Bottlenose dolphins jump against the setting sun. A bottlenose can jump as high as 4.9 meters but it is not known why they do. However, despite theories that it is to help them spot fish, or just for fun, the most likely explanation is that it is a way to rid themselves of parasitic barnacles.

Dolphins – Long Read

What do dolphins see in us?

Photo by Martin Ruegner

Dolphins – Long Read

What do dolphins see in us?

Hello dolphins, movie stars, mine-hunters, therapist for autistic children and popular tourist attraction – undoubtedly a celebrity of the animal kingdom. But the obvious intelligence of these marine mammals means we need to ask some hard questions about keeping them captive. It’s clear what we see in them. The big question is what dolphins see in us?

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

I float high in the water in my orange life-jacket watching the two fins swim toward me, a few feet apart. As a shrill whistle sounds, they split apart, one to each side and circle around to come behind. I wait for the moment of contact, nervous but trying to stay relaxed, knowing that being tense is the worst thing I can do.

Then, suddenly, I am lifted out of the water as the two dolphins carry me on their snouts, one under each foot. They push me along easily for 50 meters before the concrete edge of the pool looms and my nerve breaks, sending me diving back into the water. I worry about landing on a dolphin. Silly me – they are long gone, speeding away with a lazy flick of their tails. “Very good!” shouts the trainer. “You could have carried on and stepped ashore. Want to try again?”

I’m at a dolphinarium in Cuba, where tourists are encouraged, for a fee, to interact with the playful creatures. I have just watched a show where they have jumped through hoops, caught balls and generally shown off all the skills that highlight their intelligence and ability to learn. However, the more I appreciate their intellect, the more I wonder what right we have to keep them in pens for our amusement. Despite the obvious bond between dolphin and trainer, it is hard to believe these intelligent creatures enjoy such dull routine, swapping the freedom of the open ocean for entertaining an endless stream of screaming, water-awkward humans. I pass on the chance to make them go through their performance for me again.

The magical connection between people and dolphins has been written about through the ages. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described their human-like intelligence, gentle nature and many heroic deeds almost 2,400 years ago. Since then, the dolphin’s image has remained largely unchanged, but it has never been so popular as it is now. Dolphins been a TV and movie star (think of Flipper), the image used to sell anything from modems to Japanese cars and medicines. You can buy dolphin music or listen to it at the spa or physiotherapist, and managers pay a fortune for courses in DI – Dolphin Intelligence (“Use your entire brain! Learn to be carefree!”).

She describes a dolphin defecating in her face

Parents of mentally disabled or behaviorally maladjusted children will bring their offspring to swim with dolphins in the hope of a positive shock effect. People have cried with joy at the sight of autistic children smiling for the first time, or sufferers of ADD who become completely at ease. Dolphin Therapy received a boost when the Dutch Princess Irene wrote a book called A Dialogue With Nature.

She describes a dolphin defecating in her face. Marine biologists see this as a sign of aggression and dismissal, a middle finger from an animal chased about all day by new-age hippies in search of the light within themselves. But Irene saw something else. Expel your crap, let it go – that was the message she heard. Thanks to the defecating dolphin she finally left a tragic divorce behind her and then mastered the art of dolphin communication (exactly how, I do not want to know).

My second encounter with dolphins, years later on Honduras’s Roatán Island is a more even-sided affair. Standing in chest-deep water in Anthony’s Key, the ones being disciplined by the trainer are we humans. As a half-dozen dolphins swim gently among us, allowing themselves to be stroked, eagle eyes keep an eye out for inappropriate behaviour. The dolphins are free to come and go, albeit attracted into the murky shallow water by regular supplies of fish, but they seem to enjoy the interaction. Their squeals as we tickle them like a dog appear to be ones of delight and they keep coming back for more. Their velvety, rubber-slick skin is sensitive and looking into their eyes is like engaging with another human being.

