First Contact with Dolphins:
Establishing the Relationship
If you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.
—APSLEY CHERRY-GARRARD, THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD
If you could ask a dolphin one question, what would it be? And what do you think a dolphin might ask you? These questions occurred to me when I first met a spotted dolphin in the wild early one humid summer morning in 1985. I swam slowly away from the boat that was anchored in the gin-clear waters of a shallow sandbank in the Bahamas. It was calm and peaceful out in the middle of the warm amniotic salt water with no land in sight. Two dolphins approached and swam around me, looking directly into my eyes. There is nothing comparable to making eye contact with a wild creature; it is like a sharp splash of ice-cold water on the face. I sensed a keen and mutually exploratory awareness; I sensed another “being” behind those eyes. Ten years later, after experiencing strong currents and large sharks, I would have a different type of respect for the ocean, one that probably wouldn’t allow me to swim out so far alone in these waters with such a calmness. But this experience was different; it was my first encounter with a wild dolphin.
In all my years of work with marine mammals, nothing had prepared me for this. I found myself deeply regretting never taking an anthropology class. What is it like to meet and experience a new culture for the first time, a nonhuman culture? What do you do if they are curious and want to observe you? I was a biologist, a cetologist, who studied whales and dolphins. What brought me to the Bahamas was curiosity about the lives of wild dolphins, but the experiential part was not something I was trained for as a scientist. But this experience seemed perfectly natural. My ancestors evolved with plants, animals, and the Earth itself. Well before that, dolphins, as early mammals, returned to the ocean from their land ancestors twenty-five million years ago. This world of a highly evolved mammal was a window into the dolphins’ unique aquatic world, not separate and estranged as the land and sea seem in the open ocean, but intertwined like a shoreline: mutually curious species carefully considering each other.
In the field of animal behavior the philosophy of “to know a goose, become a goose” was first formulated by Konrad Lorenz, considered the father of modern animal behavior. This level of participation has been productive for the study of many social species, including chimpanzees by Jane Goodall, mountain gorillas by Dian Fossey, and African elephants by Cynthia Moss. These pioneering women researchers provided solid examples of a productive way of illuminating the lives of wild animal societies. That is the approach and methodology I decided to use for studying free-ranging dolphins.
For years scientists had attempted to teach nonhuman animal species, including dolphins, the English language, without first learning about the dolphins’ natural communication system. I was always fascinated by the idea that dolphin minds evolved in the aquatic environment, parallel, but potentially dissimilar to our own. What would that mind be like and how would it express itself? Could we understand their type of consciousness by studying their communication system and cross over that interspecies boundary? Could we really build a bridge? I decided to focus my work first on understanding how dolphins communicated with each other, using sound, vision, touch, and second to use those same natural channels of communication to explore the possibility of interspecies communication between humans and dolphins.
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I grew up in the Midwest far away from any ocean, with the exception of the world of Jacques Cousteau that flowed from our living-room TV. I became both fascinated with and committed to the exploration of dolphins, potentially one of the most advanced nonhuman intelligence on the planet. My passion for this work began when I was twelve years old. I entered an essay contest for a scholarship in my hometown in Minnesota. One of the questions was, “What would you do for the world if you could do one thing?” My answer? “I would develop a human-animal translator so that we could understand other minds on the planet.” As I continued to grow up and observe the natural world around me I became more and more fascinated by the idea of complex minds like ours evolving in the water. What could dolphins possibly be doing with all that brainpower if they didn’t have hands? I knew then my lifework had been chosen. Simple questions often have the most important repercussions. Where did I see myself in five years, what kind of environment did I want to be in, what kind of people did I want to be around? I wanted to work at sea, in the environment where the animals lived. I wanted to be doing research—to be observing and documenting the lives of wild dolphins. And I wanted to be around stimulating people who could use a variety of talents to explore this unknown territory. These simple answers guided my decisions for the next ten years through graduate school and during the formation of my own research project and nonprofit organization, the Wild Dolphin Project, which became the support structure for my research with the Atlantic spotted dolphins.
So by the age of twelve I knew I wanted to study dolphin communication. After taking the advice of a wise college counselor, I left my hometown to venture forth into the world of marine biology, to get into the mud and see if I liked the field. I applied and was accepted to both the University of Washington, which had an undergraduate program in marine biology, and the University of Miami, renowned for its oceanographic work. But I decided to go to Oregon State University for two reasons. First, I thought Oregon would be a beautiful place to live with its green landscape and healthy lifestyle. Second, Oregon State had a marine mammalogist, Dr. Bruce Mate, and I wanted to study marine mammals. I jumped on boats whenever I could for oceanographic cruises off the Oregon coast or on salmon fishing boats with friends. I loved the smell of the ocean, the smell of seaweed, the roar of the waves. I discovered that I did, indeed, like the mud.
After completing four undergraduate years at the inland campus I spent my last year at the Marine Biological Station in Newport, Oregon. I observed harbor seals and sea lions at salmon hatcheries. I joined Bruce down in Baja for two winters studying gray whales; the first year with Jim Sumich, a Ph.D. student at Bruce’s lab doing work on the metabolic rates of gray whales. San Ignacio Lagoon and other lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, are home to friendly gray whales that gave researchers close access and unique opportunities for studying the species. My second winter I helped with radio-tagging and monitoring from land with receivers for previously tagged whales. One day the field team came back to shore and I excitedly told them I had heard Blanco’s radio signal, the first whale tagged. After the winter tagging season we quickly placed one of the radio receivers in a lighthouse on Yaquina Head, the Oregon headland where I had previously spent three years counting migrating whales. One night, back in Oregon, I heard Blanco’s signal—he had gone by the lighthouse! We hopped in our cars and drove, while Bruce, a skilled pilot, flew, and followed Blanco up the coast. Blanco was eventually tracked all the way up to Unimak Pass, Alaska. All of these studies were of great value to me and provided opportunities and insight, and Bruce was an invaluable mentor and teacher.
Around that time I got wind of a beautiful 134-foot wooden barquentine (a form of square-rigged sailing vessel) named the Regina Maris and her six-week student program at sea. Taking advantage of her time in the Pacific, I jumped onboard Regina Maris for a six-week adventure. We spent most of our time in Magdalena Bay, another of the gray whale breeding lagoons in Baja. I met Dr. Kenneth Norris (the father of dolphin studies and a future mentor), Kenneth Balcomb (a renowned killer whale field scientist), and other well-known marine mammal scientists. Our chores were typical of being on a vessel at sea. As students we attended classes during the daytime and did watches four hours on, four hours off, to help run the ship. We took classes in celestial navigation and basic seamanship—we handled the wheel on deck, we hoisted sails, and of course we tied knots. Bolen knots, sheepshank knots, square knots—any kind of knot. We felt nautical! The training of young marine scientists should always involve extensive fieldwork because such experiences are critical for understanding the sea itself. I was developing a deep love for the sea, for boats, and my life was now set on a course through the waves. I loved studying the ocean from the small microscopic creatures to the large marine mammals off the Oregon coast.
Then in 1981, shortly after I had finished my last year of undergraduate research on migrating gray whales, I had a nearly fatal accident. While out in the woods alone I fell off a deck of a house and down a ravine, and was subsequently smashed by the falling lumber and deck, breaking my ribs and severing the hepatic artery in my liver and nearly bleeding to death. After barely making it to my twenty-fifth birthday I realized there is nothing like a near-death experience to make you reprioritize your life. So once again I decided to join the Regina Maris, now in the Atlantic. With barely healed broken ribs, but my doctor’s approval, I boarded Regina Maris in Gloucester, Massachusetts, this time not as a student, but as the “ lowly student lab slave”—a dollar a day with room and board for six months. Our trip took us directly to Bermuda and down through the Caribbean for our final destination off the Dominican Republic to study humpback whales on Silver Banks, the remote offshore area dotted with undersurface reefs and rocks where humpback whale mothers spend three months birthing their calves or mating.
