Naomi Rose fell in love with dolphins at the age of thirteen. It happened in 1975 while she was watching An Evening with John Denver, a major television special that aired that year.
To Naomi, nobody was better than the Rocky Mountain songster with the boyish grin and dirty-blond mop. John Denver was the reason why she had purchased a cheap, used acoustic guitar and started strumming simple sounds from a chord chart. She had every John Denver album there was and soon taught herself to play many of his songs, belting them out with gusto.
Denver’s 1973 smash hit, “Rocky Mountain High,” had made Naomi a fan, but it also sparked her desire to work around wildlife, move to Colorado, and become a park ranger.
Another John Denver song, “Calypso” (1975), made her want to become a marine biologist. Calypso was the name of the retired minesweeper that Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a longtime friend of Denver’s, converted into a floating marine research lab. John Denver wrote the song—one of his signature hits—in celebration of Cousteau, his crew, and the beloved white vessel they made world-famous.
Naomi had tuned in to see her pop-country idol extol the wonders of the mountains and free-roaming wildlife. She wasn’t expecting a special appearance by the old marine biologist with the white hair, red cap, and cool French accent. But there he was on-screen with Denver, during a moving tribute to Cousteau’s work—the two of them sailing together on the Calypso as a cluster of dolphins surfed in the bow wave.
Naomi was transfixed. She watched the music video, primitive as it was, her eyes pegged to the screen.
As Denver’s song “Calypso” played over the images, Naomi stood and clapped along, bedazzled by the dolphins leaping through the white foam from the boat. She listened in amazement to the tune that changed her life:
Like the dolphin who guides you, you bring us beside you
To light up the darkness and show us the way.
The scene had a profound, lifelong effect on the young girl. Thanks to Denver and that seafaring Frenchman, Naomi was hooked on dolphins at a young age. (“John Denver was the gateway drug,” she would joke years later. “Jacques Cousteau was the addiction.”)
Naomi went into the living room to deliver the announcement to her folks. “I am going to study dolphins,” the thirteen-year-old declared with a calm smile. Her parents smiled back. They told Naomi that they trusted her judgment, and they gave her a lot of credit for knowing what she wanted to do, even though she was only a teenager. Naomi realized they didn’t believe her. After all, what thirteen-year-old kid knows what she wants to be?
But Naomi knew. She had never been so certain of anything in her life. There was something about those dolphins on the Denver special, just the sight of them playing at the bow of the boat. Naomi had watched Flipper as a kid, but that didn’t make her want to work with dolphins. It was just another fictional wildlife show. Naomi also watched Daktari, but that didn’t make her want to move to Africa and work with lions.
Someday, she promised herself, she would work on a boat and swim in the open sea, observing the dolphins, just like Capitaine Cousteau.
Naomi Anne Rose was born in Hastings, Michigan, a typical small town far from the ocean. But her family soon moved to the tidy suburbs of Milwaukee, where she spent her formative years. Her father was a chemist by training and worked as a medical technologist, testing blood, urine, and other samples in commercial labs. Her mother, who did not finish her college degree until she was fifty-three, worked with her husband in the medical-testing field. The couple moved frequently to take new jobs.
Naomi’s mother, Reiko Kim, was born in Tokyo and lived there through the Pacific war. Her family moved to Okinawa soon after the fighting ended. There, Reiko learned to speak English and received her primary education at the local US Air Force base. Her Korean father was a translator for the US government, and all of her friends were American military brats.
The Kim family emigrated to Hawaii when Reiko was eighteen, and a few years later that’s where she met Naomi’s father, Raymond Rose, who was stationed there during his stint in the army. The two were married in 1958, and Naomi’s oldest brother, Greg, was born in the territory of Hawaii, in 1959. Her other brother, Lawrence, was born in the state, in 1960.
