Re-reading: Dolphin Island

I recently stumbled across an inexpensive ebook copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Dolphin Island, which is a book I read to destruction when I was a young teenager. (Literally. The paperback eventually fell apart, which is why I no longer had a copy.) Going back to those books is always an iffy proposition, or at least it is for me. Tastes change, styles change, and you never know what unremembered dealbreaker is going to appear in the text. But I still had very fond, if blurry, memories of the book, and it was, as I said, inexpensive, so…

It was worth the re-read. The opening, in which Johnny, the protagonist, stows away on a cross-country hovercraft, is vivid both in its evocation of this new technology and of the isolation and loneliness that makes this seem like a good idea. And the economy of the writing! The original edition claims 186 pages, really more novella than novel, but the story is complete and satisfying at that length. And it’s quite a story. The hovercraft crashes on its Pacific crossing, and Johnny is left among the floating wreckage — no one knew he was on board, so no one knew to rescue him. He is saved by a school of dolphins, who bring him to an island on the Great Barrier Reef where a research community has been established to study the dolphins. Johnny has a knack for communicating with the dolphins, and is soon an important part of the project that attempts to turn guesses and pidgin into real communication. But the idyll of science, skin-diving, and dolphin-talking is interrupted by a typhoon that devastates the island, and forces Johnny to risk his life to save his new-found community.

There are flaws, of course, and many of them are the kind you’d expect for a book written in 1963. There are two female characters in the book, only one of whom is named (Tessie, the Tongan nurse); the other is the mother of Johnny’s new best friend on the island. There is also a female orca who is experimented on to see if she could be trained not to kill dolphins; unlike the female dolphins, she is described in stereotypical anthropomorphized terms as (inappropriately) dominating the male orcas, who is literally described as hen-pecked. But the descriptions of the science involved in trying to talk to the dolphins, and of the sea and of the Great Barrier Reef itself are vivid and memorable.

I read this at about the time I had decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, and in retrospect I’m sure this was one of the reasons I thought that was a good idea. Clarke had a gift for making the process of science as exciting as the results, and his descriptions of living on this remote tropical island, surrounded by sea and sky and mystery, caught my imagination like nothing else had. It’s not one of Clarke’s great works, but it was the right book for me at the right moment in my life. Reading it, I remembered quite sharply a summer spent diving to the very bottom of the local swimming pool — twelve feet down! — and trying to teach myself to hold my breath for longer and longer, in preparation for a time when I, too, might learn to talk to dolphins.