There’s nothing like being in a large sailboat, hearing the wind and feeling the pounding waves. But it was October and hurricanes were brewing in the tropics to the south of us. As the days progressed I noticed the crew getting nervous as they watched the winds picking up. Sails were lowered and hatches battened down, closing off the incoming water. By the end of that day it was clear we were in the tail end of a hurricane. To make matters worse the bilge pumps, the usually automated pumps that keep water to a minimum in the hulls, stopped working. For twenty-four hours straight, rotating shifts, we hand-pumped from the deck, through rain and thirty-foot waves we pumped and pumped. The crew tried to heave to, setting the sails to hold the boat in place and to keep the boat steady in the wind. As the boat rolled on thirty-foot seas I was one of the few students on deck with my trusty Nikonos waterproof camera. I attached myself to the lifeline on deck and took pictures. It was both majestic and humbling. I felt like a cork, going up and down as the seas swelled and our vessel rose and fell again. After two days hove to we limped into Bermuda. But we had been lucky. Small sailboats were towed in from offshore, gutted, broken, and lifeless. This was life at sea, or death at sea, depending on your luck. I guess it was something I would have to get used to.
When it was finally time to leave Bermuda we headed south through the islands of the Caribbean and stopped at a small uninhabited island called Hogsty Reef. Our task here was to measure and count the amount of tar washed up on this remote island. There was tar on the beach, there was tar in the seaweed—there was tar everywhere. It was 1981 and already pollution was present, even on this remote island. We filled our days documenting and cleaning up the tar. Then one day, as I maneuvered the small inflatable boat toward the island, I saw the students waving frantically. I was heading right for a breaking reef invisible to me with the glaring sun. Although I did little damage to the reef itself, I broke the pin of the outboard engine and felt humiliated, unworthy of my position as a lab slave. That night after crying on cook Erma Colvin’s shoulder, Perrin Ross, my understanding and skilled mentor, pulled from under his vest a small can of beer to share. Beer onboard the Regina Maris was a treat only dispersed on Saturday night, when the crew made trades and swaps, desperate to secure an extra beer. It was a gesture of understanding I would never forget.
It has taken me quite a while to learn to have patience and be sensitive to mistakes that young students will make on board my own research boat in the Bahamas. They forget to charge a battery, drop a piece of equipment, or leave the camera lens on. I also tell my students to expect problems in fieldwork. There will be weather days, your equipment will fail, you won’t have enough funding for certain pieces of equipment, and you will just have bad hair days (usually involving salt). You need to expect it, need to be ready for it, and need to always be as prepared as possible because field time is valuable and expensive.
I’m always reiterating the need for redundancy on my boat. I have two cameras, two underwater housings. Film is cheap, videotapes are cheap, but field time is expensive. Use the time and use it well because it may not be there the next day. In twenty-five years of fieldwork I’ve only flooded one video housing, which is still a good record. Only once have I managed to copy over a piece of video footage. Sadly the footage was quite critical and when we had reviewed it the previous night I had not forwarded the tape for the next day. Again, after twenty-five years, that’s not so bad, but we scientists value our data and our experiences in the field tremendously and any loss of data is a potential issue, such as the photograph of a long-lost animal or an unseen behavior lost to a mistake on the video. But at the end of every field trip, in every field season, if we get back alive and the boat is intact, it’s been a good summer.
After working with gray whales both off the Oregon coast and in Baja California, and finishing my degree, I was ready to move on to my graduate work. But there was one thing I wanted to do first; I wanted to travel to gain some experience in a country that didn’t speak English and wasn’t Western. I knew I wanted to study communication. I knew I needed skill sets perhaps beyond scientific training. Luckily at that time my sister decided to buy my half of our family house. It was a small and modest amount, but the money she sent as a deposit allowed me to stash away half for graduate school and half for a three-month trip to Asia. I departed with a backpack, no credit cards, and an awful lot of luck. I traveled to China, Nepal, and India, learning much about nonverbal communication and the universals of cross-cultural experiences. On the way I stopped in Japan to visit my colleague Masahara Nishiwaki, whom I had met in my sailing days onboard Regina Maris. The insight gained from these non-Western human cultural interactions, their similarities and differences, was invaluable. We really need so little when we travel (beyond clothes and shampoo) and we can communicate through body language and laughter quite often when language fails. I arrived safely back in the United States, now ready to give my life to my future graduate work and what I hoped to be my future career studying dolphin communication.
At this point in my life I was familiar with the work of three researchers studying dolphin communication. Louis Herman in Hawaii was famous for his cognitive and experimental work. Diana Reiss at San Francisco State University was studying dolphin communication in captivity. And John Lilly, a controversial scientist (but likely a visionary before his time), was exploring two-way communication. So I struck out to the San Francisco Bay Area. I had eliminated the idea of studying in Hawaii since Herman’s work was experimental and not really focused on the communication aspects I was interested in. I arrived in the Bay Area and immediately went down to MarineWorld Africa USA where both John Lilly and Diana Reiss had their labs.
I have always had a clear vision of what my life would look like in the future. One of my visions for recognizing my future dolphin work was to walk into a facility and see a spectrographic analysis machine, which analyzes dolphin sounds. When I entered Dr. John Lilly’s laboratory, I found the opposite. The staff seemed unclear and unfocused. Although the work was creative and interesting, I knew it wasn’t for me. But after arranging a meeting with Diana I walked into her temporary trailer, saw a spectrograph machine, and immediately knew that this was my place. Although my goal wasn’t to work with captive dolphins, I learned the importance of correlating sound with behavior since dolphins are, after all, acoustic animals and I learned about the complexity of communication signals. Most humans communicate in similar ways, but anthropological studies prioritize finding out the “meaning” of the signals. Who is making what signals and what is their relationship? Are they males or females, a mother and brother, or are they unrelated? The way to understand human communication signals is to put them in the context of human societies, networks, and relationships, and I imagined it was the same in an aquatic society. I knew I wanted to take a new approach and I knew that my work would involve a broader perspective than animals as subjects or machines. I wanted to take a look at dolphin communication with dolphins being a cultural animal and a member of a unique, intelligent society. I reasoned that this anthropological approach might be helpful. Little did I know how much the participatory approach would be critical in setting the tone of my work through the years.
Shortly after my San Francisco trip I ventured up to the Seattle area to check out one more person, Jim Nollman. Jim was known as an interspecies guy, he played music to orcas, to turkeys, and probably to other species. When I knocked at his door in Seattle I was greeted by a man who was clearly skeptical of science and scientists. The first question out of his mouth was, “Are you a scientist?” “Well,” I stuttered, “I’m hoping to be.” It was clear that this was not a scenario for me. Years later, while working in Diana’s lab, Jim called to ask for her assistance in the analysis of a complex sequence of sounds, playback and response, with his orcas. Although I was glad to hear that Jim had finally learned to appreciate the scientific analysis that might be needed to truly understand interspecies communication, I thought it ironic. To establish a nonspecies-biased science we need to open our minds to other sciences, other disciplines, and other ways of thinking. And this applies to scientists as well. I had been exposed to a cutting-edge scientist and his work in the mind-body health field when working with Dr. Kenneth Pelletier in San Francisco. During my time assisting Ken in his research studies of the brain and mind, I watched as he walked a tightrope between traditional medicine and alternative medicine, eagerly using them to merge the possibilities. Today, Ken is a leader in the field of bridging the two. I knew this would be my challenge with exploring dolphins in the wild. I, too, wanted to bridge a gap.
