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Dolphin Island by Arthur C. Clarke

Dolphin Island (1963)

by Arthur C. Clarke

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466832,062 (3.49)13
  1. 10
    The Deep Range by Arthur C. Clarke (JulesJones)
    JulesJones: Clarke wrote two excellent novels about near-future scientific work with cetaceans. The Deep Range is aimed at an adult audience and considers a future where whales are farmed for meat; Dolphin Island is a young adult novel about work on communicating with dolphins. The themes are related but distinct, but in both Clarke drew on scientific fact and his own experience of diving to create a believable near-future world.… (more)

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“Johnny Clinton was sleeping when the hovership raced down the valley, floating along the old turnpike on its cushion of air. [..] To any boy of the twenty.first century, it was a sound of magic, telling of far-off countries and strange cargoes carried in the first ships that could travel with equal ease across land and sea.”

In “Dolphin Island” by Arthur C. Clarke

“Dolphin Island” was one of the very first proper book I read, or tried to read, in English, when I was 10 or 11, in the fifth year of school, and I loved it. My dad had given it to me, because he thought it would make a good first read for a boy who was trying to teach himself English at the time. Until then, I'd only read some of the simplified English books. At the time, our regular school teacher was away on paternity leave, for the arrival of his adopted son, so we had a substitute. There were reading hours in the schedule, when we were expected to bring books from home, and that substitute teacher noticed I was reading an English book. She thought I wasn't actually reading - after all, how could a 10-year old Portuguese-speaking child who's never had an English lesson possibly read a novel in English? -, flatly refused to believe my explanation that I was busy learning English on my own, and nearly confiscated the book. It was an extremely upsetting experience for me, which is why I remember it so well. When my regular teacher arrived back to work shortly afterwards, the substitute told him about the incident, and basically accused me of being a liar in front of him. Luckily, he put her in her place and told her that no, I wasn't lying, and that I was indeed teaching myself English.

But generally, I've found it's a bad idea to re-read books one loved as a child or a young teenager as an adult. On the occasions I've tried it, it mostly was a sore disappointment. With rare exceptions, you get that sinking feeling you must have had really, really bad taste in your youth. It’s not the case with this one. It holds up pretty well. ( )
1 vote antao | Aug 15, 2018 |
Arthur C. Clarke

Dolphin Island:
A Story of the People of the Sea

Puffin Books, Paperback [1986].

12mo. 158 pp. “A note from the author”, April 1977 [157-58].

First published by Victor Gollancz, 1963.
Published in Puffin Books, 1986.
4th printing per number line, n.d.


Arthur Clarke is best remembered today as a fellow who was hot on space exploration and global communications. It is generally forgotten that he was just as fond of the sea. He was a keen skin-diver and wrote three full-length non-fiction books about his underwater adventures in the company of photographer Mike Wilson.[1] In two other books, Voice Across the Sea (1958) and The Challenge of the Sea (1960), he combined the greatest unknown on our planet with his passion for technology and futuristic visions. The maritime impact on his fiction was hardly less prominent. Short stories like “The Man Who Ploughed the Sea” and “On Golden Seas” deal with the promise of exploration and the danger of exploitation that await the oceans of the future.[2] Novels set mostly in water explore themes like dolphin psychology (this one), whale herding (The Deep Range, 1957; started as a short story of the same title, 1954), and even the salvage of Titanic (The Ghost from the Grand Banks, 1990). For the record, diving and oceans, though not earthly ones, play a small but important part in the novel The Songs of Distant Earth (1986).

Dolphin Island, just like Arthur’s early novel Islands in the Sky (1952), has a 16-year-old boy as a protagonist and not much of a plot. It was written for the juvenile market and is usually classed as “young adult” fiction. This is not to disparage it; that such books can become immortal classics Robert Louis Stevenson has proven conclusively. Arthur’s novel has no chance of becoming a classic, and were it not for his far greater books, this one would have been forgotten. But it’s a quick and enjoyable tale of adventure, written with simplicity that must not be mistaken for superficiality, and full of tantalising speculations about “the people of the sea” (mostly dolphins, occasionally orcas). Some of these, like dolphins learning English or people learning “Dolphin” (language), are a trifle far-fetched, but most of them are entirely believable (i.e. controlling animal behaviour through electrical stimulation of the brain) or have indeed been realised since (i.e. swimming with orcas whose “killer whale” reputation is a myth).

