Margaret Howe Lovatt

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Margaret Howe Lovatt
Margaret C. Howe

1942 (age 79–80)
OccupationVolunteer naturalist
Known forLiving with and attempting to teach Peter (a bottlenose dolphin) to speak in the 1960s, as part of a John C. Lilly project

Margaret Howe Lovatt (born Margaret C. Howe, in 1942) is a volunteer naturalist from Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. In the 1960s, she took part in a NASA-funded research project in which she attempted to teach a dolphin named Peter to understand and mimic human speech. As a child, she was inspired by a book called Miss Kelly, a story about a cat who communicated with humans. This inspired her to research teaching animals to speak human language.


When she was in her early 20s, she lived on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where she had a laboratory to research dolphins. The director of the lab, Gregory Bateson, allowed her to observe dolphin behavior despite her lack of scientific training. At the same lab, she met John C. Lilly, a neuroscientist with the California Institute of Technology.[1] He was building a research laboratory with funding from NASA and the United States Navy with the goal of speaking to extraterrestrial life forms. In order to simulate this situation he built a "Dolphinarium", a dolphin-house flooded with water, on Saint Thomas. There Lilly accommodated three dolphins, two females named Sissy and Pamela and one younger male bottlenose dolphin named Peter. All of them were taken from Marine Studios and had been co-starring in the television show Flipper. In 1964 the "Dolphinarium" was fully functional and as Lilly was often traveling he assigned Lovatt to train the dolphins.

The goal of the "Dolphinarium" experiment was to teach dolphins human language. Over a period of two years, Lilly and Lovatt, both with very different approaches, tried to prove that human language could be mimicked by dolphins. Lovatt reasoned that if she lived with the dolphins and made human-like sounds, similar to how a mother teaches her child to speak, they would have more success.[1] She tried speaking slowly and changing the pitch of her tone to help Peter pronounce the words that she wanted him to learn.[2] Lovatt and the pubescent male dolphin Peter spent all their time together in the isolated "Dolphinarium" where she documented Peter's progress with her twice-daily lessons and encouragement to say the words "Hello Margaret". According to Lovatt, the "m" sound was extremely difficult for Peter to pronounce without making bubbles in the water.[1]

Lovatt's experiments, and her relationship with Peter the dolphin, were documented in Christopher Riley's documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins.


Peter, being an adolescent dolphin, frequently had sexual urges, which included rubbing himself on Lovatt. The urges disrupted Peter's lessons, and taking Peter to a downstairs pool with two female dolphins proved to be a logistical issue for Lovatt. Eventually, Lovatt relieved Peter's urges herself, stating "it wasn’t sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that’s really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter ... It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch, just get rid of that scratch and we would be done and move on."[3]

An article titled "Interspecies Sex: Humans and Dolphins" appeared in the magazine Hustler that dramatized the situation and reflected badly on their research.[1] Other problems arose surrounding the project. In addition to Lovatt's animal communication research, Lilly had been funded to research the effects of the drug LSD. Lilly had been testing the effects of the drug on subject dolphins, with no results. Since neither his communication experiments nor his LSD research were proving fruitful, Lilly's Dolphinarium eventually lost all funding. Due to the lack of funding, they moved to an abandoned bank building in Miami.[1]

Since the building lacked sunlight and space, Peter quickly deteriorated and eventually ended his life by drowning. Dolphin activist Ric O’Barry explains, "Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers like we [humans] are... Every breath is a conscious effort. If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and they sink to the bottom. They don’t take the next breath."[1]

Personal life[edit]

Margaret Howe Lovatt stayed on the island and married a photographer who took pictures of their research. They later moved back into the Dolphinarium and converted it into a family home. Together they had three daughters.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

The story was parodied in the Saturday Night Live sketch "The Dolphin Who Learned to Speak".[4]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Riley, Christopher (8 June 2014). "The dolphin who loved me: the Nasa-funded project that went wrong". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  2. ^ "The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins - BBC Four". BBC. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  3. ^ Mosendz, Polly (12 June 2014). "How A Science Experiment Led to Sexual Encounters Between a Woman and a Dolphin". The Atlantic. Retrieved 6 April 2021.
  4. ^ Berkowitz, Joe (13 November 2017). "That Amazing "SNL" Dolphin Sketch Is Based On A True Story". Fast Company. Retrieved 24 March 2021.

Further reading[edit]