But where, I wondered, was a location where I could study wild dolphins underwater and in an accessible environment? While I knew of no one who was working in such conditions, I knew somewhere it existed, but how to find it? The answer, like Jacques Cousteau, flowed into my consciousness through my living-room TV. I happened to see a documentary by filmmaker Hardy Jones on a group of friendly spotted dolphins in the Bahamas. I was intrigued by his underwater footage of these wild dolphins. Could these dolphins be easily and regularly accessible to allow long-term observations? This was a potential long-term field site that might allow an opportunity for observing what dolphins do, underwater, in the wild. The water is warm, clear for viewing, and the dolphins seemed uniquely curious about humans. I thought, “Surely there must be someone out there studying them already!” I called Hardy on the phone and he agreed to let me see some outtakes of his film so I could gain a better sense of the possibilities. So in 1985 I ventured out to the Bahamas for six weeks to ascertain if these dolphins were really as accessible as I suspected. These dolphins were discovered by treasure divers in the 1970s and they subsequently befriended the working treasure hunters anchored on the shallow sandbank looking for lost Spanish galleon ships. Their sand-blowing equipment exposed tasty fish morsels for the dolphins that came around occasionally for snacks.
I wanted to know if one could see natural dolphin behavior on a regular basis. As I reviewed Hardy’s footage it was clear to me that the Bahamas was a place where a fragile, terrestrial human could work in the water for extensive periods of time and observe behavior underwater, and where the dolphins were accessible because of their curiosity about humans. And to my amazement no one was out there studying them scientifically!
At this point I was fairly convinced that this community of dolphins was an ideal group for a long-term research project. But I wanted to go see it for myself, to assess the true potential for long-term work. Luckily, an organization I had worked with on gray whale research, Ocean Society Expeditions (OSE), was starting to run ecotourism trips out to this area and they agreed to let me go out as their naturalist for a month and explore the possibilities. But what equipment should I bring to the field? I readied my Nikonos camera for photo-identification work and I acquired, through the eager support of a friend, an underwater video housing in which I placed a video camera and an external microphone, called a hydrophone, to simultaneously record the dolphins’ vocalizations and behaviors. If there was one thing I learned from graduate work, it was that dolphins communicated in many sensory modalities and that to record them simultaneously was critical to understanding the context of their communication. It was also important to know the individuals, their relationships, sex, and history to make sense of the greater context of their lives. So my plan was to spend time with this wild group of dolphins, figure out who was female and male, identify them as individuals, record their behavior, their associations, document the sounds they make with various behaviors, and then try to make sense of it all. Not so easy in the end. How does one really prepare for meeting another species in hopes of establishing a long-term relationship to allow such an intimate glimpse? I knew of no road maps except the work of Jane Goodall and others who applied patience, perseverance, and appropriate etiquette over time to build trust to access a nonhuman world. These were the models I would follow to enter the dolphins’ world.
My plan was simple. I would get in the water, try to stay detached and log identification marks on an underwater slate so I could start identifying individuals. I would try not to disturb their behavior and keep to myself. But as I soon discovered, the dolphins had other ideas.
It was 7:00 A.M., the water slick and calm, as it often is during the hurricane season. Out of the topaz blue haze appeared two dolphins, one large, one small, swimming side by side, scanning me as they moved their heads and sent clicks of sound toward me as they approached. I froze, not in fear, but in awe. In all my years of work with marine mammals, the shock of this first contact with another intelligent animal was new. I felt as though I was experiencing a new culture for the first time—a nonhuman culture.
Today I was in the Bahamas for the first time, meeting the spotted dolphins. Oceanic Society Expeditions (OSE) had finalized their trips and I was here for six weeks as an additional naturalist. My personal goal was to scope out this area for long-term research. OSE had chartered a lovely sailing catamaran, the Dolphin, owned by Larry Vertefay. Larry had heard rumors of this group of wild dolphins and decided to reprioritize his own successful business in order to explore them. It was a match made in heaven with his lovely sixty-foot boat and OSE trips.
Although I had worked in the field with gray whales, harbor seals, and humpback whales, I had always collected data from the surface. I had never tried to collect data underwater with dolphins. Luckily my longtime friend, Linda Castell, saw the twinkle in my eye before I left for the field. Linda and I had met at the marine lab in Newport, Oregon, in the late 1970s. She was studying marine microbiology and I was working with gray whales. After becoming friends, she must have recognized my determination to do work in the wild, and Linda, being someone who puts her money where her mouth is, without a second thought wrote a personal check for a thousand dollars for me to buy an underwater video system with hydrophone. Like many artists during the Renaissance, scientists are often supported by interested individual donors, and this has been my story.
On board the Dolphin we sailed from West Palm Beach, Florida, to reach the sleepy port of West End, Grand Bahama Island. After clearing customs we headed up to the study site, some forty miles offshore and out of sight of land. I am a bit of a Girl Scout when it comes to being prepared, so I was ready with my video system. It was clear to me from the beginning that I wanted to study dolphins like Jane Goodall had studied chimpanzees. I wanted to be a benign observer and get to know the individuals and society through watching their interactions. I wanted to use photo-identification methods to find unique physical characteristics to track individuals and learn about their communication signals and social rules to fit in as much as a human could in an underwater world. I was determined to work with another intelligent species using participatory science, incorporating them as mutual participants in the process, as opposed to traditional science that would view them as subjects and nonparticipants. There was no exact road map for the work, but I knew I needed to engage both my scientific training and my own knowledge of human culture and interaction in the process. If I spent enough time in a mutual relationship with an intelligent animal society, I might come to learn from them, and perhaps eventually be incorporated into their community. Although an unusually long time to commit to a specific field project, it seemed both necessary and possible to aim for twenty years at this field site to document a few generations of dolphins. But this year I only had six weeks.
This summer I wasn’t in charge of our anchor locations, how we operated with the dolphins, or anything else. Larry Vertefay and his crew and the primary OSE naturalist handled most of these details. I focused on collecting identification shots of the dolphins with my underwater camera. I struggled with an underwater slate long enough to know that it was useless with such fast-moving animals, and focused on my underwater video to capture sounds and behavior. Although I had learned some basic communication signals from dolphins in captivity, it was difficult sampling dolphin signals in the field due to their fast swimming and complex behavior.
During the days at anchor the dolphins cautiously came by the boat to check us out. We let them explore us, on their own time and in their own way. We slipped into the water slowly, trying to be nonaggressive and cautious in order to gain their trust. Although I got occasional glimpses of the dolphins chasing and fighting each other, it took another five years to build their trust and see their normal dolphin behavior. At night at anchor under a sky pregnant with stars we listened to the dolphins with our underwater hydrophone. Interspersed with the lapping of waves against our hull we heard a cacophony of sounds complex enough to make us think that the dolphins themselves were engaged in a detailed discussion. We speculated on what was being said and what the dolphins might be doing during such vocal exchanges. Later I came to understand more about these sounds and their complex nature and could predict the behavior associated with these sounds. But this first summer, these sounds could have been anything and I wondered what information the dolphins might share with each other. Do they talk about their day or only express what is happening at the moment? Although I knew that most dolphins made signature whistles (a type of frequency-modulated whistle unique to an individual) for contact calls, echolocation clicks (sonar for orientation and navigation), and burst-pulsed sounds (a clump of clicks in discrete packages used for close proximity social interaction), it took years of observing their underwater behavior to understand the subtleties of these communication signals. I have never regretted my time in the field observing, over and over, the same behaviors. It is in the field where we actually see what is happening. My commitment was to observe the dolphins firsthand to most accurately interpret their behavior.
