Swimming With Dolphins and Great Whites — Susan Casey’s Life of Adventure

Yahoo Travel is exploring how travel can inspire creativity in all shapes and forms around the globe.


The author in her office. (Photo: Susan Casey/Instagram)

“Your life should be a movie,” I tell best-selling author Susan Casey when we talk on the phone. And I mean it. Casey’s writing résumé reads like a series of Steven Spielberg films set in the ocean.

In 2005, Casey published The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks, the research for which required her to live on rickety boat in the turbulent, shark-filled waters off the Farallon Islands in order to get as close as possible to her great white subjects.

In 2011, she authored The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, parts of which describe following big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton as he tackles 100-foot waves.

In her latest book, Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins, Casey swims with dolphins, literally, and the result is fascinating and alarming in equal parts.

The latest book opens with Casey taking a solo swim in the dark, possibly shark-filled waters of Honolua Bay. She is still numb over the sudden death of her father, and decides to go for a solo swim in the bay regardless of the risk. Just as she’s about to head back, she is overtaken by a school of spinner dolphins that swim with her. Casey describes how the lead dolphin approaches her and “for a moment we hung there in the water and looked at one another, exchanging what I can only describe as a profound cross-species greeting.”

Related: How This Author Finds Inspiration on the Road

And then the entire pod “simply enfolded me in their gathering. … We stayed together for maybe ten minutes but the meeting felt eternal,” writes Casey, “as though time were suspended in the water with us … the dolphins watched me watching them.”


Meeting up with some new friends. (Photo: Susan Casey/Instagram)

This sparks a fascination bordering on obsession with dolphins for Casey, who returns to New York, where she is then editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, and begins pasting pictures of cetaceans all over her office. Soon she is traveling around the world to research dolphins, and the result is this new, compelling book.

We talked to Casey about what it’s like to swim with dolphins, why people who love dolphins should avoid marine parks, the one thing you should do to help the ocean, and why, when it come to sharks, Casey prefers to swim with great whites.

Yahoo Travel: How does travel inspire you?

Susan Casey: Everything I do is based on the question, “What do you mean that [BLANK]?” Like, what do you mean there’s a neighborhood of great white sharks in the San Francisco city limits. What do mean that there’s 100-foot waves that people are surfing. So I do have to always go see it. And when I’m reporting, I’m far more intrepid; I’ll go anywhere. I don’t ever want fear to dictate what I do; I listen to it, but just because it’s there doesn’t mean I won’t necessarily do it.

Lets talk about sharks. Its safe to say they are on a lot of peoples minds when they get into the ocean. You wrote an entire book about great white sharks, which is the sort of shark we most often hear about in the news. How do they stack up against other sharks?

I always see sharks when I’m swimming in Maui, and I’m always happy to see them. Maybe a little less happy to see tiger sharks than other kinds of sharks; I’d rather take my chances with a great white any day of the week. Great whites are just so different than any other type of shark. They are the apex in the shark world. If there are other sharks around and a great white comes around, they’ll scatter. Even a small great white will flee from a larger great white. Tiger sharks, meanwhile, are a little bit like pit bulls — when you see them, they look like they’d eat anything. Great white sharks take their time before deciding what they’re going to do. Great whites are warm-blooded — there’s hardly any sharks that are — and it’s really good if you’re a predator and you’re warm-blooded because you’re already warmed up.


Diving with live sharks on Guadalupe Island in 2008. (Photo: Susan Casey/Instagram)

When a big, 2,000-pound white shark goes to haul itself to attack, they are expending huge amounts of energy. If they were to do that and end up with us, they would have a net energy deficit and they would die eventually, so we’re really not on their menu. They can’t afford to eat us. They have to get a seal, or part of a whale, or something like that. Tiger sharks don’t have that issue.

Good to know! So after spending years researching and writing about sharks, youve moved on to (far less intimidating!) dolphins. Had you encountered dolphins before in all your shark research?

Only on the periphery, which was really interesting to me. I’d been in the water a lot when I was reporting The Wave, and everyone but me was seeing dolphins. [Big-wave surfer] Laird Hamilton said to me, “I think you’ve got to work on your energy, I think you have shark energy. When you get in the water, sharks come to you; if you want dolphins, you’ve got to work on that.” I believe it now.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about dolphins during your research?

I went and hung out with a cetacean (a group of mammals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises) neuroscientist. There are only a handful in the world. She just blew my mind, pardon the pun! A bottlenose dolphin’s brain, for instance, is about 20 percent bigger than ours, and the wiring is entirely different. They’re far more adapted than we are. Dolphins have adapted their brains to live in the most dominant ecosystem on earth, so you really can infer these creatures are the most adapted to live on our planet.

One other thing: Dolphins recognize themselves in the mirror, which shows they have a sense of self: “Wow, that’s me in the mirror.” It’s pretty rare for animals to recognize themselves in the mirror; it shows a metacognition. This may seem simple, but this notion that I’m me and you’re you, it’s something that can’t be taken for granted. Even children don’t really learn self-identity until they’re about 2, around the time they start developing empathy.


