely instead of searching for his next Big Animal Symbol, he might have noticed this, and done justice to the animal with whom he was sharing his bed. I think this is perhaps what drew you to write about the bees you kept in the orchard of your home: their energy — the energy of a hundred parents keeping their brood alive — reminded you of your own.
Here I go again, letting my irritation get in the way of what I should really be saying. I don’t think you will mind, Ms. Plath — you understood the cathartic uses of a good cleansing female rage. But I must tell you how I lived, and how I died, in order to keep my place in this modern menagerie of animal souls.
I was born into captivity in 1973, a decade after you took your own life. My mother was proud of being one of the original bottlenose dolphins recruited for the US Navy Marine Mammal Program when it was first established. She liked to remind me of my luck at having been born in an elite military training facility. Her point was, I think, that I should be grateful I wasn’t born into useless aquarium captivity. This is how she managed her guilt about bringing me into her world, a child who would never know freedom. Is it worse to have freedom and lose it, or not know what it is in the first place? I can’t say I’ve missed it.
Back in 1962, when my mother was in the group of dolphins and California sea lions selected for training, they were kept initially at Point Mugu in California. The Navy trainers quickly realized that the dolphins could be counted on to return to them after being ordered to find or fetch objects, even in open water. The program was expanded and moved to Point Loma in San Diego, and a sister research laboratory was set up in Hawaii. One of the dolphins in the cohort, Tuffy, soon had a breakthrough experience. She successfully carried an important message and supplies down to aquanauts living in the US Navy’s experimental habitat, SEALAB II, which had been placed in a canyon off the California coast, more than sixty yards underwater.
Tuffy used to keep my mother and the other dolphins entertained by mimicking the conversation between one of the aquanauts — who was about to emerge from SEALAB II after spending a world record of thirty days down there — and President Johnson, who had called to congratulate him. The aquanaut was in a decompression chamber, and the helium gas had made his voice high and squeaky. The president gamely pretended not to notice that he was speaking to someone who sounded like Mickey Mouse.
My mother was always bothered by the stupidity of the Navy’s dolphin-naming policy: Why recruit us because of our superior intelligence then give us dumb names like Tuffy? Her theory was that the Navy anticipated a public-relations disaster, and hoped that our goofy names might signal that we were not considered to be combatants, that we were not so different from Chuck and Loony at the nearest Sea World. But those in charge had the program classified through the chilliest years of the cold war, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. We could have been given proper combat names or titles for those decades, and the public would have been none the wiser. Instead, it was my mother’s special fate to be called Blinky for her professional life, and mine to be called Sprout.
My mother’s cohort, MK6, was trained to protect assets such as ships or harbor constructions by alerting human handlers to the presence of enemy divers in the surrounding water. In 1970, she and four other dolphins in her team were sent to Vietnam on their first tour of service, to guard a US Army pier in Cam Ranh Bay. They patrolled the area and warned their handler when saboteurs were detected nearby. Her team was subsequently credited by some for preventing the pier being blown up, though of course this was disputed. The program has always had more detractors than admirers.
In the stoic tradition of military parents, my mother didn’t tell me much about her experience in Vietnam, but I could sense some of what she went through because of certain physical stress points throughout her body. She did say that the most difficult part was being transported there and back in a primitively repurposed Navy vessel. My daughter loved that story, and often asked her grandmother to repeat it. She couldn’t believe how old-fashioned the vessel was, how basic the resources. By now, a decade after my own death, I’m sure my daughter is deployed to conflicts around the world within hours’ notice, transported in the utmost comfort in some kind of fancy bio-carrier that fits into any type of Navy vehicle: ship, helicopter, aircraft, spacecraft. These technologies are developed faster than humans have time to assimilate what they mean — they outstrip men morally in the end, stunning them into submission, and they drag the rest of the world’s species along for the ride.
