Man of Many Talents
- By Tom Weaver
Man of Many Talents
Justin Gregg might have known that the question in the title of his 2013 book, Are Dolphins Really Smart?, would be fighting words to some. Blame it on Flipper, perhaps, but there’s a pervasive notion that even an averagely bright dolphin is capable of everything from subduing a poacher with a bottlenose gut-punch to likely being the true author behind William Shakespeare’s plays.
But don’t get Gregg wrong. One doesn’t earn a doctorate in psychology with a focus on dolphin cognition without a deep love and respect for these remarkable animals. “Dolphins occupy this strange place in the public's imagination, where their behavior and intelligence is celebrated above that of many other species,” Gregg says. “The book is an attempt to clarify exactly what scientists do know about how dolphins think. But also to put that knowledge in a wider context where other, underappreciated animal species are given their own place in the sun.”
For the most part, Gregg’s book, published by Oxford University Press, was well received. But some in the media seized on the “dolphin bashing” angle and the author found himself setting the record straight. “I've had to reiterate many times that yes, indeed, dolphins are smart animals. But the science of what ‘smart’ is and just how smart dolphins are is a lot more complicated than most people realize,” he says.
Ask a kid what he wants to be when he grows up, and there’s a decent chance “marine biologist” will show up on the list. Count Justin Gregg in. Growing up in land-locked Randolph, Vermont, he was inspired by seeing humpback whales on family trips to Massachusetts. But like many future marine biologists (or rockstars, or pro baseball players) that dream faded through his teens.
At UVM, Gregg balanced diverse academic interests and blazed his own trail with a self-designed major in linguistics. He recalls a distinct memory of anthropology professor Peter Woolfson, an expert in sociolinguistics. “Although he was a reserved fellow, he was clearly passionate about his study subject,” Gregg says. “I can quite clearly picture sitting around a big wooden table up in what felt like the belfry of Williams Hall listening to Professor Woolfson animatedly imitate Mohawk speech patterns. It was like dinner theatre!”
In his mid-twenties, the boy who had dreamed of marine biology and later earned a college degree in linguistics found himself working at a bank in Dublin, Ireland, “where I wore a two-dollar tie and shuffled Post-It notes around my monitor for a living,” Gregg says. He’d had enough. After several months of soul searching and research at the public library, he landed upon connecting his dreams and his educational background through the study of animal communication. Next stop: Trinity College in Dublin, where he earned his doctorate in psychology and began work with the Dolphin Communication Project that still continues.
Uncommon as Gregg’s central professional path may be, there are more surprises in the meanderings off his main route. We feel safe in declaring him the world’s premier dolphin scientist/voice actor. Though he was in the Top Cats a cappella group as an undergrad, Gregg is untrained as a singer or actor. But he has a strong natural talent and some experience in recording studio engineering. He put together a demo tape while living in Ireland and sent it around to ad agencies. Initially successful as “the guy with the youthful American accent,” he would branch out with his biggest credit being playing the voice of Thor in the 2011 animated feature Thor: Legends of the Magical Hammer. “Jumping around in a recording booth pretending to be a rampaging Viking—it’s a fantastic way to earn a living,” Gregg says.
VQ caught up with Gregg this summer as he and his family had just moved from the Netherlands to Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where his wife, Ranke de Vries, a professor of Celtic languages and culture, had accepted a new faculty post at St. Francis Xavier University. (Justin and Ranke, a native of the Netherlands, met when he spent his junior year abroad in that country.) Back on this side of the Atlantic, he looks forward to continuing in another role that has absorbed his time and talent for the past six years—stay-at-home dad caring for the couple’s daughter, Mila.
Gregg’s website gives a sense for the diversity of his interests and work, which have increasingly included broader science writing beyond his dolphin-focused work. “I only seem efficient and on-the-ball because of my computer and the internet,” he says. “Take those away and I’ve got nothing left to juggle.”
Check out justingregg.com to learn more about this UVM alum’s dolphin research or to hear him rattle through twenty-plus character voices—hippie dude to techy nerd to Zen master—in the span of a minute.