For Some, Dolphins Bring Spiritual Inspiration

Times Staff Writer

To a secluded beach in Kauai, Swiss Yoga teacher Kutira Decosterd leads the faithful as if to Mecca. They bring their “oceanic Tantra” rituals, their drums, their Australian aborigine dolphin-calling sticks.

Off the Orange County coast, Bob Dennis, a former director of fantasy cruises, uses a conch shell, a guitar and “cross-cultural shamanistic techniques” to lead his group into “dolphin dream time.”

From Pittsboro, N.C., management consultant Bill Delano advertises “Dolphin Camp,” a 7-day, $1,945 swim-with-dolphins program in the Florida Keys for managers to “discover intuitive potential,” advance communication skills and copy dolphins as “models of excellence.”


Looking for Answers

For those disillusioned with gurus as alternatives to priests, ministers and rabbis, dolphins have become triggers to reach inner answers, said Michael Peter Langevin, editor of Magical Blend, a 45,000-circulation San Francisco-based New Age magazine.

The dolphin movement was born two decades ago with the writings of neurologist John C. Lilly, who believed dolphins are smarter than people. Fueled by TV shows and the environmental, animal rights, and new-age spiritual movements since, the dolphin movement in the past year has “just exploded--we can’t keep up with it,” said Toni Frohoff of Playa del Rey, who publishes the Dolphin Data Base, a list of 3,000 people and organizations involved in dolphin projects. At least 300 of them involve attempts at inter-species communication despite the lack of scientific evidence that it is possible.

“Knowing their brains are larger and that they see in a 3-D sonar way has led a large portion of New Age people to look to them for spiritual inspiration and hope,” Langevin said.

Several spiritual mediums claim to “channel” messages of peace or self-worship from real dolphins or the “dolphin consciousness.”

Neville Rowe of Arizona, who sometimes makes clicking dolphin sounds during his public or private channeling sessions, drew the wrath of other dolphin lovers recently when he claimed in an article in Magical Blend that dolphins told him they volunteer for amusement parks and dolphin swim centers as a way to communicate with humans.

Anecdotes of those who have been “dolphinized” often concern telepathy, stories of healing, sudden insight, or a “ginger ale” feeling of familial or erotic love when swimming with dolphins--350-pound animals with quick reflexes and permanent smiles, who mate and play frequently and often approach people to stare or click at them.


“When they look you in the eye, you feel you’ve been seen down to the bottom of your soul,” said Beth Gawaine of Maui, a retired city planner who has made an informal study of individual dolphins in Australia. “They’re very good Buddhists. They’re very here, now.”

After being in the ocean with dolphins, Gawaine said, “People come out weeping . . . .”

Others--including some psychologists--have shed tears of rejection after encounters with dolphins who weren’t interested in them, said Lloyd Borguss of Dolphins Plus, the first swim-with-dolphins center, which opened 8 years ago in Grassy Key, Fla.

“The dolphin is going to do what it wants to do. This can be a big shock to your ego. They won’t go to a person who is up tight,” Borguss said. Mostly, they prefer to play with children and women, he said.

Like other programs, Dolphins Plus turns away a third of its applicants and has seen increasing requests from psychologists, doctors and management consultants bringing groups of autistic children, emotionally disturbed teens and business executives to swim with the captive dolphins.

According to the Data Base’s Frohoff, however, wild dolphin encounters have become “the big trend” within the movement.

“Most people start out with captive dolphins, and get tired of it. They don’t feel good about it and move on,” said Joan Ocean, an Oahu-based counseling psychologist who organizes encounters in the wild.


But in the warm waters off Kauai, devoted humans are “getting to be too much for the poor creatures,” said Dan Moriarty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ranger at Kilauea Point, near where large pods of dolphins congregate year round.

Change in Behavior

As it stands, he said, any encounter that results in a change in the dolphins’ natural behavior constitutes a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which is punishable with fines of up to $10,000. One Kauai resident who pleaded guilty to dolphin harassment after driving his inflatable boat through a pod of about 30 dolphins was recently fined $500 and sentenced to spend 200 hours educating others about the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The problem, which has been escalating for two years, peaked June 26, when enthusiasts surrounded a pod of about 60 mostly spinner and some Pacific bottlenose dolphins at Kaupea Beach off the western coast of Kauai.

“Two kayaks came out with a dog and went into the pod,” Moriarty said. “Then a charter fishing boat discharged 10 snorkelers into the pod. From the shore, seven to ten swimmers came out and a research boat was there. So they virtually had the pod surrounded.”

Yet, despite the intense interest and 10 years of research on dolphins, academics have yet to make good on Lilly’s prediction that communication with the bottle-nose dolphin would be achieved before 1990.

“We’ve got myths, legends and stories. They’re fun, interesting, enjoyable to listen to. But when you get down to objective science, where’s the proof, where’s the meat?” asks Dennis Kelly, director of the Coastal Dolphin Survey Project and professor of marine biology at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.


While dolphins’ abilities to follow complex directions from hand signals are impressive, researchers have yet to decipher the dolphins’ own whistles and creaks, according to Lou Herman, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, perhaps the nation’s most widely respected dolphin communication researcher. In his opinion, the mammals are not much smarter than apes or chimpanzees.

The dolphin’s sonar, which some believe is used to stun prey, could account for the tingly “ginger-ale” feeling that swimmers report when dolphins are near, he said.

“There’s no evidence of telepathy,” Herman said. “I don’t think there ever will be evidence. It’s just another fantasy that represents people’s hopes rather than objectivity.”

Meanwhile, believers seek and find their own evidence.

At 11 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Robert Macknowski, director of Project Interlock, an international group documenting dolphin encounters in the wild, took the microphone of a pleasure cruise headed up Kauai’s Na Pali Coast, a well-known dolphin habitat.

Silver hair flapping around his crystal ear ring, he asked a group of unsuspecting tourists to help him call dolphins by visualizing them leaping into the air.

Spinner Dolphins

Eighteen minutes later by his watch, a dozen spinner dolphins arrived in pairs, chasing the bow of the boat. Straight ahead, a lone spinner dolphin shot into the air, completed a triple gainer, and slipped neatly back into the sea.


A dozen swimmers with masks and fins clambered into the water.

But under the surface, the dolphins already had fled, leaving only rays of light to sweep the empty ocean floor like klieg lights after the show is done.