To study social animals it is critical to follow individuals in the larger group. When I began the work one of my first priorities was to document individuals by their natural marks that were consistent and unique. Photo-identification had been used with chimpanzees, elephants, zebras, and giraffes. And the technique had been recently applied to whales and dolphins in the field. It was also critical in these early years to sex the dolphins because knowing the players, by identification marks and their sex, was essential for understanding dolphin behavior over time. In my first weeks out there I used my underwater Nikonos camera to photograph and sex as many individuals as possible.
Three of the first dolphins I met were Little Gash, Rosemole, and Mugsy. A tight trio, these juvenile females surfed the waves near our boat one day while I was in the water. With a glint of mischief in their eyes, they swam around me whistling and cavorting. One dolphin had a small nick in the lead edge of her dorsal fin, so I named her Little Gash. The female next to her, although young, already had a large black spot, in the shape of a rose on her right side and she became Rosemole. The third female had a bullet-shaped wound on her body, and I named her Mugsy, a seemingly gangster name to me. These three females were inseparable for the summer, always playing and getting in trouble together. It was rare to see one without the others. This trio of tricksters swam circles around me whistling excitedly, they dropped sargassum in front of me to solicit keep-away games and chases, and they watched my awkward human swimming in the water. Although I would never know who their mothers were, since they were already juveniles and not regularly with an older female, these three dolphins would provide the first example of how strong the bond can be among dolphins, and how it changed over time as they matured and became mothers themselves.
Sexing a dolphin in the water was a bit trickier than identifying their marks. As Rosemole swam by me and turned inverted I glimpsed her two mammary slits, which had identified her as a female earlier but that I knew I needed to recheck. The males that chased her had no mammary slits but were visibly aroused with erections as they chased Rosemole to mate. Week after week I caught glimpses of genital areas and matched their sex with their identification photographs and verified it over and over again. I marked my flippers with an M and an F and shot the video to record an individual as male or female, a handy technique for in-the-water work. It was really the only way to sex the spotted dolphins since females and males are about the same size, with no obvious physical traits to distinguish them. The only sexually dimorphic trait they have is the very white-tipped beak or rostrum, which males develop as they become older. During rut, when the males have peaks in their reproductive cycles, the older males display something that looks like a ventral keel, a bump in their genital area that is actually an increase in testicle size. Male testicles may double in size during this time and ventral keels often make the males look like pregnant females.
Today as I watched a large group of young adult males courting and mating with some female dolphins, suddenly, out of the periphery, two large old adult male spotted dolphins, Sickle and Pyramid, dashed in. Displaying their full ventral keels these two males rapidly and forcefully mated with the females. “Wow,” I thought, “were the young males just prepping the females for the old males?” Wouldn’t that be interesting? I had suspected, even after a few weeks in the field, that the behavior within these large groups of young adult males were a male-to-male competitive display for one another and the observing females. To this day we still don’t know when Atlantic spotted dolphin males become sexually mature. From our later work with genetics we have verified that many of the fathers are indeed older males at least twenty years old (dolphins can live to fifty years or so) in the group. And today these elder dolphins seemed to have the mating edge.
One of my first big lessons in “dolphin etiquette” occurred during my anxious attempt to sex a dolphin. It was midsummer and I was in the water with a couple of different dolphins. As I dove down underneath one of the dolphins to sex it, another dolphin moved in and placed himself in between the dolphin and me, and then he swam off rubbing pectoral flippers with the still unsexed dolphin. I later came to understand that the action of inverted swimming underneath a dolphin can be aggressive or an invitation to have sex, which I had inadvertently been soliciting. This was my first experience with dolphin etiquette and one I did not forget. After this mistake I learned to be more aware of what messages I was sending as a human in the water. After all we were “in their world, on their terms” and that meant learning, and observing, the local customs.
As we passed the sweltering days anchored on the sandbank the dolphins started showing up at regular times, at 7:00 A.M., 11:00 A.M., 4:00 P.M., and sometimes at sunset. We anxiously donned our fins and snorkels whenever they arrived in hopes of a fruitful encounter. Trip after trip I introduced new eco-passengers to the etiquette of the dolphins and our in-water procedures. They helped us gather photographs, stood watch on the bridge to find dolphins, and watched video with us at night as we reviewed the day’s adventures. Some trips were during ideal weather, allowing us to anchor for long stretches. During other trips we ran from swells and storms that broke our routine but allowed us glimpses of dolphins in other areas on the sandbank. Occasionally, and sometimes out of boredom, we set sail for a nearby reef for a snorkel, or to try our own human fishing techniques to provide dinner. With a limited amount of fresh water onboard we returned to port crusty and salty. One quick shower at the marina and life seemed normal again.
Already I was seeing the full range of age classes for spotted dolphins. I met Apollo, the calf of Luna, who showed clearly that when born this species has no spots and resemble young bottlenose dolphins with their two tone gray and white coloration. Born with fetal folds, and little knowledge of the ocean like other calves, Apollo stayed close to his mother the first few months of life. Only a quarter the size (about one and a half feet) of the fully grown Luna, Apollo depended on the rich milk provided by her. Apollo, quite precocious and already cavorting with other calves his age, was exposed to the day-to-day activities not only by his mother but also by her many associates. In his nursery group Apollo was already learning to forage and to catch easy prey items, including flounder, on the shallow sandy bottom.
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Dolphins create a variety of sounds, including frequency-modulated whistles, clicks, and burst-pulsed vocalizations, using multiple air sacs situated below their blowhole. These sounds are shunted out of a fatty structure in the front of their head, termed the “melon.” When their echolocation clicks hit an object, the returning echoes are received through the lower jaw full of fat that conducts the sound to their inner ear, which is basically a mammalian design with a few specializations for hearing high frequency and isolating sounds in the water.
From my graduate work I knew that dolphins had unique whistles analogous to names, thus named signature whistles. Luna had a strong signature whistle and Apollo rapidly learned not only to recognize his mother’s whistle, but also to produce his own unique whistle. Signature whistles are used in three contexts: in mother-calf reunions, during babysitting, and in courtship displays. Most of the whistle is audible to a human in the water and it is often correlated with bubbles coming out of the dolphin’s blowhole.
There is a variation of a signature whistle, called an excitement vocalization or whistle squawk, which contains components of the individual’s whistle as well as a burst-pulsed component. Today Apollo’s was out of control and excited, creating his squeaky excitement sounds, and Katy responded accordingly. Katy was four years old, the phase termed “speckled,” when the dolphins develop black spots on their ventral side (underneath), newly found independence from their mothers, and responsibilities of babysitting. Excitement vocalizations, used during periods of distress and excitement, attract the attention of the mother or babysitter who quickly join the excited youngster and calm him down with a gentle touch of their pectoral flipper to the calf’s body. Today this was Katy’s job and she executed it with precision, calming Apollo down quickly and initially without resistance. Apollo continued to squawk and squirm as Katy again struggled to calm this quite rambunctious and out-of-control youngster. Suddenly from the distance Luna zoomed in, swam to her calf, and gently touched him with her pectoral flipper, immediately calming him down. This was the first of many observations of mothers and babysitters and their techniques of aquatic discipline.
My initial goal had been to find a place in the world where I could observe dolphins underwater, but as it turned out Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis) were also an ideal species to study because of their changing spot patterns with age. When I first visited the Bahamas, little was known about this species. In fact the taxonomy of spotted dolphins was quite a mess. Now we know that spotted dolphins can have quite different coloration and spotting patterns and still be the same species. For example, Atlantic spotted dolphins living in the Azores in very deep water have few or no spots. Spotting is a camouflage for the light play found in shallow areas like the Bahamas; so the deeper the water, the fewer spots. Originally called Stenella plagiodon this species is now identified as Stenella frontalis, the Atlantic spotted dolphin, and is found only in the Atlantic Ocean, from New Jersey in the northeast United States down to Brazil and from the shores of North Africa to the mid-African continent. After my first season in the field I began to modify Bill Perrin’s spotting categories (the fisheries scientist who identified the age classes and coloration patterns of the pantropical spotted dolphin, Stenella attenuata), to better reflect the life history of the Atlantic spotted dolphin.
