Q&A: Susan Casey at Traverse City National Writers Series

MyNorth News Service

(Q&A provided by Traverse City National Writers Series)

TRAVERSE CITY: On downtown Traverse City’s City Opera House stage November 18, bestselling author Susan Casey will discuss her newest book, Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins. The Traverse City book event begins at 7 p.m. and is sponsored by the Traverse City National Writers Series.


Dolphins? Yes, dolphins! New York Times bestselling author Susan Casey discovers there is much more to these remarkable animals than their perpetual smile and happy giggle. Listen in on November 18 when she appears on the City Opera House stage to talk about Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins, her newest bookNational Writers Series co-founder and New York Times bestselling author Doug Stanton will take the stage as guest host.

Casey, an avid swimmer and diver, writes that her love affair with dolphins began in Hawaii when a pod of spinner dolphins surrounded her as she swam in the ocean. They somehow magically suspended the grief she felt over the passing of her father. Charmed and curious, she decided to learn more; she interviewed dozens of scientists, dug into dolphin history, and traveled the world to report on the state of these truly intelligent animals. In Voices in the Ocean, Casey reveals our natural kinship with dolphins, but also the harsh truths about the way we pollute oceans—sickening and killing dolphins—and engage in a brutal captivity trade.

Intrigued? Learn more about the event at www.nationalwritersseries.org. You can order tickets by visiting the City Opera House Box Office, Monday through Friday (the least expensive way to buy a ticket), calling 941-8082 or ordering online at cityoperahouse.org. Ticket prices start at $5 plus fees.

The National Writers Series caught up with Susan Casey and posed a few questions via email. Here’s what she had to say.

Tell us about your first swim among dolphins when you decided to spend the next few years of your life on exploring the world of dolphins?

My first encounter with wild dolphins was so unexpected and remarkable that it has haunted me ever since—in a good way. As I’ve written, it came at a critical time in my life, and affected my outlook in ways I never could have predicted. Once I had dolphins on my mind, and began to research them, I found a trove of fascinating information, jaw-dropping science, and colorful history—both their extraordinary natural history and our human history with them. We seem to relate to dolphins on a spectrum of extremes, so, as a writer, part of my interest was to chronicle that relationship.

What you were hoping to learn from these mysterious creatures?

I wanted to understand why a mere ten minutes in the dolphins’ presence had such a profound effect on me, especially given that I’ve spent time with so many other astonishing marine creatures, from great white sharks to manta rays to seals to all manner of fish, invertebrates—you name it. There was something very different about interacting with this pod of wild dolphins, and I wanted to delve more deeply into what, exactly, that was. And I knew that I wasn’t alone: everyone who has interacted closely with dolphins comes away changed by the experience. Why is that? It’s a rich question.

While researching this book, you personally witnessed or learned of intensely cruel and shameful ways we humans treat dolphins. What can an ordinary person do to put an end to dolphin captivity trade and slaughter?

The simple answer is: don’t visit marine parks that conduct dolphin shows, and don’t patronize captive swim-with-dolphins facilities. Without the lucrative export in live dolphins, drive hunts like the one in Taiji, Japan, would lose their economic underpinning: a young female bottlenose dolphin, for instance, can be sold for more than $150,000. Once you learn about the lives of dolphins in the wild, you realize how insane it is to expect them to live happily in a swimming pool. (At the back of the book I have listed anti-captivity organizations that readers can support, as well.)

You experienced a bit of the woo-hoo New Age spirituality in Dolphinville with reports of underwater UFOs and a belief that dolphins transmit knowledge to an outer realm. What did you think of these theories?

I write about the new age dolphin community with affection—these are people who really, really love dolphins—even though I may not personally believe that dolphins come from another solar system, or that they are intergalactic emissaries sent here in plasma spaceships to guide us. I’m a curious narrator; I love writing about colorful subcultures and taking readers into worlds that they might not otherwise visit. And though I often write about cutting-edge science, I’m also deeply interested in the hinterlands between what we know (or think we know) and what we don’t know. There are a lot more mysteries out there than our rational brains care to admit. I find it fascinating to muse about what creature who developed their huge brains 35 million years ago—34.8 million years before humans developed theirs— might be able to do with their gray matter.

Dolphins, you write, are far more empathic than humans. Can you talk about that and how it affects their sense of self?

Dolphin neuroanatomy is completely different than our own, wired in an utterly original way that evolved over the course of tens of millions of years in the ocean. One especially intriguing feature: dolphins have an extra lobe in their brain’s limbic region, the seat of feelings and memory, which indicates that they process their emotions in very sophisticated ways. Some scientists have even suggested that this elaborate limbic system might mean that a dolphin’s sense of self is more communal than individual. They may care about one another in a way we don’t quite understand, in a kind of shared existence that transcends even empathy. They may live with a degree of interconnectedness that is far greater than our own.

I love the quote at the end of your book:  “What if nature spoke to us in music, and the dolphins were her chorus? What if we stopped talking, and joined their harmony?”

So my question is, how do you tap into nature’s harmony on an everyday basis? What lessons did you learn from dolphins that help you hush life’s “low hum of anxiety.”

I am inspired by E.O. Wilson’s theory of biophilia, which holds that we are part of nature, and when we try to separate ourselves from it or hold ourselves above it, we lose an essential part of ourselves. Skyscrapers do not soothe us or nourish our souls, even the most beautifully designed ones. When I lived in Manhattan I clung to Central Park—that green space and those trees were always a solace. And when I left O, The Oprah Magazine, one main reason was because I yearned to make the natural world more of a priority in my life. Science has shown that we need that relationship, not only for our mental health but for our biological health as well. My best advice for achieving harmony with nature is to focus on what you love most: it may be the mountains, or the forest, or the desert, or, like me, the ocean—whatever it is, spend as much time there as you can. And, of course, do everything you can to protect it. If each of us did one concerted thing to help the world’s wild places and creatures, we’d get somewhere.

You’ve worked as a creative director at Outside, development editor for Time magazine, and editor-in-chief for Oprah’s O magazine. You’ve written three books that focus on the ocean and its creatures, including the New York Times bestseller The Wave. Big-city journalism and remote oceans couldn’t be more different. Where do you live now and where are you headed next?

I split my time between the north shore of Maui, and the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Hawaii’s isolation works well for me when I’m writing, particularly because I can literally immerse myself in the ocean. The Pacific Ocean is my muse, so it helps to be near her. The Hudson Valley is where I go when I need to be closer to the action. I can be in Manhattan in 90 minutes and I enjoy being there, but as far as living in the concrete jungle again—I’m out. I’ve done my time. As for where I’m headed now: onto the next adventure!


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