Once my mother had finished her tour of duty and returned to San Diego from Vietnam, the Navy decided to breed some of the next generation of military dolphins within the facility. To that end, she was allowed to mate with her choice of partner among the males in the bachelor pod. Who my father was is irrelevant, as is usually the case in matrilineal societies. I was raised by my mother and the other females among whom I lived, and by my human trainer, Petty Officer First Class Bloomington. I loved him deeply, and not in a Stockholm-syndrome sort of way as my mother sometimes teased. I think she was jealous of our bond. Her generation had been trained by men who were a strange blend of traditional and iconoclastic. Those men were attracted to the safe hierarchies of the military, but they were also caught up in the zeitgeist that had been developing as post–Second World War certainties gave way to the unpredictable, boundary-pushing conflict with the Soviets. Fantastic rumors circulated about scientific and military advances the Soviets were making with the use of animals: bats that could detect weapons stockpiles; cats inserted with bugging devices; pigeons guiding nuclear warheads.
Whatever purpose the US Navy could imagine for us dolphins, they were convinced the Soviets were ten steps ahead of them. They trained my mother’s team firmly, as subordinates. They were not interested in building a relationship with them as individuals, but in what they could get out of them as a group in a utilitarian sense. My mother claimed it was better that way, the trainer-trainee relationship less fraught with emotion and need.
But Officer Bloomington was different. When he started working with me in the late 1970s, he was only 21, skinny, newly graduated from college with a marine-sciences degree made possible by his Navy scholarship, and ridiculously proud of his tattoo of a seahorse on the sole of his foot (anywhere else and the enlisters would have given him grief for it). One of his professors at college had briefly worked in the Caribbean laboratory established by John C. Lilly in the ’60s to carry out all sorts of bizarre, unconventional research on dolphin-human communication, and he got Officer Bloomington onto Lilly’s work. It was far too unorthodox for Officer Bloomington — he knew he would never dare do the kinds of things that Lilly had — but it encouraged him to think of dolphins differently. One of Lilly’s experiments, for example, required the researcher to take LSD, then climb into an isolation tank with dolphins beneath it in a sea pool, to communicate with them on alternate sound waves. Another involved the researcher’s living in isolation with a dolphin for months in a laboratory flooded with sixteen inches of seawater.
I think Officer Bloomington suspected Lilly was a bit of a creep — so many of the photographs in Lilly’s books featured his female research assistants, who all happened to be gorgeous women with long red nails, happy to give horny dolphins belly scratches or hand jobs. But in the interests of my education he read to me from these books, and from anything else about dolphins he could find, scientific or imagined. He would get secretly stoned and read to me about Johnny Mnemonic, a foul-mouthed cyborg dolphin who’s a US Navy veteran and a heroin addict. He organized a screening for the trainee dolphins of the Mike Nichols film The Day of the Dolphin, projecting it onto the wall opposite our pens. We found the movie quite funny, though we knew it was intended to be serious, because the dolphins playing the characters Alpha and Beta (who were being trained by some bad guys to blow up the president’s yacht) kept saying rude things that only dolphins could understand about the lead human actor in the underwater scenes.
When The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was published, Officer Bloomington read it to me so many times I can still remember most of chapter 23 by heart (it’s a short chapter):
It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.
Curiously enough, the dolphins had long known of the impending destruction of the planet Earth and had made many attempts to alert mankind to the danger; but most of their communications were misinterpreted as amusing attempts to punch footballs or whistle for tidbits, so they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means shortly before the Vogons arrived.
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the “Star Spangled Banner,” but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.
That used to crack Officer Bloomington up every time he read it, though it might have had more to do with the quality of his weed. Sometimes, on nights when I couldn’t get half of my brain to fall asleep, I would amuse myself thinking up alternate lines for the dolphins’ final message to humans, with the restriction that I could only use titles of songs I’d heard being played on the radio at our facility. The line would depend on my mood, and what I’d been asked to do that day. Some days it would be “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” On days when I was feeling sentimental: “Call Me” or “We Don’t Talk Anymore” or “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” On bad-mood days: “Tired of Toein’ the Line.”
Each morning, Officer Bloomington took me from my home pen at Point Loma out into the training area and laid me on a rubber mat in the boat. The first skill he taught me to master was how to wiggle myself overboard once he’d pointed my tail in the right direction; the second was how to get myself back onto the boat unassisted at the end of the session. I quickly learned to retrieve a Frisbee, balancing it on my nose like a regular show-off. Over time, our training sessions became more challenging, geared toward teaching me to identify and locate features on the seafloor that might be useful or dangerous to the Navy, such as dropped equipment or mines buried in sediment.