I watched as Rosemole and Little Gash played and explored together while they learned the art of socializing from older dolphins. I wondered if I would see these juveniles mature and have offspring of their own. I met White Patches, a regular babysitter of both Rosemole and Little Gash, who showed the obvious signs of female sexual maturity, her “mottled” spotting pattern now in full bloom with white spots on her dorsal area in addition to her dark ventral spots. I watched older males, Romeo, a wise old male who not only was a fully grown spotted dolphin with his “fused” or coalesced black and white spot pattern, but a leader in the group, and his friend Big Gash, both court White Patches and attempt to mate with her.
Over and over throughout this first summer I was reminded how important it was to know the sex of each dolphin to interpret behavior. One day I observed a young female, Priscilla, swimming underneath a well-known male adult, Knuckles. Priscilla was in a classic position that mothers and calves display, with the youngster underneath the mother. But today Priscilla was underneath a male adult and if I had not known that this dolphin was a male, I might have mistaken him for a mother with a calf. Today, Knuckles was babysitting the young Priscilla, a less common but nevertheless occasional duty of males. Assuming the sex of animals has been a problem in other underwater studies. In early years of humpback whale work, researchers observed a second adult with a mother humpback whale and assumed that the second adult whale was an attending female. It made a nice, neat human story, but it didn’t represent the natural world. Until researchers in the water began to verify the real sex of individual humpback whales, they assumed this to be true. The second adult whale was later verified as a male whale that typically attends females for a mating opportunity. How different that story became when we knew the facts. It was a continuing reminder to make sure that we verified the identification of individual male and female dolphins during behavior events.
Twenty-five years later my graduate students read my old notes from this early time in the field and laugh at the changing ideas and data sheets. Yet no one had ever worked underwater in this scenario, so the designing of forms and information to collect were new, and I evolved them as needed over the years. And that included resexing individual dolphins over and over again for accuracy.
As my six weeks flew and the end of my summer neared, I started noticing very pregnant females and suspected that they would give birth in the fall. Other females were looking only slightly girthy, likely springtime births. By then I had also met Stubby, an individual with a chopped-off dorsal fin, that Hardy Jones had named Chopper in his film. I met Blaze, a young adult female famous for the large white rectangular mark on her head, most likely a healed scar. Nippy, a mature female, became familiar to me, recognizable by the cut-off tip of her left fluke. Her female offspring, Pictures, identified by rake marks and other subtle scars, trailed along with her mother. A lot had happened in six weeks.
Since I used mnemonics as a tool to label animals with their recognizable features, by the end of the summer I had many Gashs (Little Gash, Big Gash), spots (Rosemole, White Patches), and behavioral names (Romeo, because of his friendly nature). I not only took photos but I sketched the dolphin’s unique marks in my field book. My sketchbook became a valuable tool in the field since there were no digital cameras at the time (it took weeks to get slides processed and back to review). Of course in the later years the digital age had appeared, making it easy to process pictures in the field. In the 1980s we took our film back to Florida in between trips, developed the slides, and went through the meticulous process of photo-identification with a slide table. Now my graduate students do this work digitally onboard the boat in the evenings or during days with bad weather. This new process saves countless months of lab work, the expense of processing slide film, and helps with updated identifications in the field. But in 1985 pencil and paper would have to suffice, and they did.
After my first summer it was clear to me that this was an incredible opportunity to study a group of wild dolphins in clear water and on a regular basis, something not easily accomplished in the open ocean. But it would need a grounded framework in knowing who the dolphins were in their own society and in this environment. The experience of being with them in the wild is so powerful that it would be easy to make unfounded speculations and assumptions. “Twenty years,” I thought, “that will be my minimum investment in fieldwork.” I wanted to follow them through their long lives, follow their relationships, see who associated with whom, and understand how and why they communicated with each other.
The water is not our element, and glimpsing into their world is difficult. Keeping up with dolphins while they travel is not easy for a human swimmer. The dolphins can disappear when they want to. I knew of other friendly dolphins in the world; lone bottlenose dolphins in scattered locations. But here in the Bahamas was a family of dolphins that were interested in humans and available to observe underwater. Here was my life’s work. I’ve always wondered why no serious scientist was studying these dolphins when I journeyed there in 1985. Later I realized that the main reason was because the dolphins were friendly, thereby risking contamination of objectivity and therefore of no possible interest to science. Would we really see their natural behavior on a regular enough basis to understand them? I thought so, but I would have to prove it. I believed in the concept of working with the dolphins, in their own world, and on their own terms, once again leaning on the strengths and proof of previous primate work and anthropological field studies. This was not a traditional way of studying dolphins but I felt it would be productive and eventually provide a new framework for working with dolphins in the wild. Not to mention that we could observe their behavior underwater. But it would require trust on both sides.
There was clearly dolphin etiquette to learn, simple things, but things that mattered. When I caught up with a traveling group the dolphins would open a space for me and allow me to move along with them. First, the dolphins “positioned” me accordingly in their group, but when I tried to “change” my position, as in the case of trying to get a photograph, it was met with jittery turns, glances, and all-out breaking up of the dolphin formation. As I swam along with the group I watched the unfolding etiquette and patterns. Mother-calves and juvenile-juvenile would pec-to-pec rub excitedly as they met up, or observed something novel in the water. Rapid patty-cakes (back and forth rapidly repeated pec rubs) would gradually subside as mother and calf swam off. Farther ahead a trio of dolphins engaged in a pec-to-head rubbing event. One adult, slightly below and behind the other two dolphins, was receiving a pec rub on his head from each dolphin to his side. Trio pec rubs often occurred after fighting as potential peacemaking gestures, possibly analogous to chimpanzees reconciling by grooming. This clear and purposeful signaling system involved pectoral flipper rubbing related to the relationship of the dolphins involved as well as the body part rubbed. This was going to be a complicated communication system to decipher!
My first summer in the Bahamas had a very powerful impact on me—a feeling of being a student in the dolphin’s classroom, a classroom of experience and experimentation. It dawned on me that I couldn’t build a “blind” underwater to observe these dolphins; we could not just be observers, but instead there would be interaction and mutual curiosity. The key to this study would be to “be” in a relationship with the dolphins: with respect, clarity, empathy, and a critical observational eye for whatever they chose to show us. If they were willing to invest in a relationship, or at least tolerate our presence, then I was willing to invest a few decades into nonintrusive observations. My hope was to blend in harmlessly and observe their lives with each other, not as an intruder but as a friend somewhat familiar with their culture.
Dolphins have evolved very parallel, yet different, cultures to be explored. Just beneath their raw behavior and individual skin patterns are individual minds and personalities unique both to their society and likely, to this solar system. It is that depth that fascinated me when I was twelve years old and continued to do so this summer. Layer the dolphins’ daily patterns, routines, feeding, courting, and fighting behavior with a complex group of individuals, and you get a species living in a choice filled, fun-filled, challenge-filled, fully actuated life. This is the life of a wild dolphin. It is a life we knew little about, being aliens ourselves to such an aquatic environment, but one I wanted to explore.
In the fall I returned to San Francisco. I was still in graduate school in California but it was clear where I would be spending my future summers. My path for the next few decades couldn’t be clearer; I had found my life’s work, and it was in the Bahamas frolicking in the waves and foraging on the sandy bottom.
