A BBC documentary exploring one of the most extraordinary experiments in the history of animal science will be aired this month – and it’s a cracker.
Back in the 1960s, Margaret Howe landed herself what must have sounded like one of the best jobs on earth, when she was chosen to live in a semi-aquatic 'Dolphin House' in the US Virgin Islands.
The house was the Nasa-funded project of American neuroscientist John Lilly who wanted to communicate with dolphins by attempting to teach them to speak English – via their blowholes (um, yeah).
Margaret Howe, photographed in the 1960s with Peter the dolphin
One dolphin student in particular – an adolescent male named Peter – was to receive intensive training.
And this is where it turns weird…
Trailers for the documentary, which will be shown at the Sheffield Documentary Festival on 11 June, reveal Margaret recalling how she slept on a foam cushion – right next to Peter – in the sea pool under the house.
She also recalls how she taught Peter to say her name – a feat he apparently mastered by rolling onto his side to shape his blowhole accordingly.
She said: “I didn’t talk to Peter like I talk to you. I spoke in single words only and made inflection, something that he could follow.
“[The letter] 'M' for 'Margaret' is very difficult – he eventually rolled over to make the noise. His blowhole and my mouth were actually trying to do the same thing.”
Now, if you remember Peter was a teenage male and like most teenage males, he had sexual urges.
'It was very precious, it was very gentle': Margaret recalls her sexual relationship with Peter
Margaret coyly admits: “Peter liked to be with me. He would rub himself on my knee or my foot or my hand or whatever and I allowed that, I wasn’t uncomfortable with that, as long as it wasn’t too rough.”
A veterinarian remarked on the bruising Margaret was receiving on her legs – from where Peter had been “pushing like an obsessed suitor.”
To start with, Margaret would send him off to “go play with the girls [female dolphins] for a day” in an attempt to try and sate Peter’s amorous intentions.
But the documentary reveals she eventually decided the best way to focus his mind on his lessons was to relieve his desires manually. Yep, Margaret started masturbating her dolphin roomate.
She explained: “It was just easier to incorporate that and let it happen. It was very precious, it was very gentle. Peter knew I was right there, Peter was right there… again it was sexual on his part, it was not sexual on mine – sensuous perhaps.
“It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch, just get rid of that, scratch it and we’ll be done and move on.
“And that was really all it was, I was there to get to know Peter, that was part of Peter.”
Margaret was teaching Peter to speak English using his blowhole (no laughing at the back)
If a nubile young woman masturbating a dolphin in a semi-aquatic villa in the Caribbean during the era of ‘free love’ wasn’t weird enough, things turned even darker.
BBC literature states: “What started with Sixties idealism would spiral into the darkness of the decade. The experiment would end in tragedy, and for years after there would be rumours of the dolphins suffering drug abuse and scandal over the nature of Margaret’s relationship with Peter.”
Indeed, Lilly was rumoured to have injected his dolphins with LSD, though Margaret insists Peter was never given the drug. Funding for the experiment was eventually cut and Peter later died after being transferred to a smaller tank in Miami.
Margaret told The Guardian: "I got that phone call from John Lilly. John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide."
The Girl Who Talked To Dolphins will air on BBC4 on 17 June.