Some scientists believe they may be even more intelligent than we are. The part of their brain where social motivation for language originates is much larger than in humans. In other words, they react in a group much better than we humans do, “reading” each others’ minds more clearly. They can learn a vocabulary of about 40 words and form them into structured sentences, and show an ability for abstract thought. They also seem to understand the concept of mortality, showing grief when a young one dies or trying to save an injured or dying dolphin. There is no question that they have emotional feelings.

I gave up doing studies on captive dolphins

Neuroscientist Dr Lori Marino of the Center for Ethics at Emory University did ground-breaking work on dolphin self-awareness, showing they recognize themselves in mirrors. “I gave up doing studies on captive dolphins once I discovered I was working with two self-aware individuals,” she says. “I felt that they should be leading the life of an intelligent, self-aware, social being, and they weren’t.”

Despite that, throughout the Caribbean, anywhere there is warm waters, from Miami to Jamaica and Japan to The Philippines, dolphins are often seen just as big business. A 30-minute encounter may be a life-changing experience for a visitor like me, but a goldmine for the dolphin’s owner. As cruise ships dock, disgorging hundreds of passengers needing entertained, the dolphin industry grows and grows. Some facilities might have up to ten dolphins, swimming with as many as 500 passengers a day. At $100 a time, that’s a potential $1.5 million a month in turnover. Not bad.

Cuba is now one the largest exporters in the world of wild dolphins, although no one really knows how many are sold. At $60,000 each, or more, they make a tempting resource for the cash-poor island and, as countries such as the US and Mexico sign up to international agreements banning the capture of wild dolphins, Cuba has stepped up its role in the trade. Even Celia Guevara, daughter of revolutionary hero Che Guevara and a veterinarian at Havana’s Aquarium, has been caught up in the controversy. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) appears to be toothless.

“I’ve already told you – no diving!” On a dolphin- swimming expedition off Kaikoura in New Zealand, Captain Chris is angry at one of our group who has plunged in among the dolphins. “You’ll scare them off! They see a big splash as a sign of aggression.” Indeed, the big group of dark striped dolphins by our boat, who were entertaining us just now with giant leaps and somersaults, have darted off. Grumbling, Chris takes our boat off to find another pod nearby. He does not want to chase after the one that just left.

The dive-bomber sits shame-faced in a corner

The dive-bomber sits shame-faced in a corner, shunned by the rest of us. We have struck out on our first try but hopefully it is not yet a wash-out. These dolphins are completely wild; there are no nets to keep them close by, no food to reel them in, and no discipline to force them into performing stunts. All we are allowed to do is lie in the water and hope they think we are cool enough to hang out with.

I have little faith as we re-enter the water for our second attempt, struggling against the high waves. The bay is enormous; the water ice-cold, deep and dark. Why would Flipper and friends want to swim in this exact spot? Captain Chris can give us no answer but says we can improve our chances by behaving like dolphins ourselves.

I dive like an inelegant mermaid to the bottom, pirouetting beneath the waves and end up swigging a liter of water through my snorkel. I keep my head underwater and give out high- pitched dolphin squeals; liter number two gurgles down my nose and throat. Nothing.The captain is probably on deck laughing to himself about how these silly tourists always fall for his joke.

Wham! A slap in the face. I am so engrossed in dolphin play that despite the throbbing pain, I search for the animal that has made contact. Alas, it is that stupid dive-bomber again, kicking off my snorkel with his flippers as the wild sea tosses us together.

Dolphins have sex outside the mating season

Long, glacial minutes and still nothing. “Who wants to play with us?” I wonder. They have better things to do. It is summer, so the females need to eat extra fish to make enough milk for their young. And since their babies will eventually be raised by a foster mum, the mothers will have time after the hunt for their favorite pastime: sex. Just like people, dolphins have sex outside the mating season, an unusual habit in the animal world. And dolphin females never have a headache and never bother with foreplay. Done and dusted within a few seconds, they often go for a second round with the nearest neighbor.