Naomi’s mother is, as Naomi has put it, “very Asian—inscrutable, quite reserved.” But Reiko was a good mother, if not the warm, June Cleaver kind. She was a good cook and knew how to make terrific Halloween costumes and kept her sons busy with judo lessons and her daughter enrolled in dance class. Naomi’s father, Raymond, never really understood Naomi, though he made it abundantly clear that he was proud of her. To a young Naomi, he was a distant dad, often away on business trips. Raymond moved his family around a lot because his ambitions sometimes got the better of him. It made for an unstable childhood.
Then there were the arguments between husband and wife. They weren’t violent, but the conflict and bickering often made life at home uncomfortable. When Naomi was eleven, the precocious girl flatly suggested that her parents seek a divorce.
Naomi’s brothers were fond of their kid sister, but often gave her a hard time. The bullying was typical sibling rivalry, but Naomi had no intention of putting up with it. The boys might win the physical fights, but Naomi got them back by finding ways to get them in trouble with their mom. Did that make her a tattletale? Perhaps, but it also kept Naomi from growing up as their personal doormat. Within a few years, they had worked out a suitable détente.
Naomi was always the good girl, and quite a little square: gifted in school, well behaved if a bit too opinionated for someone that young. Naomi had always been more confident than most people, even as a young girl telling her older friends what to do.
The Rose family moved several times as Naomi was growing up, living in Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. When she was fifteen, they moved to Southern California. Though she was wary of yet another relocation, at least her new home offered access to two major marine entertainment parks. She could not wait to visit them: San Diego’s SeaWorld, home of the original Shamu, and Marineland of the Pacific, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula south of Los Angeles. Marineland had two famous killer whales: Orky II, the male, and Corky II, the female. Naomi loved seeing all the shows at both places. Now that she knew she wanted to become a marine biologist, she wanted to experience cetaceans up close. At this young age, Naomi saw only the excitement and spectacle of Corky, Orky, and Shamu leaping from the water, without giving any thought to what might be going on behind the scenes of the marvelous display. Not until years later, when she saw orcas in the wild, did she begin to think about what life must be like for them in captivity.
That summer before her junior year, the short, scrappy Asian-American teenager with wavy, dark hair, brown eyes, and steely self-confidence went on a scientific field trip up the coast of California. It was part of a summer school course she took on intertidal organisms and marine biology offered by the LA County Unified School District. After a few weeks in a classroom learning to identify tide-pool species, Naomi and several other students chaperoned by two adults drove a large RV up to Big Sur for a few days of seaside study. To her, it was the ultimate in student field trips.
The students were divided into small groups and assigned a tide pool to observe over time. They took measurements of salinity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and pH. They created graphs and tables and did field drawings showing where all the organisms were located in each pool. They sketched individual organisms and conducted censuses by species. They did sediment analyses, took weather readings, and compiled other scientific measurements with an impressive arsenal of equipment. All the while, just offshore, Pacific sea otters played and foraged in the kelp, carefree as monkeys. Naomi loved every minute of it.
But Naomi wasn’t like the other, wilder LA kids. They liked to procure illicit bottles of Boone’s Farm white zinfandel and get rather buzzed and giggly while writing their field reports. Not so Miss Rose. When offered some wine from one of the boys, she politely declined. The boy thought that was pretty cool. “You can say no without being a buzz kill,” he marveled.
At sixteen, Naomi asked if she could go away to study at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School—mostly because she wanted to stay in one place for the rest of high school. That the boarding school was near Aspen, John Denver’s home, was an added benefit. Naomi was so square that she still liked the singer and admired his environmental work. She didn’t think she’d run into the star, and she never did. But the secret hope remained.
School was easy for Naomi and she excelled in all her classes, earning straight A’s without much effort. She loved science most, especially animal behavior and ecology. Mostly Naomi just liked knowing things. She possessed an extraordinary memory to store them in: a brimming internal database of assorted factoids, both weighty and trivial, that she could retrieve at will with unnerving alacrity.
In selecting a college, Naomi made a counterintuitive choice, given her desire to study marine creatures. She planned to attend school away from the coast and wanted to get a good, solid biology degree before she specialized, she explained to her friends.