Officer Bloomington understood from the beginning that I knew exactly what was going on. More than anything, he wanted to earn the moral right to give me commands by demonstrating that he considered me to have a form of consciousness as complex as his own. As our relationship developed, he relied less and less on food-reward training, disliking it because it assumed that my needs were base, and also because of the cruel antiforaging muzzles that had been standard issue in my mother’s day.
It was a partnership, one that I was born into, but still. He liked to say we had a true I-thou relationship, quoting some philosopher or other — that we related as subject to subject, not subject to object, and communicated with our whole beings. In another life, I think he would have used his skills differently, as a scientific researcher who observed and recorded, rather than as a handler who had to elicit certain behaviors from us to keep his job. He figured out long before his contemporaries that we use a combination of high- and low-frequency sounds — clicks, buzzes, creaks, whistles — to convey information and emotion, and he learned to identify the signature whistle of each dolphin under his command, which is our own form of naming.
By the time I was fully trained, the Navy had five marine-mammal teams, each with specialist skills. My mother wanted me to join MK6, but I was placed instead in MK7, a dolphin-only team that specialized in finding and tagging mines embedded in the ocean floor. The other two dolphin-only teams, MK4 and MK8, worked on locating floating mines in the water column and mapping out safe underwater passages for troop landings onshore. MK5 comprised sea lions (who have no sonar ability but better underwater directional hearing and low-light vision than we do) briefed with naval equipment recovery. There were a few beluga whales in that team, recruited because they also use sonar but can withstand colder water and dive deeper than we can. We didn’t see much of the sea lions or whales except on joint-training exercises, when we were all operating under strict rules of engagement. I think this suited those in charge of the program. They preferred us to focus our need for communication on the humans training us, and perhaps didn’t like to think of us coming up with secret plans and clever tricks together. It reeked of mutiny.
My first tour of duty was in the Persian Gulf in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq War. My MK7 team was deployed to search the ocean floor for embedded mines for a set radius around the 3rd Fleet Flagship USS La Salle in the harbor in Bahrain. MK6 was also deployed, to escort oil tankers from Kuwait through safe waters. It was thrilling to finally be part of a real mission after so many years of training, and I remember feeling closer to Officer Bloomington than ever before. I would use echolocation to scan for mine-like objects and report back to him if I found one, knocking a black buoy beside the boat to confirm a sighting. He would then send me to deposit the anchor of a buoy close to the object to alert other Navy vessels, until the object could be checked and deactivated by a specialist team of divers.
We lost two dolphin team members on that mission, not due to sea mines accidentally detonating (this happens rarely, as we are trained not to disturb them and they are programmed to detonate only when a large metal object passes overhead). The dolphins were machine-gunned to death near the surface by Iranian boat-patrol units that had figured out what we were doing. Some native wild dolphins were also killed this way, though we’d tried to keep them away from the area by acting territorially. Officer Bloomington took this especially hard. He hadn’t anticipated it as a consequence and blamed himself for their deaths. He felt that the skilled Navy dolphins at least had a chance of defending themselves, but the native dolphins had been put directly in harm’s way. He tried to record their deaths officially so that this could be prevented on future missions, but his superiors blocked him, worried about a public outcry.
Back at the San Diego training facility at the end of this mission, I was given a few years to recover from active service, after which I was allowed to breed. I like to think I didn’t make the same mistake as my mother, who had encouraged me to believe I had a better life in the Navy than I ever could out in the wild. I apologized to my daughter so often for bringing her into a world of captivity that she found it ridiculous. As it turned out, she was given a choice. When she was born, in 1993, our program was being downsized (or “right-sized,” as the expensive consultants liked to call it) in the aftermath of the cold war, and many of our team members were being retired or released. The Navy put some of the oldest dolphins up for sale to leisure facilities and parks around the US, but nobody was buying — by then, most aquariums or dolphinariums were doing their own breeding in-house.
One morning in the autumn after my daughter was born, Officer Bloomington took all the dolphins under his authority, including me, my mother, and my baby girl, out into the bay and released us without giving a specific task or return command. He explained what was happening, speaking respectfully as he always did, trusting us to understand. He anticipated a long-drawn-out retirement process where federal permits would be needed before any of us could be released into the wild, and he wanted to spare us the fate of being trapped where we were no longer needed, or sold off to some depressing sea-life park.