1986—Marks, Sharks, and Barks
I spent the winter in San Francisco finishing my graduate work. The contrast between studying captive dolphins at MarineWorld and my summer in the Bahamas was extreme. Although I was learning observation skills and began to understand some basic dolphin behavior in graduate school, I was even more committed to seeing the real deal in the wild and observing a healthy wild society. Arriving back in Florida the following summer was a thrill and a shock at the same time. It was great to be working with familiar faces from last field season. Dan Sammis and Ro Lotufo, and new crew members Jack Kelly and Dave Schrenk were on board. But the Dolphin was a mess, having been untended all winter. Decks needed painting, sails needed tending, and the inside quarters needed some cosmetic work. Captain Dan had two weeks to fix her up and get her ready for a summer of fieldwork. I was to stay onboard all summer, not just six weeks. We would go back and forth, between weekly trips, all summer.
Getting used to the summer climate in Florida with its breathtaking humidity is hard, so we were all glad to be on the water again. Late May brought decent weather as we sailed over the deep blue liquid of the Gulf Stream. West End greeted us like the previous year, a sleepy little village marked primarily by the Jack Tar Marina, an old run-down but lively pseudo Club Med that hosted drunken Texans and Canadians. May 27 was our first day of the season looking for dolphins and we placed bets on which dolphins we would see first. I thought Nippy and Pictures and Dan and Ro guessed Blaze. They won. It was a thrill to get in the water after not being there for six months. Did the dolphins remember us? Did they realize that we were here again or were we just opportunistic scenery? Their behavior on this first trip soon unfolded and I got the feeling that they were fully acknowledging our presence. During the next few days many of our new acquaintances from last year showed up, including Stubby with his cut-off dorsal fin, Rosemole with her telltale black spot on the top of her rostrum, Pictures and her mom Nippy, and old Ridgeway himself. Although they were still a bit hesitant to stay around us for long periods of time, it was a good representation of the dolphins I now had in my identification catalog.
On the way back to Florida after the first trip we had an encounter with some offshore pantropical spotted dolphins at sunset, yet another species gracing the waters off of Florida. As we slipped into the deep blue of the Gulf Stream with a large school of dolphins obviously not used to having people around, the contrast couldn’t be clearer. The resident, friendly group of dolphins we had worked with for the last week was a sharp difference from dolphins in the Gulf Stream. Here it was really like meeting aliens. I, too, looked at them and wondered who was related to whom and how they spent their time. In the Bahamas, where we often talked through our snorkels and mimicked the behaviors, the dolphins showed interest. Here in the Gulf Stream the dolphins kept their distance and eyed us cautiously. It reaffirmed the unique and important opportunity that awaited me in the Bahamas, that of a species mutually curious and occasionally accessible to human researchers.
By June the dolphins were getting comfortable with us in the water. We saw them regularly as they came over to our anchored boat and stayed around long enough for us to get some photographs for identification. Sometimes we saw the dolphins at a distance and took our underwater scooter out to see what was happening. A desolate area most of the time, only a treasure hunting vessel, the Beacon, made home on the sandbank where we anchored. As June unfolded the dolphins started showing up with new calves. During one very early morning encounter, I got in the water only to be “checked out” by four older adult males while the mothers and calves stayed on the periphery. I got out of the water and while I was describing the event to a passenger I looked off the stern to see tail slapping. I got back in the water and saw that the same four old dolphins had returned with more mother-calf groups and now they let them swim close to us. Did they use the tail slap to get our attention? I had seen them tail slap to get our attention for a bow ride, for the attention of another dolphin, and for the attention of a rambunctious calf. Well, it had worked and they had our attention.
My main field season has always been from May through September during hurricane season, about one hundred days at sea divided into ten trips or so. In winter the northernmost sandbank we work on is exposed to the northeast winds that rack the Atlantic coast, making fieldwork difficult. It is also difficult to cross the Gulf Stream in the winter as north winds run opposite the Gulf Stream, which itself runs north, kicking up ferocious waves. In the summer predominant winds come from the southeast and with an island south of us our field site enjoys some protection. Historically, the spring weather is quite a bit rougher than the glassy waters that we get in July and August. The transition months of May and June, when predominant winds from the northeast switch to southeast, bring waterspouts and squalls our way. Births occur in early spring around March and April, so the spring is the best time for seeing neonates and mother-calf groups escorted by older males. July and August bring sweltering heat and calm seas, in between threats of tropical storms and hurricanes.
Extraordinary things happened on our trips, beyond the research, that gave me an intimate sense of the dolphins. Once our first mate, Jack, was towing a passenger back to the boat during an encounter because she was tired. As I videotaped Jumper, a familiar female dolphin, she suddenly stopped what she was doing and went immediately over to the swimmers, flanked them, and led them back to the boat. Another bizarre phenomenon occurred with Jumper later that summer. Tom, one of our passengers, had constructed a crown made out of sargassum, a brown algae commonly found floating on the surface, and was wearing it on the boat for days. Suddenly Jumper surfaced with some sargassum right on her head, clearly imitating what Tom had been doing all week on the boat. Jumper spy-hopped next to the boat, eyeing us on deck as she flaunted her sargassum crown. Had she been observing Tom all week at the surface? This would be one of many incidences of spontaneous mimicry that we would observe over the years.
Rosemole and Little Gash, two now regular female juveniles, often played with Ro and me in the water. Today they had acquired a little filefish and were playing a game of keep-away with the stunned fish. The dolphins carried it ever so gently in their mouths and dropped it, inviting us to grab the terrorized thing. But right before one of us reached the poor fish, the dolphins showed their aquatic superiority and swooped in to grab the fish. This went on for thirty minutes. We examined the filefish after Rosemole and Little Gash left and the fish, although terrorized, was alive. Over the years I saw many such instances of fish as toys, some lived and some died in the game. Some tried hiding in our swimming suits or between the video camera and our faces while the dolphins buzzed and poked around us. Uncontrolled giggles and laughter were heard on deck as the fish explored new hiding places among the humans. Half the time I felt sorry for the fish and the other half of the time I tried to get the fish freed up to give it back to the dolphins, as it seemed the courteous thing to do.
At the end of the summer I again started noticing big swollen bellies on the dolphins. Nippy’s belly looked really swollen as did other mothers with calves, but since the mothers already had had their calves it occurred to me that it might be swelling from lactation not from pregnancy. Nippy was a different case because she was both lactating (with her two-year-old calf Pictures) and pregnant with a second calf. It turns out the spotted dolphins can be both lactating and pregnant at the same time. It’s a heavy load for a female to nourish both a growing fetus and a dependent calf. Lactation manifests as a localized bulging in the genital area where the mammary glands are and pregnancy is visible as an overall growth in girth, detectable in the water after five or six months. Dolphin gestation is about one year, and by the end of this season we had a few females who were very girthy and likely to give birth in the fall. Other females’ pregnancies were barely detectable, but the presence of a calf the next spring indicated that they had been pregnant in the fall. We now were able to detect and monitor the process of pregnancy within our field season (May to September) to predict next year’s mothers. Although false pregnancies and lost neonates are possible, the majority of the time we verified a calf the following spring.
