Science Fiction Book Review

Dolphin Island

by Arthur C. Clarke
Reviewed date: 2023 Apr 13
Rating: 2
143 pages
cover art

Dolphin Island is a juvenile, and it's less about the plot than about exploring the setting: an island in the Great Barrier Reef. Johnny, fresh from inland, USA, has never seen the ocean before. He learns to skindive, explore the reef, fish, hunt clams and cowries, and swims with dolphins. He experiences the mighty power of a hurricane.

Truly, island life is the best.

The plot, what little there is, centers around dolphins. Professor Kazan has been learning the language of dolphins, and teaching the dolphins a little English. It's fascinating work, even more so when the dolphins make a request: please, can humans help the dolphins fight the killer whales? It seems killer whales are the dolphins' mortal enemies.

The trouble is, first of all, it's not clear what can be done. Second, even if something can be done, should it? Killer whales keep dolphin populations in check, and a sea with a dolphin population explosion will soon be a sea empty of fish—fish that both dolphins and humans rely on for food.

None of these questions get answered. Like I said, this book is more an excuse to revel in the beauties of the tropical island life.

My verdict
Even considering it is a juvenile, Dolphin Island has little going for it. If you want a science fiction book that showcases the benefits of tropical island life, a better choice is Needle by Hal Clement. It has a plot with an actual resolution.

Other reviews:
This is a mostly-forgotten Clarke book, and it's difficult to find any reviews that are not perfunctory.

Metamorphosis Reviews: "The strength of the book is in its loving description of the Great Barrier Reef and its ecology. … Clarke is generally spellbound by the free-diving possibilities and the beauty of the ecology, and does a very nice job of presenting them"

P. Schuyler Smith, Analog Science Fiction, October 1963, page 90. [PDF link] from Luminist Archive: "In a relaxed, offhand manner the author introduces his greenhorn to the marvelous world of the Reef, describes the already successful attempts to talk with some of the dolphins, and sets up a very pretty scientific and ethical problem when the school of dolphins that rescued Johnny Clinton ask the humans to help wipe out their hereditary enemies, the killer whales."

Chapter 1: Johnny Clinton goes out to take a look at a hovership that has broken down in a field close to his house.

Chapter 2: The hovership is the Santa Anna, a cargo ship. Johnny climbs on board to look around, and the ship roars back to life and resumes its journey. Johnny is an accidental stowaway, but figures he'll get a free trip to Australia out of the deal. Johnny wakes up when Santa Anna crashes into the sea.

Chapter 3: Santa Anna's crew don't know Johnny is on board so they launch the lifeboard and escape. Johnny leaps into the sea as Santa Anna sinks. He makes a raft out of some floating debris.

Chapter 4: Dolphins push Johnny's raft a hundred miles to a small island.

Chapter 5: Johnny awakes. Nurse Tessie tells him he is on Dolphin Island in the Great Barrier Reef, 100 miles off the coast of Australia. He meets Dr. Keith who tells him the island is a research outpost studying dolphin speech.

Chapter 6: Another boy, Mick Nauru, acts as Johnny's guide and shows him the island. They gather turtle eggs for dinner. Mick shows Johnny the dolphin pool, where Professor Kazan—the leader of this research endeavor—keeps two dolphins whose speech he is trying to learn.

Chapter 7: The hydrofoil Flying Fish arrives. Johnny helps unload supplies. He meets Professor Kazan. Dr. Keith and Professor Kazan surmise that the wild dolphins who helped Johnny did so because they want some help in return. Kazan takes Johnny down to see the dolphins in the pool: Susie and Sputnik. Kazan lets Johnny feed Sputnik, and the dolphin takes to Johnny immediately. Kazan tells Johnny that dolphins may not be human, but they are people. "Never think of them as animals; in their language they call themselves the People of the Sea, and that's the best name for them."

Chapter 8: Johnny explores the reef with Mick as his guide.

Chapter 9: Professor Kazan takes Flying Fish out to find the dolphins who rescued Johnny. He brings along two trained dolphins, Einar and Peggy, to converse with the wild dolphins. Kazan records thirty minutes of dolphin conversation which he brings back to the island to study.

Chapter 10: Mick teaches Johnny to skindive. Professor Kazan deciphers the dolphin conversation and learns the dolphins have asked the humans to help them fight their mortal enemies: the orcas. Disturbed, Kazan and Dr. Keith get a few members of their Advisory Committee on a conference call to talk it over. My favorite line in the book is when Dr. Keith stops Kazan from calling up more members because a conference call with more than five people never accomplishes anything. He's not wrong.