My mother decided to try out life in the deep blue sea again. She was 47 by then, the only surviving Vietnam War vet from her team. She and I both knew she didn’t have much time left, and I understood that she was really choosing a free death, whereas the other six who decided to join her were choosing a free life. They are the only seven dolphins ever recorded as not having returned to their handler in the history of our program. Officer Bloomington stated the cause as unusual disobedience in his logbook and almost lost his job over it, but he’d stalled for long enough to give the escapees a good chance of not being recaptured.
My daughter knew that morning out in the bay that she was free to go. She watched forlornly as her grandmother swam away, sending reassuring clicks and whistles back to her so that she’d know she was not in distress. But like me, my daughter chose to stay, and when the time came she was assigned to MK7. This made me happy, as I knew Officer Bloomington would look after her as he had me. He’d been there from her first moments in the world, supporting me as I birthed her. He’d camped beside my pen for nights as my due date approached so that he would not miss my labor. In the minutes after she was born, in the middle of the night, I nudged her to the surface and held her there while she learned to breathe, and Officer Bloomington literally jumped up and down beside the pool, yelling and whooping.
He named her Officer, so that she might always have a fitting military title as a first name. He understood the significance of her birth for all of us: the third generation of a female military family. Females have served in the US military for much longer than anybody realizes, he liked to remind his colleagues in the ’80s, when the gender issue was heating up and most of the men were intransigent. Back then, the Navy Marine Mammal Program was still in full swing, with more than a hundred dolphins, many of us female, and a massive operating budget. But the men laughed at him. They didn’t like to think of us as male or female; we were just animals.
Soon after my mother had decided to die free, a new dolphin arrived at our base in San Diego. His name was Kostya. He was Russian, part of the Dolphin Division trained at the Soviet Navy’s secret base on the Black Sea. They too had run into funding difficulties in the years after the cold war thawed. Kostya and most of his team were up for sale, and the Soviets were prepared to sell to anyone who could afford the exorbitant price, even if the buyer was the very enemy against whom these dolphins had been trained to work.
Kostya arrived with his female Soviet trainer, Chief Petty Officer Mishin, to be the lead dolphin/handler pair in a new, highly classified training program within our facility. Officer Mishin had skin so pale it seemed to glow, especially when she was beside Officer Bloomington, whose years working under the San Diego sun had turned him a nutshell brown. He surprised me by becoming tongue-tied around her — for so long, he had been a confirmed bachelor, committed to us and nobody else. Sometimes, after a training session, I saw him gazing at the puddles she’d left on the jetty as she wrung seawater out of her hair, as if they might give him a clue to understanding her.
He had been instructed to work closely with her and Kostya to learn their training techniques, but he soon realized that Officer Mishin’s approach was as gentle as his own. She teased him about this, told him he was gullible to have believed all the rumors of draconian Iron Curtain methods, and in response he would smile a smile I had never seen on him before, shy and delighted and fearful all at the same time, the smile of a man hopelessly in love and unsure if the feeling could ever be mutual. My daughter and I observed all this with a mix of pity and amusement, secure in the fact that the feeling was not mutual, for we could tell from our scanning that Officer Mishin was left unmoved by Officer Bloomington’s attentions. We did not want to share him.
Kostya had been kept in isolation for a period before the sale went through, despite Officer Mishin’s protests, and for a while he was moody and aggressive because of his confusion, and only allowed to socialize with the group of bachelor dolphins. Once he was allowed to mingle with the females, Kostya also claimed that most of the rumors we’d heard about the Soviets were untrue — much to our disappointment, he told us he’d never been parachuted from a military plane at great heights into the ocean. He did, however, know how to tell the difference between a Soviet submarine and a foreign submarine, and we decided to believe this was ominous just for the thrill of it.