Since Johnny Clinton, our little hero, has never seen the sea before the first chapter, Arthur has quite a few opportunities to indulge in lyrical descriptions of the beautiful world underwater and the delights of skin-diving. Dolphin Island is conveniently situated on the Great Barrier Reef, so the scenery is gorgeous almost beyond description. Almost. Nature’s anger is just as vividly presented: towards the end there is a hair-raising description of hurricane that will make you sweat with terror. Johnny’s final adventure – I won’t spoil it for you – is breathtakingly dramatic. Johnny is an engaging character himself. An orphan at the age four who was brought up by his indifferent aunt, he has developed into a reserved and introverted teenager who does not trust people easily, if at all. On Dolphin Island, he finds many new friends among terrestrial and marine mammals, and ultimately a new life full of pleasure, hard work and the fulfilment of being part of something of paramount importance for the world. In short, he finds happiness he didn’t know was possible. The transformation is described in Arthur’s concise and understated way that repays careful reading. For example:

It was as if a new chapter had opened in his life – one that had no connection with anything that had gone before. He realized that until now he had merely existed; he had not really lived. Having lost those he loved while he was so young, he had been scared of making fresh attachments; worse than that, he had become suspicious and self-centred. But now he was changing, as the warm communal life of the island swept away the barriers of his reserve.

If anybody should wonder why Arthur Clarke occasionally wrote novels like Islands in the Sky and Dolphin Island, the main reason, as for much else in life, is a purely sentimental one. Making your protagonist an inexperienced boy is an effective, though perhaps a little obvious, way to convey what could only be described by the horribly overused phrase “sense of wonder” when a new frontier of infinite promise is opened up. This precious ability is always dimmed and often entirely lost in adulthood. The major drawback of this type of novel, at least if you want to make it something more than ephemeral kid stuff, is that you need at least one adult character to do the explanation and add some depth. Arthur has managed this brilliantly here with Professor Kazan, a Russian genius and dolphin lover with a kind heart and a sharp brain, and Mick Nauru, a native boy just a little older than Johnny but already quite experienced in skin-diving, coral exploration and island politics.

There are secondary reasons, too. In the case of Islands in the Sky, it was space propaganda in pre-Sputnik times when space flight was regarded, to say the least, as an extravagant way to waste your time. This edition of Dolphin Island ends with “A note from the author” in which Arthur reveals that he wrote the novel as a farewell to the sea after he had suffered a nearly fatal accident underwater in 1962 and was supposed never to do any skin-diving again. This reason may be even more sentimental than the first one, but it’s enough to make the novel just as special for Clarke fans as it no doubt was for the author himself. Further in this absorbing essay, Arthur explores the real-life foundations of the novel, historical and scientific, and how they have changed in the fifteen or so years since it was written. For example, all descriptions of the Great Barrier Reef come from Arthur’s own experience at this magical place in the 50s and the tragic story of Mary Watson is a word for word historical fact from 1881, the only difference being that she left Lizard Island (Dolphin Island is, of course, fictional). Arthur had a chance to hold her famous diary in his hands and was moved enough to include (rather neatly) her moving story. He is wrong that no cases are known of orcas harming people – this is not true today, nor was it true in April 1977 – but he is quite correct that the whales “certainly have every excuse for doing so.”

Dolphin Island is a light read, but it is such by design. Therefore, accusations that it’s not Childhood’s End are meaningless. You don’t blame a donkey for not being a horse, do you? That said, it’s a ripping story with rather original setting and some not altogether irrelevant reflections on our species. Clarke buffs have no excuse to leave the book unread. I don’t know about casual Clarke readers, but the novel wasn’t written for them anyway.