She selected Mount Holyoke, the Massachusetts liberal arts college for women, and fled her warring California household. During spring break of her first year, she traveled to the outer elbow of Cape Cod to Woods Hole, the largest nonprofit oceanographic institution in the world and a mecca for aspiring marine biologists. She wanted to check the upcoming cruise schedule for student opportunities on research ships.
That summer, Woods Hole was going to run a ship from Cape Cod to Spain and then on to the Canary Islands before returning to Massachusetts. Naomi contacted the scientists about coming along. “Sure, just show up,” she was surprised to hear from the chief scientist on the first leg of the cruise. “We can keep you busy. There are always tasks for a college student to do.”
On departure day, in early June, Naomi appeared on the dock, army-surplus duffel bag and guitar in hand. The team members hadn’t expected her to show. “Well, you’re here,” one of them said. “C’mon, I’ll show you your bunk.” It was way down in the bilge, cramped, hot, and noisy.
Naomi ended up spending more time with the burly merchant marines than the scientists because she stayed on board for the whole three months, while the research team turned over at the end of each one-month leg. The ship was to study the physical oceanography (water temperature, salinity, etc.) and the biological oceanography (plant and animal specimens, travel patterns, etc.) along certain points of the route to profile a slice of the Atlantic Ocean. Naomi was assigned menial tasks—pulling filters out of the seawater, keeping track of depth recordings, washing flasks.
It was hard to say that she “liked” the cruise, though she would never forget the experience: A young female college student at sea with a crew of beer-swilling merchant marines, many of whom had signed up to escape their questionable pasts. It was rumored that one guy did time for second-degree murder.
Naomi did not yet drink, but she learned to tolerate people who do, watching her shipmates get blisteringly drunk and then pass out. From them, she learned how to swear, quite literally like a sailor. It didn’t take long for her to win their respect. Impressed by her endurance for the hardships of being at sea, the crew rewarded Naomi with ever more comfortable quarters—from the bilge, to the second deck, and finally the top deck. Naomi also found herself in her first serious romantic relationship on the trip, with the ship’s medic, who lived near Mount Holyoke. She stayed with him for almost two years.
The wayfarer returned to school even more hooked on the ocean and its inhabitants. The first semester of her junior year, Naomi journeyed to Hawaii to attend the University of Hawaii–Manoa (the school where Barack Obama’s parents met in 1959), near downtown Honolulu. She spent the waning days of the summer with her mother’s family before renting a modest apartment with another student from Mount Holyoke and starting classes full-time at the university.
Naomi also did volunteer work at the school’s Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory, a two-acre research facility near Ala Moana Beach Park, walking distance from Waikiki. The lab housed two captive bottlenose dolphins, and its scientists were studying the animals’ language acquisition abilities through hand and audio signals. When Naomi learned that the pair of female dolphins—Phoenix and Akeakemai, or Ake (pronounced ah-KAY) for short—knew some five hundred signals based on American Sign Language, she immediately signed up to work at Kewalo.
Naomi would ride a moped, on loan from her aunt, down to the lab about twice a week after school. Student volunteers were not given a lot of responsibility—or initially much access to the dolphins. It was grunt work mostly: pushing paper, mopping decks, and, most arduous of all, cleaning out the dolphin tank. The water level would be lowered to just a few feet, leaving Phoenix and Ake to skim around in the shallows at the bottom while students scrubbed algae from the sides of the concrete tank.
Not until the last few weeks of her semester was Naomi allowed to interact with the dolphins. She began by giving fish to Ake and also started learning some of the hand signals the researchers used to study the animal’s aptitude for language acquisition. She also worked with Phoenix, who was learning computer-generated sounds instead of hand signals. Each time Phoenix performed as requested by the tones, Naomi would offer her fish or praise.
After weeks of work, the scum-scrubbing volunteers were finally rewarded with time in the water with the dolphins. Naomi was excited, but she only tried it once.
On the appointed day, she showed up clad in a two-piece bathing suit with a diving mask in her hand. She slipped into the warm Oahu seawater that filled the tank. Naomi felt slightly uneasy, but figured the dolphins would be kind to the hand that had fed them. She figured wrong.