Yet the Navy superiors were convinced that Officer Mishin was hiding something from them. They insisted that Kostya had skills beyond those she allowed him to demonstrate, that he knew how to set sea mines, that he’d been trained to blow up enemy submarines in an emergency kamikaze move, or that — most sinister of all — he had been part of the Soviet Dolphin Division’s Swimmer Nullification Program, trained to attach a device to an enemy diver that could be remotely activated to inject carbon dioxide at high pressure into his bloodstream and force him to the surface, killing him. Officer Mishin vehemently denied this, and said she would have refused to train dolphins to go against their very nature, to be killers, that it would be impossible even if she’d tried. She explained that a dolphin is so sensitive to human distress that it would immediately refuse to repeat any command that caused harm. Officer Bloomington backed her up on this. The powers that be were unconvinced.
Swimmer detection in a conflict situation had traditionally been the remit of MK6, my mother’s old team, but now that resources were scarce the higher-ups decided that members of MK7 should add this skill to our repertoire. The way it had always worked in MK6 was for the dolphins to alert their handlers to the presence of a diver or swimmer, whether friendly or hostile, and leave it to the humans to decide how to respond. Those in charge now decreed that a special team should be trained to tag a diver with a locating device. Officers Bloomington and Mishin at first refused to participate in this training mission, but when they realized it would go ahead with or without their support, they felt they could better protect us by participating. Their superiors assured them we would never be asked to perform this task in a conflict situation, that it was only about broadening our skill base.
I was selected to be part of this classified program along with the other dolphins who had served with me in the first Gulf War; at that stage we were the only ones in the facility with real-world combat experience. Kostya was also included in the team. We were sent to a secluded Navy research base on San Clemente Island for training.
As the months passed, something about the setting — the isolation of the island, perhaps, or their shared resistance to the thinking behind the mission — began to change the dynamic between Officers Bloomington and Mishin. She started to show signs of affection for him, and quite suddenly, this affection bloomed into something more powerful. She had fallen in love. She kept her feelings hidden from Officer Bloomington, but Kostya and I picked up on them immediately. Soon the love pheromones they were both emitting drenched the air Kostya and I breathed in with each conscious breath we took, but they each suffered in secret, thinking their love was unrequited.
Kostya and I, however, were unable to keep our jealousy a secret from each other because of our cursed scanning ability. He loved Officer Mishin, I loved Officer Bloomington; we did not want to be displaced in their affections, though we knew it was the right and normal nature of events for a man and woman to fall in love. We wanted them to be happy, but we also wanted to be the primary cause of their happiness. Kostya and I tried to fall in love ourselves, but it felt too much like an act of compensation, and after a while we gave up trying.
This was the first time I had been away from my daughter for an extended time, and I missed her with an intensity that was overwhelming. Being a mother had taught me to live in the present, most embodied moment, to respond to her most immediate needs and tune out all other wavelengths of thought and anxiety, to be with her without thinking of past or future. She had surprised me by being her own complete, discrete self as soon as she was born. I had expected her to have a blank-slate quality, but she was herself, utterly, from her first few seconds in the world: composed, cautious, curious. During our separation for those long months at San Clemente, I thought of her constantly. I have never been lonelier.
Officers Bloomington and Mishin took to going hiking on the island on their days off, and afterward Officer Bloomington would describe the hinterland to me, guiltily, in too much detail, knowing I was unhappy. They had made it their mission to find a surviving feral goat somewhere in the rocky hills. He told me the story of the goats, brought to the island in the nineteenth century and allowed to roam wild as a food source for passing sailors. Eventually they’d become a pest, and a century after the first pairs were brought to San Clemente, the Navy was authorized to eliminate them. Animal rights activists tried to intervene and some goats were put up for adoption on the mainland, but the Navy was given court approval for their extermination. The goats had the upper hand in the terrain and went into hiding, putting the exterminators through their paces. This war of attrition went on for some time, until there was only one small family of goats left on the island. A lone doe was captured and fitted with a radio collar. When released, she led the shooters to her family. She was nicknamed the Judas goat, for betraying those she loved.
Officers Bloomington and Mishin never did find any surviving goats, but it was on one of their hikes together that they revealed their feelings for each other. By the time the San Clemente training mission ended, in 1999, and I was reunited with my daughter in San Diego, I had learned to attach a pinging clamp device the size of a golf ball to a human diver, and Officer Bloomington was, for the first time in his forty-one years on earth, engaged to be married. Kostya was as unimpressed by this as I was.