Dolphins live in extended family groups with a distinct leader, but without fixed family bonds. They are extremely social and love chatter; scientists believe they express emotions with specific sounds and that they have their own grammar. They fill their days with eating, playing and sleeping around.

I attempt another dive. It is very quiet. Then, suddenly, two white things flash by. Did I imagine it? No – there it is again! Then I see a sardonic smile. Catch me if you can! I try, but they are already out of sight. Then dozens of dolphins shoot from all sides, mostly beneath me. I remember the instructions and tumble, dive and try to catch their attention. One dolphin takes a chance, and we play together for a few minutes. Doing my best, I take a deep breath as he dives deeper and deeper.

Eventually I have to let him go and swim to the surface, gasping for air. Then he is back, smart enough to understand that he must be careful with this strange figure. He also knows he is the boss here and turns provocatively in a slow circle around but then speeds off, spinning like a windmill and laughing as I awkwardly dive after him. He comes back and we play together again.

It was all over too quickly – I want more!

We swim to the top to get some air and for a second my new friend stops to look at me. Then it is over and he dashes off on dolphin business. My love has abandoned me. I am exhausted but euphoric. You can’t get much wilder than this. It is the animal kingdom at its most beautiful. Back on the boat, I feel low and forlorn after my first intense high. It was all over too quickly – I want more!

Then a new school of around 100 dark-striped dolphins join us. It is unbelievable how naturally they incorporate us into their games. Which other animal would bother doing this, especially with their children around? Dolphins are alert and lightning fast, but how do they know we are trustworthy? In many regions, from Japan to South America, they are still hunted by fishermen who only see them as greedy fish- eating competitors.

Our human failings make their unconditional friendliness all the more striking. They wish only to play with us and, seeing that we are too slow to join their game, they change the rules. It is rawer, speedier and wilder than I expected. I still have the image of those trained dolphinarium animals in my head. Here the dolphins test my nerves; they charge towards me at high speed, only to miss by centimeters just before contact. A group of dolphins will fearlessly attack an orca or a shark, so they could do me a lot of damage, but at least I have no worries about predators when they are around.

The courage to swim up to a group of humans, combined with a large dose of naughtiness and insight is what makes dolphins so heart- warming. During experiments, scientists regularly find that roles become reversed, and they must satisfy the dolphin’s curiosity. One researcher wanted to know whether a dolphin was able to make a particular noise on command. Naturally, it passed the test – that was easy. But the dolphin then let the researcher hear every vowel it was able to utter. He did not quite understand what the dolphin was doing, but after another go it knew exactly what the researcher did and did not pick up. Afterwards, the dolphin swam off, leaving the scientist bemused.

We hesitate to eat them, at least in most cultures

We recognize that dolphins are a species apart in the fact that we hesitate to eat them, at least in most cultures, but that is hardly the measure of a relationship to be proud of. As a species, the dolphin may even be suffering from its own appeal. Every time their smiling faces appear in aquariums, tourist harbors, films and true-life adventures, their value to the unscrupulous goes up.

Its smile is its biggest enemy. It is as if they think it is the greatest thing in the world when they are hauled out of the ocean to be slaughtered by fishermen, or thrilled to be suffocating from pollution, or joyous to put up with selfish tourists and their pointless life questions or shrieking children. And then, when one of them defecates in the face of royalty, it is taken as a message of hope.

Luckily there are dolphins that hopefully know nothing of this kind of suffering, like my friends off Kaikoura. The New Zealand government protects these spectacular creatures from fishermen and tourists alike, although we hopefully meet with them as equal partners. They need only fear orcas and sharks – their natural enemies. “Try and catch me!” winks one as our boat swings past them for the last time.

He gives a flip of his tail and swims away fast, with one more look that seems to say: “Losers!” He is right. There is no doubt out here which is the most highly evolved species. The thousands of dollars of hi-tech equipment on board our boat only serve to highlight our fragility in this alien environment, where giant waves build up from the Antarctic and a dark storm looms on the horizon. We run for land, leaving the dolphins to their play.

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