Sharks were also a regular and natural part of our field season. Although the shallow sandbank offers good protection and an ability to see a large predator on the bottom, the dolphins still have shark encounters and so do we. We had just finished a very interesting trip during which the same group of juveniles had come by for an early swim every morning. At the end of this trip we had another “grand finale,” a term we jokingly gave to the fact that the dolphins seemed to know we were leaving and gave us a grand send-off. I have often wondered how they knew. Were they just good at getting our schedule down or tapping into our distinct cues of leaving? This day we had a two-hour encounter, long even by our standards. Rosemole was there with the other juveniles of her group. As I rested off to the side and on the bottom, enjoying the feeling of being in the water, suddenly, as I moved my legs to swim, I kicked something behind me. I turned around, thinking I had kicked a fellow human or dolphin and I saw an eight-foot bull shark behind me. As I rose to the surface, calm but shaking, I announced to my crew, “I just got bumped by a bull shark and I am going back to the boat.” I proceeded back to the boat and that was the last time I wore a neon green dive skin during low light, a likely attractor in the darkness. After I got out of the water we continued our journey south to head home and there on the bow appeared Rosemole. She rode the bow, squeaking and eyeing me, until I couldn’t see her anymore in the gathering twilight. Did she see the bull shark sneak up behind me? I certainly didn’t expect the dolphins to protect us from sharks, although that is a common myth. They have their own concerns and safety to think about during these events. But I couldn’t help wondering if she had watched the incident. Later in the summer Rosemole herself got attacked and bears the scars still. I remember her coming by with her fresh wound visible from the distance. She approached the boat alone with a piece of sargassum. She swam around me a few times with her now-familiar whistle as I got a good look at her wound and took a picture. Then she headed down to the bottom to rub her wound vigorously. The next few days Rosemole was very distant, something we noticed with other wounded dolphins. Her friend Mugsy also showed up with a wound, and they both came by the boat together regularly enough for us to see their healing process, which was incredibly fast. Over the summer Rosemole eventually healed and began happily associating with her normal friends, but it was painful to return to Florida after this trip, not knowing whether Rosemole would be okay. I had a feeling we were both a bit rattled by our shark encounters.
The dolphins act nervous when there is a shark in the area, especially if they’ve been bitten recently. Luna whistled madly when a nurse shark appeared on the bottom during an encounter. She rounded up her two-year-old calf after erratically swimming and whistling and they swam away. Normally dolphins don’t react to a nurse shark, but Luna was hypervigilant after her own recent experience of a severe bite to her body, possibly sustained while protecting her young. That day her vigilance was up and she was taking no chances.
Before the end of our 1986 field season we had a few more surprises in store. Both speak of the sensitivities that dolphins have and the awareness and intent behind some of their actions. The first involved the death of a passenger in his sleep on board the boat, most likely from a heart attack. This trip was doomed from the start. First the boat was not ready to go and Dan thought we should cancel the trip. We decided to go later because of weather so I drove to the airport to pick up our passengers so they could cross the Gulf Stream with us instead of fly over. It was fortuitous as Trans Air, the scheduled airline, had gone bankrupt overnight and would not be flying anyone to the Bahamas that day. So we crossed to West End, passengers aboard, but the next day was the strangest day of the whole summer.
We had just snorkeled on a shipwreck and were heading up to the dolphin area. One of our passengers went below to take a nap in his bunk. As we approached the wreck dolphins greeted us but they acted very unusual, coming within fifty feet of the boat but not closer. Captain Dan kept inviting them to bow ride by starting up the motor but each time the dolphins kept their distance. I remember distinctly staring dazed from the bow, talking to Dan about how strange they were acting and “what should we try now?” Dan decided to get in the water and as he swam over to the group Chopper swam overhead and then left quickly, leaving Dan in his wake and even more confused. It was then that we discovered our passenger had expired in his bunk and began consoling his wife and daughter. Could the dolphins have sensed something strange on board? Many of us have had strange experiences with dolphins or other marine mammals. Alexandra Morton, in her book Listening to Whales,describes thinking of a behavior right before a killer whale (Orcinus orca) mimicked the exact behavior. Could the dolphins have a keen sense that we are unable to tap into ourselves? Whether it was coincidence or circumstance, we headed back toward port to deal with the new priority of sad family matters. As we turned to head back south, the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us fifty feet away in an aquatic escort. They always rode the bow or just left, but now they paralleled us in an organized fashion. After matters were attended to on land, we once again headed up to the dolphin grounds to finish our trip. The dolphins greeted us normally, rode the bow, and frolicked like they normally did, and we finished the rest of the trip without incident. Twenty-five years later I have never again observed the dolphins escort our boat in the same manner.
One early morning, while I was drinking coffee on the bridge, Dan joined me and noticed we were adrift in the deep water instead of anchored from the previous night (clear proof that I do need caffeine to wake up!). We had drifted four miles into the deep water and large boat traffic, so we started up the engines and headed back to the shallow sandbank. Along the way we picked up various dolphins, including Blaze, on the bow. As we watched her ride I looked down and saw our anchor and broken anchor line go by on the bottom. As the boat continued gliding forward under momentum, Blaze left the bow and headed over to the anchor and circled it until we turned our vessel around, launched the Zodiac, and retrieved our lost anchor. It was a nice interspecies gesture.
The summer was filled with both dolphin and human events. In this remote area of the Bahamas we often answer distress calls from boats in trouble or relay to the Coast Guard about such activity. Historically this area was a drug-running area for many a pirate, including modern-day ones, and we had already seen our share of high-speed chases and drops from planes. The Fourth of July fireworks that occurred at sea, usually on our boat or another dive boat in the area, could be mistaken for distress flares if it wasn’t for the holiday. During slow days we explored the reefs and shipwrecks in the area. Traveling by night, we sailed under the stars, tracking our celestial dolphin, the constellation Delphinus, in the sky. On rough weather days we ran for cover, sometimes outrunning a giant waterspout, essentially a tornado on the water. There was rarely a lack of excitement between the weather and the dolphins.
As the end of our 1986 season came to a close we decided to have a “crew” day before heading back to Florida. Stubby, Romeo, and Little Gash all came by for a last encounter. It was early September and my thirtieth birthday. For once I didn’t care about my cameras. I was in the water just swimming along with the dolphins for a change. Just as we were talking about heading back to Florida, Rosemole showed up. Of course the summer wouldn’t have ended properly without a final grand finale à la Rosemole. This was the first time we had seen Rosemole with her normal complement of companions since her shark bite incident. We kept getting in and out of the water and then finally we realized that the dolphins just wanted to bow ride. One by one the dolphins that rode the bow dropped off, until only Rosemole was left on the bow. Then with a turn to the side she was gone, and we seasonally migrant humans continued back to Florida for another winter on land.
As I reflected on my second summer with the dolphins, I realized how well the strategy of anchoring the boat in one place had worked out. My field site is quite large, about four hundred square miles, and encompasses a variety of depths from six feet to the deepwater edge and habitats including reefs, white sand, and grass beds. The two hundred or so spotted dolphin community is divided into three distinct groups that I called north, central, and south. In the early years I anchored the boat in a central location and just waited. It probably helped the dolphins feel comfortable, knowing when and where to find us on a consistent basis. It also gave them the choice, and us a clear signal about their level of interest. My main strategy of contacting the dolphins was to simply be available in their environment. This summer also had a different feel to it than last summer. Going through the entire season, the weather, the different dolphin behavior and patterns, was important. Our relationship with them had developed, strengthened, and changed over the summer. The other aspect that surprised me was my personal relationship with Rosemole. She was definitely the dolphin I had connected with the previous year. This time when leaving, it felt like leaving good friends. Last year it was like meeting and then leaving someone you really wanted to get to know better. This year I felt like we were actually part of the dolphins’ regular routine, thoroughly incorporated into their system. There was also a real sense of the mutual process of discovery between two species—humans and dolphins. Being out on the boat, in the water and on the ocean, had sharpened my senses for observation in the wild. But I was still left wondering what the dolphins think when we leave and don’t show up again for eight months. Perhaps to them it is us who are the seasonal migrants.
