By Cheryl Mc Call
May 28, 1979 12:00 PM

It has been two years since the kidnapping—dolphin-napping, actually—but no one in Honolulu has forgotten about it, least of all Dr. Louis Herman.

Herman, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, had spent eight years teaching two female dolphins, Puka and Kea, a computer-generated sonic language. Kea had learned 12 words. “We were working,” Herman remembers, “with a very sophisticated animal who was showing comprehension of simple sentences like ‘Fetch the ball’ and ‘Touch the ring.’ ”

Then on the night of May 29, 1977 two caretakers at the Kewalo Basin Dolphin Laboratory, who had been fired for incompetence by Herman two days earlier, chalked a message on his office blackboard: “Went surfin’—Kenny, Puka, Steve and Kea. Aloha.” Kenneth LeVasseur and Steven Sipman were gone; so were the dolphins.

LeVasseur and Sipman soon reappeared and said they had freed the dolphins across the island at Yokohama Bay, in shark-infested waters. Herman is convinced the animals died because they lacked the experience to survive in the wild.

LeVasseur was convicted in 1977 of grand larceny and is appealing, while Sipman awaits trial. “Kenny and Steve,” says LeVasseur’s attorney, Jack Schweigert, “didn’t like Dr. Herman. They didn’t like the way he worked. They didn’t like the conditions at the lab, and they didn’t think that dolphins should be in captivity.” (In a National Geographic interview, LeVasseur said: “We were giving them what every animal or person truly deserves, his own freedom. They’re like humans in dolphin suits.”)

Dr. Kenneth S. Norris, an eminent dolphin authority at the University of California (Santa Cruz), responds, “Herman is a taskmaster, a tough guy. His work requires it. Those two men were not scientists, and they just couldn’t cut it with him. He can be arbitrary but he’s a good scientist.”

Rumors circulated (probably inspired by the 1973 George C. Scott film The Day of the Dolphin) that Puka and Kea were being trained by the CIA to carry explosives. LeVasseur and Sipman said the dolphins were about to “commit suicide.” “That’s just mush,” Norris scoffs.

Herman still becomes angry when he speaks of the incident. “These were not impersonal animals,” he says. “You build a life’s work around something to which you’re not only intellectually but emotionally wedded. There is a sense of a death in the family. It’s like your own child was taken from you.”

Suspending research for 14 months, Herman trained two new Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, both females. They cost $20,000, funded by the National Science Foundation. Now Phoenix and Akeakamai (Hawaiian for “lover of wisdom”) are at the point where Kea and Puka were. They understand “yes” and “no” and obey simple commands. “Their reward is a cue that says ‘You’re right,’ ” Herman explains. “Being right is self-reinforcing, just like for humans.” (He also occasionally throws them silver smelt imported from California at 40 cents a pound.)

“What we’re asking,” Herman adds, “is whether we can teach a simple, artificial language to a dolphin.” Recent experiments have shown chimpanzees can learn sign language; dolphins respond better to sound than to visual images. These language breakthroughs, Herman says, “expose a lot of myths about the uniqueness of man. What is it that dolphins and primates possess that allows them to express a language?”

In addition to abstract scientific data, the research could also produce dolphin assistants for undersea projects. Not needing to depressurize, for example, they could be trained to fetch tools from the surface. Using dolphins to search for the Loch Ness monster is also being investigated.

Herman is a Long Islander in his 40s (“Ages are irrelevant and tend to typecast people,” he says) who earned his B.S. at New York’s City College and studied primates at Emory University before taking his doctorate at Penn State. He was doing research on sound at North American Aviation in Columbus, Ohio when the American Institute of Research gave him its Creative Talent Award for his doctoral thesis on the decision-making process. Herman then returned to teaching—at Queens College in New York. “I cut my salary in half doing that,” he reflects. “I never did figure out how people make decisions.”

He moved to Hawaii in 1966. Now, besides training dolphins, he is also studying the humpback whale. “Our goal,” Herman explains, “is to establish two-way communication, admittedly on a very elementary level. We’re not going to talk philosophy. They’ll request and we’ll provide their requests. They’ll be in Utopia.”

If he does set up a dialogue with dolphins or whales, Herman will at least have a ready subject for small talk. His one hobby is long-distance swimming.