Preaching with DolphinsBy Michael Brookes
“Come in Father. Quickly.”
Father Lieder noticed the nervousness etched on Sam’s face. She spoke quickly as she ushered him into the lab. He took a moment to look around the impressive space. Along one wall a bank of computer monitors and jumbled equipment filled the desks. They were placed haphazardly, without any apparent order. The other side of the room was dominated by a pool of gently lapping water. In the shadow of the far end below the reflected caustics, he saw that the pool stretched under the wall.
“Sam, thank you for bringing me here. When you told me...”
She nervously interrupted him. “We have to be quick. You really shouldn’t be here. Security will be doing their rounds in half an hour. You can’t be here then. If they catch you here I’m fucked. Oh sorry Father.” Blushed embarrassment almost smoothed away the worry lines.
“It’s ok Sam, calm down.” His modulated voice soothed her. He had a voice made serene from a lifetime of prayer, consoling the sick and helping those struggling with their faith. The concept of faith always fascinated him. Not only had he devoted his life to serving God, he also now dedicated his time to understanding faith and the perspective it brings.
And now Sam had brought him this. He had never, could never have imagined anything like this.
Sam bustled around him, leading him to the array of computers. The sound of a wave splashed over, soaking the concrete attracted both of their attentions. He heard a clicking whistle as dolphin swim into view.
Sam’s nervousness faded when she saw the dolphin. “That’s Nani.” She smiled. “She’s saying hello.” At the sound of her own name, the dolphin rose partly out of the water and clicked excitedly.
“Father, please sit here.” Sam indicated one of the desk chairs.
“So is it true?” He asked eagerly as he sat in the chair.
“Yes or at least I think so. It’s not something we intended to study as part of the program. The aim was to learn their language. It was more difficult than we anticipated. They use different methods to communicate. Now we’ve discovered how those different forms link together. It’s opened a whole new level of understanding about them.”
“Their outlook. Do they really have a spiritual perspective? Beliefs beyond their physical perception?”
She sounded more doubtful now than she had a week ago. They had met after Sunday Mass for their regular coffee and a chat. They first met three years after she joined the university. She became part of the research program on dolphin communication. Then she was eager young graduate, just starting her PhD. That first encounter was at the university chapel. He didn’t minister there, he no longer preached to a parish. He did read the sermon every so often at the invitation of the local priest, an old friend from the seminary. She’d soon discovered that he had a quick mind and despite his age was fun to and enlightening to talk to.
After last meeting, without knowing why, she blurted the discovery her team had made. They’d cracked the code. Their research unlocked the dolphin’s language. More incredible than that, in her conversations with Nani she'd learned that they had a view of the world that stretched beyond their senses. And she’d told Father Lieber about this. His excitement matched her own and she took little to convincing to agree to let him come to the lab and see for himself. So here he was. Now concern for her job diluted her enthusiasm.
“Can I speak with her?”
Sam checked her watch. Five minutes had already vanished. She sighed. Why had she agreed to let the old man in? “Ok. But not for long. If you get caught here, I’ll lose my job. Christ, I wished I hadn’t agreed to this.” Suddenly she realised what she had said. “Um. Sorry Father.”
“That’s all right Sam. How does it work?”
She picked up a pair of what looked like oversized sunglasses. “Put these on.”
He did as he was bid. “Is that it?” He could hear her tapping on the keyboard behind him. He turned to look, but the darkened glasses obscured his vision. He blinked as the lenses bloomed into life. At first he couldn’t see anything different.
“The computer does most of the work. The synthesised voice you’ll hear is the audio translation.”
On cue a robotic female voice entered his ears. “Hello. Me Nani. Hello. Who you?”
“Amazing.” He smiled again. He wasn’t a priest trapped in the dark ages; he loved the wonders of modern technology. He turned to look at the excited dolphin. He was then distracted by an overlay that appeared in front of his eyes. It showed a series of dolphin shaped poses that transformed into a series of glyphs.
“Some of the subtleties of dolphin communication is from their body posture as well as their vocalisations. Also from how and where they touch each other.” She tapped on the keyboard again.