Redocumenting markings on individual dolphins, over consecutive years, has always been critical to my long-term work. With spotted dolphins, I tracked whatever marks were visible, including gashes, spots, and coloration patterns. Some marks were permanent, such as gashes or large shark wounds. Some markers were seasonal, yet were helpful in identifying dolphins within a week or season. These marks included rake marks from other dolphins, small puncture wounds, and small stalked barnacles that attached themselves to the dolphin’s flukes and fins, at least for a time, and helped verify an individual. Even various sizes of cetacean-specific remoras were useful as seasonal markers. Although we see other remoras free-swimming, including “shark suckers,” the species that attach themselves to sharks and turtles, I have never seen this species of remora free-swimming. The top of the head of a remora resembles the bottom of a tennis shoe complete with ridges and indentations (it is actually a modified dorsal fin). Remoras hold on to their host with suction while looking for scraps of food or productive water in which to feast. Over the years I had noticed that spotted dolphins with injuries or skin diseases often have these remoras attached. The remoras look extremely annoying to the dolphins. They meander their way around the dolphin’s head, mouth, and belly, keeping just enough suction to not be thrown off. I have seen dolphins leap repeatedly in the air, slamming their bodies down until their bellies were bright pink from hitting the surface. Yet the remoras cling on tightly. I have seen a mother dolphin try to chase and nip at a remora on her calf, but the remoras, when threatened, cling even tighter to their host, leaving a telltale tennis shoe mark. But for all their potential annoyance, I have come to understand that the remoras are actually helping the dolphins.
In the lab we tracked melon marks, fine lines of color extending from the blowhole toward the rostrum and back to the eye, and throat marks, both quite distinctive to individuals. In one case, a previously lost individual was reidentified ten years later by matching a melon mark. There were long-distance markers and close-up marks. The overall body coloration of spotted dolphins can be quite distinct even at a distance. Some dolphins were labeled “Neapolitan” because the midline on their sides delineated a clear dark upper body in contrast to a white lower body. Other dolphins had spots that blended from top to bottom. Some dolphins, such as Little Gash, had very few spots on their ventral sides even into adulthood. (This might be one of the reasons why in studies of pantropical spotted dolphins, there is such variation in true “age class,” verified by aging teeth versus verified by “coloration” categories or degree of spotting.) Some of these individuals may just have the genetics for certain degrees of body spotting or coloration. All of these markers helped me identify individuals at a distance.
There were close-up markers I used for times when dolphins were swimming nearby. Flying A, named for her “brand” in the shape of a sideways A, could not be mistaken. Even in 2007, I could still see it underneath her multiplying spots. Bumper, a northern female spotted, was named for her odd “bump” on the right side of her tail. The bump seen close up and at an angle clearly identified her.
I chose to name our individuals, rather than give them numbers. Not only does it make it easier in the water to, in your head, trigger a name, but like Jane Goodall and other long-term researchers, I believe nonhuman animals have personalities and should be given names. In the water it is necessary to quickly identify individuals by their marks in order to track behavioral activities. Later, as relationships between spotted dolphins became clearer, I began naming offspring with the first letter of their mothers, or sometimes in themes. Rosemole’s first offspring I named Rosebud in 1991, followed by Rosepetal in 1994, and Rosita in 1999. The Snow family is led by Snowflake, a grandmother, and includes her offspring Snow, Sleet, Slush, Storm, and grandson Sunami (without the t). Paint, on the other hand, has a first offspring named Brush, my first attempt to try the “theme” idea. This prompted many interesting brainstorming sessions to find names; sometimes we resorted to the dictionary, cookbooks, whatever we could find to help us. Occasionally I would name a dolphin after a person, such as Caroh who is named for Carolyn Hay, an original board member of the project who succumbed to cancer in the late 1980s. My field notes became a bit complicated if I was describing dolphins and humans in the water, especially if they had the same name, so I tried not to use human names.
My “sketchbook” was now a valuable part of the fieldwork since slides were long in coming for identification at sea. I sketched out marks on Little Gash’s “page.” Some were new wounds, others gashes or rake marks, all used to track the subtleties easily detected by the eye. Even melon marks, distinctive and critical in the identification of young calves when they have no spots, were sketched. There really are some things that our eyes see better than a camera or the underwater video, and I often relied on these sketches over a season to help me identify individuals underwater or from the bow looking down. I remember even Dr. Randy Wells was amazed at this when he joined us in the field on one trip in the 1990s. After I had identified Ridgeway and Big Gash, two adult male dolphins on the bow, Randy expressed his amazement at identifying a dolphin so far from land. But for us, we knew what part of the sandbank we were on and we knew these dolphins and the constellation of spots and wounds on the tops of their heads. Even though most of my students don’t use or rely on a sketchbook, I’ve noticed, now that I delegate the writing of encounter notes to some of my students, that it is quite natural, and apparently helpful to them, to sketch little dorsal fins and marks when coming out of the water. It is perhaps a natural process denoting such subtleties, and one that perhaps they have also seen the value of over the years.
Like 1985, this second field season also had a very powerful impact on me. I was seeing clear patterns to the dolphins’ behavior and I learned the importance of using proper dolphin etiquette in the water. After all, we were in their world, and we had better learn their rules if we wanted to blend in. You can only learn dolphin etiquette from a dolphin. Is it impolite to approach a dolphin head-on? What does this signal mean in their own communication system? These experiences only reinforced my commitment to be out here for twenty years, a minimum time to learn the social signals of a multigenerational culture. I tried very hard to never push the dolphins beyond their comfort zone with our presence in the water, even at the expense of not getting a little more information. If it meant losing an identifying shot, then so be it. I would get one another time, but if I frightened them in any way, they might not come back at all. It was more important for me to have their trust than an immediate photograph of their marks, although both were welcome. It was an investment in a relationship and trust for the future that would, over the years, pay off handsomely.
Two types of dolphin encounters were also clear. The first was interactive: the dolphins made eye contact, broke from their own behavior, and came by to buzz us or interact with us, soliciting games or further eye contact. The second was observational: the dolphins engaged in their own behavior and we blended into the ocean as benign observers and documented their actions but kept our distance. During interactive encounters I used the opportunity to establish rapport and trust. This process was necessary to get the dolphins comfortable and familiar with us in the water. In the process I often got identification marks or sexed them. Soon my catalog of individual dolphin profiles grew to more than a hundred names, although there were still some dolphins to be identified. During observational encounters I videotaped their behavior, noting individuals and patterns of interaction that allowed for later detailed analysis of body postures and vocalizations. This process and information was the basis of the next twenty-five years of work in the field. And to this day, etiquette remains primary in our interactions with dolphins in the water.
As I grew to learn dolphin communication signals, the subtleties of such interaction became more and more challenging. Our human responsibilities in the water also became clearer. The dolphins had their own sense of which human beings were responsible for our activity in the water. For example, young calves are often very excitable and exploratory. Calves often seek out humans even when their mother is trying to get them to move or go somewhere else. In this context, the mother, if she knows us well, directs her communication signal, in this case a tail slap, toward a human instead of her calf, theoretically to signal “it’s time to end this interaction—we dolphins need to move on.” This is a very sophisticated sense of “other”; that the dolphins would choose to direct a dolphin signal at a human and expect the appropriate response. It is unlikely that they would mistake an awkward human in the water for a dolphin or dolphinlike cousin. It is possible that the dolphins are truly viewing us as a nondolphin form of a conspecific (another dolphin) with all the responsibilities and rules that come with it.
After my first full summer in the Bahamas I returned home to San Francisco and focused on my graduate work. I spent hours in my basement apartment playing back sequences of the captive dolphin vocalizations I was studying for my graduate work while my cat Kashmir, vying for attention, willingly mimicked the sequences of squawks with enthusiasm. Would I find the same types of sounds in the wild spotted dolphin behavior? Would they mean the same thing? I worked, I studied, and I wondered through the winter how different wild behavior would be from behaviors I saw in a tank. And I dreamed, sometimes while in a waking state, of the clear blue water and swirling dolphins.
Copyright © 2011 by Denise L. Herzing