This summer’s real-life beach read. (Photo: Susan Casey/Instagram)

This makes it sound like they are more evolved than we are.

They are more evolved! Drastically. They’ve been around for 95 million years and we’ve only been around for 2 million. They’re just ancient compared to us. There’s a lot of ancient animals on earth, but not a lot of big-brained ones. If I was a neuroscientist, I’d be right in there studying dolphin brains. It’s just such a completely different way to be smart.

For example: Dolphins have an extra lobe in their brain in a region that deals with very high-level emotional processing and intuition, and it’s so elaborate, it’s really ornate. It suggests that dolphins are doing something very sophisticated when they’re processing their emotions and it’s even been said their sense of self might not be the same as ours. So, in other words, they might have what one scientist called a “communal self,” where not only am I me, but I’m you, unlike humans, who think of “self” as stopping at the perimeter of our body.

When dolphins get stranded, for instance, and there’s really only one of them that’s sick, or when they don’t jump over the nets — as demonstrated in the documentary The Cove — which they could easily do, scientists don’t understand why that is. This theory of the communal self offers a bit of an explanation. They’re acting as a group as opposed to an individual.

It sounds like youre describing a science-fiction film featuring alien life forms.

That’s what the scientist John C. Lilly thought. That was his whole grail: We’re going to be talking to aliens any day now — that’s what everyone at NASA thought in the ‘50s and ‘60s — we’ve got them right here (in the form of dolphins), let’s try talking to them.

There are a couple of really tough chapters in this book dealing with the treatment of dolphins. What was the most disturbing thing you learned through your research?

It took me weeks to shake the documentary The Cove off me. The underpinning of that film is the captivity industry and the traffic trade in wild dolphins. To me, that was the most upsetting thing I had to cope with. I set out to find a marine park that would sort of exemplify that, and I expected that I would have to go to Jakarta or the Philippines. Instead I found one in Niagara Falls, Ontario, that has a very bad record.

The money that’s being paid for wild dolphins is astronomical. Your average female bottlenose dolphin, unscarred, kind of young, goes for about $200,000. This is a hugely lucrative business.

So how does a person fascinated with dolphins, who wants to interact with them, do so responsibly?

They have to go into the ocean. You have to go to where the dolphins are. There are lots of places where you can see wild dolphins. The California coast on a whale-watching day trip is one place you can see them. If you want to venture as far as Hawaii on the Big Island, there are places where you can go out and you’re almost guaranteed to see them. You can also swim with wild dolphins there. And there are other places in the world. If you love dolphins, you’d probably want to make sure the dolphins were not in captivity.

Where does your fascination with water come from?

It’s always been there. I grew up in Toronto, so I didn’t grow up near the ocean. When I was 10, I announced I wanted to be a competitive swimmer, even though I barely knew how to swim.

I was terrified of fish as a kid. We had a cottage on one of the Muskoka Lakes with this dark, inscrutable water. I would never open my eyes. The idea of seeing a pike or something like that was terrifying (laughs).

What is the one simple thing people can do to make a difference in how our oceans and ocean creatures, like dolphins, are faring.

Care about them.

The plastic problem drives me crazy. I wrote a big magazine article about the problem of plastic in our oceans a number of years ago. When I go down the street and see plastic lying all over and I want to just pick it up, because even if it’s nowhere near the ocean, it’s eventually going to end up there by getting into storm drains and washing out to sea, and then it’s there for a really long time. The bigger problem is plastic acts like a sponge for all these really noxious organic chemicals — even things we outlawed in the ‘70s that are still around. They don’t just vanish once we outlaw them. They’re in the ocean. And eventually, plastic starts breaking down into microscopic bits that fish eat, so it’s in the food chain. Plastic is so crazy, and it lasts for so long, and we make it so disposably. So being aware of plastic would be a big one. And demanding that the government deal with the ocean is another biggie. During the last presidential election, no one mentioned the word “ocean,” and this is an ocean planet. We live here.


The author in her natural habitat. (Photo: Susan Casey/Instagram)

Lets talk a little bit about travel. Your research takes you to some pretty faraway locales. Statistics show that 72 percent of women will travel solo this year. What are your tips for traveling as a woman alone?

Follow your heart. But be aware, it’s just like the ocean. Listen to the voice inside your head and be respectful of the reality of the world. There is a line, and you determine where that is, but listen to your instincts. And if you decide you want to go to somewhere extreme, go with an outfitter. There are certain places I wouldn’t go by myself, and that’s not a lack of bravado, it’s just reality.

Its hard to imagine anyone accusing you of having a lack of bravado. You once lived on a boat anchored just off the Farallon Islands surrounded by great white sharks

Well, that was a little bit of naiveté, too.

Is there a place youve never been that you want to go to?

Lots of them. I still haven’t seen the Great Barrier Reef and I want to go pretty soon — not to be a pessimist, but it doesn’t sound like it’s necessarily in great hands, or in great shape right now.

Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”