Theirs was a long engagement. I would sometimes entertain fantasies that they were having second thoughts about getting married, but I could sense their feelings were deepening, becoming more layered, binding them more closely together than any official ceremony could. I tried — and tried — to be happy for them.
Officer Bloomington’s fear all along had been that if my elite unit performed well on training missions, it would be irresistible for the Navy to put us to work in a real conflict. This was the way military innovation worked. No matter how crazy a method seemed at first, in the right high-stress situation it could all of a sudden be considered legitimate. In our case, the initial catalyst was the terror attack on USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Our team’s resources were doubled and we were put on high alert. The following year we were sent to Norway to participate in the large-scale NATO maritime-warfare exercise Blue Game. And then 9/11 happened.
Something else significant, for my species, occurred in 2001, though understandably not many Americans took any notice in the midst of their grief. A scientist published the outcome of her breathtaking research that showed that we dolphins respond to our own images in a mirror. Previously, other than humans, only higher primates such as chimpanzees had been shown to pass what scientists call the “mark test,” which indicates an awareness of self, something that human children achieve as toddlers. The dolphins in the study, when marked with temporary ink somewhere on their bodies, went straight to an underwater mirror — signaling they could recognize their own reflection — and examined the mark, proving they could also recognize when their appearance had changed. This study confirmed what Officer Bloomington had known about us all along, that we have a sense of self as sophisticated as any human’s.
But it prompted me to remember something, a conversation I’d overheard between Officers Bloomington and Mishin about the persecution complex that afflicts most humans, and made me wonder: Why do you feel persecuted by us? From the mild feeling of being teased without your consent all the way to the other extreme of the terror of recognition, that we might expose you for what you truly are. What use is a sense of self if all it does is make you feel that self to be constantly under siege?
The shock of the terrorist attacks spurred Officers Bloomington and Mishin to set a date for their wedding. At the ceremony, held beside the pen housing me and my daughter and the one housing Kostya, Officer Bloomington read out a paragraph from the mirror-mark research paper, and thanked us for putting up with humans for the millennia we have coexisted. Officer Mishin gave her new husband a large mirror as a wedding present, knowing that he would want to do the mark test with us as soon as they returned from their honeymoon. She promised to use her own lipstick to mark Kostya. The guests laughed, and — I swear it — Kostya blushed with pleasure.
In 2003 I was deployed to the Persian Gulf for the second time in my life. The entire MK7 team, including my daughter, was transported from San Diego to the Gulf in the well deck aboard USS Gunston Hall. Our brief was, as usual, to find underwater mines and booby traps laid in the port of Umm Qasr by Saddam Hussein’s forces and mark them by dropping acoustic transponders close by.
Halfway through the journey, Officers Bloomington and Mishin were given orders that the special-ops team Kostya and I were part of was to be authorized to put locating tags on enemy divers in the port, as we had been trained to do in San Clemente. They resisted at first, to no avail — in wartime, the military culture of obeying orders becomes cultish, something by which to live or die. They decided to focus instead on getting us ready to do the job as safely and efficiently as possible. The orders were that we would be released on individual tagging missions, one at a time, and I was chosen to go first.
My daughter and I communed during the rest of the voyage, side by side in our travel pods on the well deck. She knew about my special mission but she wasn’t concerned about my safety, mostly because of her excitement over her own first deployment. She couldn’t wait to get out into the harbor at Umm Qasr to clean up the seafloor and put to shame the unmanned underwater vehicles installed with technological sonar that the higher-ups had insisted on including in the team. She knew — as did our handlers — that nothing could rival our echolocation abilities in this kind of situation, where the shallow water of the port and the reverberations from clutter on the harbor bed would confuse the machines. Only we could be counted on to distinguish between harmless debris, coral rock, and anti-ship mines; only we had the ability to detect the different types of metal in an object. The humans liked to send out a sonar-equipped drone named REMUS to do an initial sweep of the embedded objects on the seafloor, but then it would be up to my daughter to work her magic.