The symbols projected on the lenses then changed into [EXCITED]. “The system will interpret the emotional and mental context. This part of the program isn’t finished, but we’re working on it. ” She glanced in the direction of the bobbing dolphin and smiled. “Sometimes you don’t need the extra translation.”
“I see what you mean.” He smiled back at her, then at the dolphin. “This is amazing, so what do I do now?”
Sam handed him a small controller. “Press the button while you speak. The system will translate what you say. Nani has an implant of her own. The implant replicates the sounds and provides an image simulating your body postures. Keep your sentences simple, their vocabulary is much smaller than ours.”
“Ok, thanks. Let’s give it a try.” He pressed the button. “Hello Nani. I am Father Lieder.”
[CONFUSED] “You father of Lieder?”
Sam chuckled. “Dolphins only use a single phrase for their names. They do have role titles, but only familial.”
Father Lieder nodded his understanding and pressed the button again. “Call me Lieder.”
[EXCITED] “Hello Lieder. Have fish?”
Sam pulled a chill box from beneath the desk. “She loves these, but don’t give her too many.” Lieder opened the lid and took one of the cold, smelly fish from the container, then threw it to the dolphin. Nani caught the tossed fish deftly and clicked her thanks.
[EXCITED] “Lieder play?”
“Not now Nani, I’ll play with you later. Father, we really don’t have much time, so ask her what you want to.”
[INQUISITIVE] “Lieder question for Nani?” [HAPPY]”New game for Nani?”
“Yes Nani, it’s a question game. Can you answer a question for me?”
[HAPPY] “Yes Lieder. Nani answer question.”
“I want to ask you about how you see the world.”
[PUZZLED]”Nani see world?”
“Yes. Is there more to the world than you perceive?”
[PUZZLED] “What world? What perceive?”
Keep it simple, he thought. He was not off to a good start. “The world is what we live in. The sea, the land, everything.”
[CONFUSED] “World sea? World land? Sea not land.”
“No Nani. The world is the sea and the land.”
Nani swam away from the edge of the pool. “Don’t worry Father; she does that when she’s thinking.”
[THOUGHTFUL] “What perceive?”
“Perceive is what your senses tell you. What you see, or what you hear.” His scratched his head. “Let me start again Nani. You hear the sea and the things that live in the sea.”
[HAPPY] “Yes. Nani hear all.”
“I’m sure you do Nani. You’re very clever. “
Nani clicked her agreement.
“Do you know more than you can see?”
A sudden snort as Nani blasted water from her blowhole. [THOUGHTFUL] “Lieder ask more sound than Nani hear?”
Father Lieder remembered that echo-location was the dolphin’s primary sense, not sight. Sam had also mentioned in their conversation that sound and touch formed the basis for their communication. It was the glue that held their family groups or pods together. He also recalled that sound travels faster underwater. Sound would be how they organised their perspective of the world.
“Yes Nani. Exactly. A sound more than you can hear. We have a sound that you can’t normally hear, although if you can listen carefully you can hear it. It’s God’s voice and it is in everything.”
[PUZZLED] “God? What God?”
“God is everything. He is all around us. He created the universe and everything in it.”
[HAPPY] “God is three?”
Father Lieber couldn’t believe what he just heard. Three – that was the Trinity. “Yes Nani. Three. God is the Trinity. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
[CONFUSED] “Who father? God Lieber father? Who son? What ghost?”
“God is everyone’s father. In a way he is my father, he is also your father. He created the universe and everything in it. The son is Jesus Christ who came down from Heaven to save us from our sins.”
[CONFUSED] “Universe sea, land and sky?”
[PUZZLED] “Son Lieder brother?”
“In a way.”
[HAPPY] [CONFUSED] “What Heaven?”
Father Lieber paused for a moment. He suddenly realised that he’d let his excitement get the better of him. He’d come here to learn about the dolphin’s perception of a world bigger than that of their senses. He wanted to understand how the world appeared to a species that wasn’t human. Would it look radically different? He wasn’t here to gain a convert. The Bishop might not be happy at including marine mammals in his congregation. Although the look on the Bishop’s face would be a wonder.
“Sorry Nani. I asked the wrong question.”