Let's see who we can contact at this time of day." [Professor Kazan] pulled a list of names out of a drawer and started running his finger down the columns.

"Not the Americans—they'll all be sleeping. Ditto most of the Europeans. That leaves—let's see—Saha in Delhi, Hirsch in Tel Aviv, Abdullah in———"

"That's enough!" interrupted Dr. Keith. "I've never known a conference-call do anything useful with more than five people in it."

The five men discuss their concerns, chief being that if orcas no longer feed on dolphins, this will let dolphin populations explode, potentially overrunning the ocean's resources—that is, fish—to feed them. Professor Kazan gets an idea, but he will need a killer whale to test it out.

Chapter 11: Johnny and Mick go night fishing.

Chapter 12: Professor Kazan gives Johnny his new invention: a wrist communicator that has buttons to play recordings of dolphin words. UP, DOWN, FAST, DANGER, FOLLOW, etc. Johnny tests it out with Susie and Sputnik. The playful dolphins love games, and soon Johnny is ordering them around.

Chapter 13: Johnny cuts across the island through the forest and stumbles across some rusty relics: an abandoned fireplace, a rusted cup, a broken spoon. Mick tells him these were left behind by Mary Watson when she, baby, and her Chinese cook fled Dolphin Island to escape from cannibals. They did not survive, but Mary's diary was discovered on another island where the three perished from lack of water. In the afterward, Arthur Clarke tells us this is a true story, but he changed the location from Lizard Island to the fictional Dolphin Island.

Chapter 14: Mick takes Johnny to the edge of the reef and they explore deeper waters. Johnny makes a harness for the dolphins so they can help him travel faster and explore more of the reef.

Chapter 15: Professor Kazan thinks dolphins may have a lot to offer humans. He takes Flying Fish out and the dolphins help him locate multiple shipwrecks. The dolphins also drive schools of fish into trawlers' nets. Beyond that, Kazan thinks dolphins may have an oral history of events that predate human history. Kazan and Dr. Keith recount one dolphin tale they've translated, which describe events that can only be the crash-landing and subsequent sinking of an alien spaceship.

Chapter 16: Snowy, a killer whale, is delivered to Dolphin Island. Psychologist Dr. Saha arrives and oversees the installation of a brain implant into the killer whale. By way of electrical signals delivered directly to the brain, the scientists can direct the killer whale's movements, and deliver both painful and pleasurable stimuli. Johnny is a little disturbed at the idea. Orcas are nearly as intelligent as dolphins, and if dolphins are people then surely orcas are too?

Chapter 17: Kazan and Saha release Snowy near the school of dolphins, and use the brain-wave device to shock her whenever she tries to attack the dolphins. Snowy catches on quickly, and the dolphins recognize it as well. After three days Snowy and the dolphins are friendly and cooperating. Kazan turns Snowy loose for good. Maybe she will teach other orcas to respect dolphins.

Chapter 18: A hurricane slams Dolphin Island. All their boats are smashed, the communications equipment is wrecked, and their medical supplies are destroyed. No one has died, but many are injured and Professor Kazan falls ill with pneumonia.

Chapter 19: It will be a week or more before anyone on the mainland thinks to check on the researchers at Dolphin Island, and Professor Kazan. Johnny realizes the dolphins can tow him the 100 miles to the mainland. With Mick's help he grabs a surfboard and a few supplies, harnesses up Susie and Sputnik, and sets out.

Chapter 20: Susie and Sputnik tow Johnny toward the mainland. They encounter Snowy and another killer whale, and Johnny is relieved to see Snowy has taught her mate to respect dolphins and humans.

Chapter 21: Johnny reached the coast. The huge waves—remnants of the hurricane—are the last trial Johnny must endure. Surfers watching from the shoreline—it's too dangerous to surf—signal to him which wave he should catch to ride in to shore. He barely survives.

Chapter 22: Professor Kazan is safe in a hospital in Queensland. Mrs. Kazan, who had flown in from Moscow, has jetted off to Sydney for some shopping. Johnny visits Professor Kazan in the hospital, where Kazan tells him that Johnny must think about the future: an education at the University of Queensland. Then later he can return to help with the research into the dolphin-killer whale problem. Kazan suggests they may be able to set up exclusion zones in the oceans, portions off limits to killer whales and thus safer for dolphins. The Mediterranean, for example, and the Red Sea.

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