The night before I was to be released into the waters of the harbor for my solitary mission, Officer Bloomington took a long time over my health inspection. This was among the first sets of skills he had taught me as a young trainee, to participate in a routine inspection to ensure my fitness to serve. Many of the days we had spent together had started with him inspecting my teeth, then giving me the signal to relax so that he could take my temperature and a blood sample. I had learned to look forward to the moment when he put the stethoscope beneath my pectoral flipper to check my heart rate. I liked the attentive way he listened, looking at me but not seeing me as he counted and timed my beating heart. But on that night, once he’d registered my heartbeat, he kept the metal disk in place for a long time, no longer listening with medical interest, just listening as if he were trying to commit the thudding pattern to memory.
I was released just before dawn. Intelligence reports showed some kind of attack on Navy harbor assets was imminent, but the details were hazy. Officer Bloomington told me to patrol the waters, to remember what I had been taught about identifying enemy divers, and — should I discover one — to bump into him to attach the locating device to one of his limbs, then get the hell out of there. I believed that the titanium clamp I carried would do no harm, that it was a tracker, nothing more, identical to the ones we’d used during training in San Clemente. I have to believe that Officer Bloomington was similarly unaware, that he had been kept in the dark about the nature of the device.
I wonder sometimes if the man I killed felt the momentary euphoria that human survivors of animal attacks have reported feeling. Ted Hughes was fascinated by this idea, that there is relief, joy even, at giving oneself over to the ancient cycle of predator and prey. He had read accounts of a man attacked by a mountain lion in British Columbia who felt nothing but compelled by the cat’s golden eyes; of Tolstoy being mauled by a bear and feeling no pain; of Dr. Livingston being seized by a lion and going all dreamy. I find this thought reassuring now. Perhaps, as the device injected carbon dioxide into his bloodstream and he began to spiral up through the dark water column, the man I murdered felt his approaching death as a gift, a return to origins.
Men suicide to consolidate a reputation, women suicide to get one. I may have fueled the skeptics who say female dolphins should not be taken on by the Navy for training, for the same reason women are not always welcomed into the human armed forces. They say we are sentimental, that we feel things too deeply, we fall to pieces, we let guilt destroy us. But I know that if Kostya had been the first one sent out on the mission, he would have done the same. It has nothing to do with being female, and everything to do with being a dolphin.
Humans might be conscious thinkers; we are conscious breathers. It is very easy to choose to die if every breath is a matter of choice. I am not the first dolphin to suicide, nor will I be the last. We take killing a human very hard. It is as taboo for us as killing our own babies. We recognize in you what your ancients used to recognize in us and understood as sacred a long time ago, when killing a dolphin was punishable by death. You used to think of us as being closer to the divine than any other animal on earth, as being messengers and mediators between you and your gods. You honored us with Delphinus, our own constellation in the northern sky.
And in return, for thousands of years, when we have found a human drowning, we have held him or her up to the surface of the water as we hold our newborns, waiting for them to take their first breath. We have put our own bodies between you and the lurking shapes of sharks. We have swum very gently with your young, with your impaired. We have greeted you with leaps. You should not have forgotten what your own wise ancestors used to know.
Enough of this death talk. My tale should end with life, and it does, in a sense. Before I was released into the water on my final mission, my scan of Officer Mishin revealed to me that she was pregnant with a baby girl, still unbeknownst to herself and her husband.
I haven’t yet managed to find your soul out here, Ms. Plath, though not for want of looking. There are things about you I would still like to know. Lately I have found myself wondering: After Ted Hughes abandoned you, did you still love his poetry? “Who am I?” the mythical creature, the wodwo, asks in one of his poems, and like many men, the wodwo decides, “I am what I want.” You believed in his genius so fervently when you first fell in love, and all through your remarkable — until it unremarkably fell apart — creative partnership of a marriage. So fervently, in fact, that I began to feel I owed it to you to return to his work, to give it a third chance, to see it through your eyes and hear it through your ears.
I went back to his animal poems and fables for children, and this time I noticed — as much as I wanted to ignore it — that there is something he does with language that makes my brain tingle. A reverse act of scanning, human to dolphin. It happened especially when I was reading my favorite, the one about the moon-whale. I would have liked to read it to my daughter. I imagine you reading it to yours, her little elbows resting against your knee. There is nothing quite like a child’s gorgeous listening energy, ravenous for her mother’s voice.