[1] The Coast of Coral (1956), The Reefs of Taprobane (1957) and The Treasure of the Great Reef (1964). Two short books must also be mentioned here. Indian Ocean Treasure (1964) is merely an abridged version of the last full-length volume, but Indian Ocean Adventure (1962) is an independent work, though set in the same picturesque place, the Great Basses Reef around Sri Lanka.
[2] “The Man Who Ploughed the Sea” is one of the famous Tales from the White Hart (1957). “On Golden Seas” is a considerably rarer piece. It was first published in, of all places, the Newsletter of the Pentagon Defense Science Board in August 1986. It is reprinted in Tales from Planet Earth (1989) and The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001). Both reprints contain prefatory notes essential for the proper understanding of this little dystopian gem. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Aug 8, 2015 |
This is one of the few "juveniles" ie, young adult novels Clarke ever wrote. It's main character is sixteen year-old Johnny Clinton. Lost in the pacific, he is saved by a pod of dolphins who bring him to Dolphin Island, a research station in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. There he becomes involved in their research into dolphin-human communication. I don't find this as memorable as The Deep Range, Clarke's other novel dealing with Earth's ocean--a surprisingly rare setting in science fiction--one thing that makes this short book worth reading. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Nov 1, 2012 |
This YA novel was first published in 1963, and was set around fifty years in its then-future. Nearly fifty years on, it has aged remarkably well. Right on the first page, I was taken back to the sensawunda I had when I first read this book as a young teenager around thirty years ago -- not least because in the first paragraph Clarke beautifully evokes the sense of wonder his teenage protagonist feels at the sight of an international cargo vessel and the daydreams it inspires about the places it has seen.

When sixteen-year-old Johnny Clinton finds that the giant hovercraft has made an emergency landing near his home, his curiosity leads him to sneak aboard for a look around, and leaves him trapped as an accidental stowaway when it lifts off again unexpectedly. The orphaned Johnny's not too upset at the idea of being carried away from the home he's reluctantly offered by his widowed aunt, so he doesn't come out of hiding until the craft crash-lands in the Pacific Ocean. The crew have abandoned ship, and Johnny is left with nothing but a packing crate and his own clothing to keep him afloat and sheltered -- until a pod of dolphins find him and and save his life by pushing his makeshift raft the hundred miles to the nearest land.

That land is Dolphin Island, an island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef which is home to a research station studying dolphins. The station tracks down where Johnny came from before he's even released from the infirmary, but he's offered the chance to stay, an offer he's quick to accept. He rapidly builds a new life for himself, one that mixes ongoing formal education with involvement in the scientific work on communicating with the dolphins. There's more than a little adventure as well.

This is an excellent short novel, with an engaging protagonist, an interesting story, and some superb world-building. Clarke drew on his own experience of skin-diving on the Great Barrier Reef to paint a wonderful word picture of the Reef and its marine life. Clarke's extrapolation of technology hasn't suffered too badly as reality caught up with it -- it's different to what really happened, but not so much so that it jars. And glory be, the story hasn't been visited by the Sexism Fairy. There's a distinct absence of female characters, but not in a way that says that women shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about difficult things like science. Definitely one for my keeper collection. ( )
3 vote JulesJones | Oct 24, 2010 |
This is an early book by Arthur C. Clarke, and is a relatively simple, quick read. It tells the story of Johnny Clinton, who runs away from home in the middle of the night somewhere in the Great Plains states. Stowing away on a futuristic hovercraft (the story is set sometime in the near future; written in 1963, the book appears to be projecting into our current time), Johnny is quickly transported to the middle of the Pacific when the craft breaks down and sinks. He is floating on wreckage when he is rescued by dolphins, who guide him to Dolphin Island. There he begins a new life and assists researchers there in their attempts to communicate with, and enlist the aid of, the dolphins. Clarke always uses broad strokes to describe his characters, but Johnny is an engaging hero. The story would be a good read for young adults and pre-teens. ( )
  Goodwillbooks | Apr 27, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Arthur C. Clarkeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fuchs, DavidTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lehr, PaulCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schomburg, AlexCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Törék, MargitTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Johnny Clinton was sleeping when the hovership raced down the valley, floating along the old turnpike on its cushion of air. The whistling roar in the night did not disturb him, for he had heard it almost all his life. To any boy of the twenty-first century, it was a sound of magic, telling of far-off countries and strange cargoes carried in the first ships that could travel with equal ease across land and sea.
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A seventeen-year-old boy becomes involved in communication experiments with dolphins off the Great Barrier Reef.
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A seventeen-year-old boy is transported by hovership to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, where he helps scientists who are learning to communicate with dolphins.

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