Naomi got in the water and started swimming around the pool’s perimeter. The dolphins were alongside her. The students were told not to stop or look at the animals or to appear in any way nervous. Naomi didn’t even make it around one full circuit. She swam a few feet, but must have seemed timid. The dolphins turned on her.
Smash, bang, boom.
One of the 350-pound animals butted Naomi hard across the chest with her snout. The other slapped Naomi in the face with her fluke, sending Naomi’s mask flying.
Naomi was dazed. She lost her bearings, blinded and unable to catch her breath. She felt helpless, but she had no chance to panic, though her ribs felt as if they had been crushed as the air was expelled from her lungs. Research staff rushed to her side and dragged her from the water. The dolphins turned and swam away, slinking around at the other end of the pool. The bridge of Naomi’s nose throbbed and her ribs were seriously bruised.
Naomi looked across at the rogue dolphins. They seemed sheepish, as though they had no idea she would react so poorly to their roughhousing. But she couldn’t be angry with them.
When Naomi got back to Mount Holyoke, she went to see her mentor, Dr. Susan Smith, an animal behavior professor who had been a big influence on Naomi as a biology student. Susan had taught her how to observe animals in the wild and how to take accurate field notes. Naomi was eager to fill the professor in on her trip to Hawaii, and especially her work at Kewalo Basin with the dolphin language acquisition study.
“I think the work going on out there is very cool,” Naomi told her. “I was just amazed by the modified ASL gestures that Ake knew, and how Phoenix learned the computer-generated sound language. Their understanding of syntax alone is so remarkable. I just loved working with these animals!”
Naomi gushed about the project for quite some time, without noticing the skeptical look that had crossed her mentor’s face. “Isn’t it fascinating?” Naomi asked.
“Well,” Susan began slowly, “teaching them an artificial language so we can communicate with them is all very interesting, but I would think it would be even more cool to learn what they are trying to say to us. What about research to try to decipher their language, as opposed to teaching them an artificial one that we created?”
Naomi stopped short at this unexpected perspective. It was an unusual feeling to have someone she admired be so unimpressed by what she was describing. She pondered her mentor’s question. Naomi realized that, even though she had spent time with captive cetaceans, it had never occurred to her that they might have languages of their own, that their thoughts might work very differently from ours. For the first time, Naomi began thinking of what life in captivity must be like from a dolphin’s perspective.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1984, Naomi was accepted into the graduate program in biology at UC Santa Cruz and was bequeathed a modest merit scholarship of $5,000. But Naomi, who was skipping her master’s degree and aiming headlong for a PhD, was undecided on a topic for her dissertation. She decided to take a year off, spending half of it traveling around Europe, following in the footsteps of her brother, who’d been a vagabond around Europe the year before. Though Naomi was able to defer graduate school by a year, she had to forgo the scholarship money.
It was the first time Naomi had ever done something so unstructured: six months without a fixed itinerary, traveling through eleven countries with a Eurail Pass and a youth-hostel card. The adventure taught her how to cope with the unexpected, handle emergencies, live on a shoestring, travel light, deal with cultural differences, and enjoy her own company. Her European tour tested her confidence, competence, and ingenuity to the utmost—all three would be critical for what was coming a bit later.
By the time Naomi returned to the States, in May 1985, she had been granted a prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship that would pay for three years of graduate school, with a small stipend for living costs.
Her mother was thrilled. Raymond Rose was also pleased for his daughter. But a heart attack he had suffered cast a dark pall of post-infarction depression upon him. His moroseness was too much for Naomi’s mother, and she finally filed for divorce. For Naomi, it was a rough reentry from her carefree months in Europe. Not only did she have to prepare for a PhD program, she had to comfort a divorcing, depressed father at home.
Naomi left for Santa Cruz, six hours up the coast from LA, in August of 1985—partly because school was starting soon, and partly because, once again, she just needed to get away.
Copyright © 2012 by David Kirby