Note: there are probably some SPOILERS below.
A wild dolphin named Coral leaves her pod with her younger brother to seek their missing older brother and find a safe place for the dolphins to live away from threatening orcas. On the journey they encounter many natural dangers- orcas, sharks, bad weather- and also those from mankind: fishing nets and whaling boats. They befriend a whale who warns them about humans, and rescue another dolphin (different species) from a drift net, before running into serious trouble: getting caught by humans. Long before this point in the story I was dragging my way through the pages, but I was curious to see how it would depict the dolphins’ encounter with humans, so I kept going. It was frustrating.
Initially the dolphins are kept in a facility that trains them to perform for shows- first they don’t get it, then they go along, then some of them start to enjoy it and become complacent about their capitivity. One of them gets ill and is removed from the pool, causing that dolphin’s mate to become depressed and then resentful towards the humans. Then the dolphins are tested to see if they can use their sonar while blindfolded, and the one narrating the story, Coral, is moved to an ocean pen. She follows a small boat her trainer goes out to sea in, and is taught to use her retrieval skills for saving divers (or people lost at sea?) Even though she could easily run away while working in the open ocean, or jump out of the pen, she stays because feels attached to her human trainer and caretaker. The story even depicts her feeling jealous and aggressive towards a woman the trainer interacts with. There’s a very interesting scene where she starts carrying the human trainer further and further out into the ocean, turning what was a game into a frightening experience, as she wants him to stay in the water with her forever, and forgets he can’t breathe without his diving equipment. In the end, some of the other dolphins at the facility escape during a storm, and encourage her to leave the pen and join the wild pod back in the ocean- reminding her that her place is with them, not the humans.
Overall this book didn’t really work for me. What could be better than a look inside the lives of wild dolphins, brought to entertainment venues and scientific experiments? I am not sure if it’s that the older me gets bored with the dry, simplistic writing style typical of Scott O’Dell (which makes sense for an animal’s inner voice, and of course the book is aimed at younger readers too), or that because it’s is co-authored, it all comes across as slightly awkward. Part of this was how the dolphins communicated- sometimes in short but complete sentences, sometimes with single words and an explanation for how much else was conveyed via sonar pictures or dolphin noises. It just didn’t feel smooth. Also the amount the dolphins could understand about what the humans were doing, and even their gradual understanding of words, went far beyond what I think they’d be capable of, even in the realm of a talking animal story. Information they apparently picked up from listening to humans talk, made no sense compared to how much they comprehended in other scenes. I found the inconsistency distracting and my interest degraded quickly. I ended up skimming most of the book to see how it ended, without enjoying it a whole lot.
However, that all said, I still think this would be a good read for middle-grade kids who are interested in dolphins and won’t notice the things that bothered me. It shows very clearly how the dolphins live in close family groups, the threats they face in nature, the stresses they experience when living in captivity, training methods that have been used with them, discoveries made about their abilities, their playfulness, creativity and intelligence, and more. I admire that it tried to do so from the animal’s point of view, I just don’t think it worked very well.