The series of clicks and whistles sounded suspiciously like a snigger.
“Let’s start again. The sound that is more than you can hear, what is it?”
Nani continued to swim in a lazy circle, the small waves pushing over the edge of the pool. They waited impatiently for a minute before she replied.
[THOUGHTFUL] “Great wave sound Nani not hear.”
“The great wave? What is the great wave?”
[HAPPY] “Great wave connect three. Connect all. Sea. Sky. Land.”
“I see. The three. Interesting, we have a Trinity of our own. Are the three special in some way?”
[INQUISITIVE] “Special. What special?”
“Special is when something is important. Why is the sea important?”
[HAPPY] “Sea give life. Sea give food. Sea [UNKNOWN] existence.”
Father Lieder nodded. “Yes. I can see how the sea would be at the core of your beliefs.”
[PUZZLED] “What beliefs?”
“Beliefs are when you understand something you cannot sense.”
[HAPPY] “Great wave is beliefs.”
“Yes it is. The sky. Why is the sky special?”
[THOUGHTFUL] “Need sky breathe. Sky bring light. Sky bring warmth to top sea.”
[PUZZLED] “Sky bring pain if leave sea.”
Again Lieder nodded, it made an obvious kind of sense. Why would the sky bring pain? Of course, their skin dries out. “And the land, what does that mean?”
[SAD] “Land give death. Bad death.”
So dolphins have an understanding of mortality, and a concept of a good or bad death. Fascinating Lieber thought. “What is death?” He asked the still swimming dolphin.
[SAD] “End wave.” [LAUGHS] “Some dolphins surf land.”
That struck Father Lieber as an odd thing to do. “Why would they surf the land?”
[THOUGHTFUL] “See death.”
“They want to look death in the eye?” Lieber laughed. Nani whistled agreement.
Lieber thought for a moment. He could see Sam fidgeting by the desk.
“You say death is wave’s end. Is that the great wave?”
[THOUGHTFUL] “No. Great wave all. Nani wave. Nani dead Nani wave stop.”
“I see. You are a wave in the great wave?”
[HAPPY] “Yes. Wave touches all. Dolphin touches all. Nani is wave.”
“You said that dying on land is a bad death. What does a bad death mean? Is there a good death?”
[THOUGHTFUL] “Bad death not in sea. Good death in sea.”
“Why is dying in the sea good?”
[DISTRESSED] “Death in sea, fall in deep, return to sea. Dead on land, trapped on land.”
“Return to the sea? Does that mean there is an afterlife? “Lieber felt sudden excitement at the prospect. He recalled reports of elephants and various primates who mourn their dead. Maybe something more was involved?
[PUZZLED] “What afterlife?”
Father Lieber thought about that, how best to explain? “Afterlife is that some part of you continues even after death.”
[PUZZLED] “Yes. We die in sea then sink and return to sea.”
“That’s not quite what I meant. Do you have a part of you that makes you different from other dolphins?”
[CONFUSED] “All Nani different other dolphins.”
“When you die, is there a part that identifies you as Nani that continues?”
[CONFUSED] “Nani all Nani.” [THOUGHTFUL] “Nani die, return to sea, no Nani.”
“I understand Nani.”
He smiled. “Of course. Here you go.” He tossed her another fish. He considered what to ask next, there was so much to explore! Nani answered that question for him.
[SAD] “Lieder ask death stop great wave.”
“Yes Nani.” He watched as she swam into the shadows, empty seconds passed before she replied.
[SAD] “Great wave slow.”
That caught Lieder’s attention. “The great wave is slowing down?”
[SAD] “Yes.” She swam back into view.
“Why is the great wave slowing down?”
[ANGRY] “Land, sky poison sea.”
“What happens if the great wave stops?”
“Death? Death for who?”
“What do you mean all? Who will die?”
Sam cursed loudly as she glanced at her watch. “The guard will be making his rounds in five minutes. Father you have to leave now!” She snatched the glasses from his head and bustled him towards the door. He tried to protest, and then remembered she had risked a lot to let him in at all. So he thanked her instead. Behind him Nani clicked a farewell.