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Dolphins 2 Essay, Research Paper


A great philosopher by the name of Plutarch once wrote that the dolphin is the only creature who loves man for his own sake. To the dolphin alone, nature has given what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage. The foundation to a relationship like this is based on communication. In this paper, evidence will be presented to show that it is possible for dolphins and humans to communicate in a significant and meaningful way.

Throughout recorded time, man has shown a fascination with dolphins. This is shown by many ancient stories which were told through writings and verbal accounts. Some of these stories originate from ancient Greece and were told by great philosophers. One such story claims that Odysseus son, Telemachos, was saved from drowning by a dolphin. Dolphins have also been accounted for in writing. In the play Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, a singer by the name of Arion was sentenced to be thrown into the sea by pirates. Before he was thrown into the sea, he asked for one last wish: to sing a song and then jump overboard himself. The pirates granted him this wish, and he began to sing a high-pitched song. When he was finished with his song, he jumped overboard and was saved by a dolphin which carried him two hundred miles to shore. Obviously, dolphins and humans have been interacting together throughout recorded history.

According to the theory of evolution, it is most likely that the dolphin was once a land mammal. It is likely that sixty million years ago a cow, the distant cousin of the dolphin, decided to take his life to the sea. This is shown by the findings of hooves on dolphin fossils.

The appearance of dolphins has intrigued man s interest in the physical makeup of these mammals. Dolphins are carried by their mothers for twelve months before they are born. Once they are born, they immediately swim to the surface for their first breath of air. At the time of their birth, dolphins are three feet long and weigh approximately thirty pounds. By adulthood, the dolphin will have grown to nine feet in length and will weigh over four-hundred pounds. The life expectancy of the dolphin is estimated at twenty-five years, but one dolphin living in Sarasota, Florida, was reported to be forty-four years of age when he died.

The physical features of the dolphin make it an interesting mammal. Dolphins have silky smooth skin that helps them glide through the water with ease. Their ears are small openings on the sides of their head which pick up sound with great ability. Dolphins have no vocal cords; instead they make sounds while underwater by moving air from their lungs with their blow hole closed. The dolphin uses sonar to help it see underwater. Ken Norris, Dean of Researchers in Santa Cruz, California, explains that the dolphin can use its sonar to identify species, look at the internal organs of other fish, and even kill fish. (Nature video).

The internal features of the dolphin allow it to be classified as a mammal. The dolphin must breathe through its lungs to survive; therefore, it must come to the surface every five minutes to get air. When it does come to the surface to breathe, the dolphin replenishes sixty percent of its air. This is what allows the dolphin to stay underwater for such long periods and to dive to such great depths. It is known that dolphins can dive to a thousand feet without getting the bends.

The brain of the dolphin is often compared by researchers to the human brain. The dolphin has a well developed brain that weighs over three pounds; similar to the human brain which weighs close to three pounds. The dolphin s brain accounts for one and a fourth percent of its total body weight. Since the dolphin needs air to live and must resurface every five minutes, it cannot completely fall asleep but instead has the ability to put half of its brain to sleep for resting purposes while the other half remains active.

Dolphins are a very social animal and depend on interaction with other dolphins. In the case of JoJo, a dolphin in the Bahamas who has developed a strong relationship with marine biologist Dean Bernelle, an interaction with humans to maintain a living environment. Dolphins associate in two groups: a family and a pod. The family consists of the mother, children, and other females that look out for the young. The pod is a large, long term social group that varies in size. The pod is where the males are found. The males frequently move from family to family. Within the pod, there may be a social hierarchy in which one dolphin is given more respect over another. Another aspect of the social structure is the ability to recognize a fellow dolphin after a long period of absence. This is due to the individuality of each dolphin and the fact that they have their own signature whistle with which to recognize each other.

Social traits are taught to the young from the time of their birth. When a baby dolphin is born, usually two female dolphins take the role of the aunts to the newborn. These females babysit and nurse the young when the mother is out searching for food. A baby dolphin usually stays with the mother for three to six years. The relationship between the mother and child is long-lasting as is the relationship between males in a pod. Dolphins are very playful and curious creatures. Dolphins love company and have been observed in idle communication with other dolphins. This tight knit social structure gives the dolphin its unique and appealing behavior. Humans find an association with these behaviors and, therefore, feel a connection to this aquatic mammal.

A high standard of intelligence is only possessed by a few species on Earth. The dolphin possesses such great intellectual ability that it is ranked by humans as the smartest animal. According to Ken Martin of Hawaii, the ability to understand reality from the representation of reality is thought to be one of the hallmark traits of abstract thought. Abstract thought is commonly considered to be only a human achievement, but Ken Martin has shown that dolphins, too, posses this quality. By using a television set to express the representation of reality, Martin tested the dolphins ability to separate reality from the representation of reality. He did this by placing a television in the tank where the dolphins were located. He then showed the dolphins live footage of a trainer feeding other dolphins in the tank next to them. The dolphins realized that this event was occurring next to them, and they in turn got ready for their feeding (Nature video).

Another trait that represents intelligence is the ability to be self-aware. Self awareness is the ability to look into a mirror and recognize that the image in the mirror is your own. To put self-awareness to the test, Martin placed a two-way mirror in the tank. The researchers could see out, but the dolphins could only see a reflection of themselves. The tests show that the dolphins have a sense of self awareness, and they realize that they are looking at an image of themselves (In the Wild video).

Dolphins also show their intelligence through the ability to understand gestures,sounds, word meaning, and word order. Dolphins can immediately understand and act upon new or novel instructions never before experienced ( Dolphin Research Internet). The intelligence of the dolphin has been tested over and over again in hopes of dolphins and humans being able to communicate.

Another way that intelligence is represented is by the ability to learn, as opposed to acting by instinct. No one can deny that dolphins can learn delightful tricks totally disassociated from their oceanic background, but their high level of intelligence is what has allowed them to be trained in the first place (Walther 39). Lou Herman, a marine biologist from Hawaii, states that dolphins can be taught a human language and are able to recall the information behind a signal at any time (In the Wild video). Dolphins are usually taught a sign language and will perform their tricks from a hand signal given by a trainer. An example of this comes from Hawaii and a trainer by the name of Mark Xitco. The trainer wears dark goggles so the dolphin can not receive eye signals from the trainer helping them in performing their task. Xitco gives Ake, a dolphin, four hand signals never seen in this particular order. The signals represent basket, right, frisbee, and fetch. Ake then goes to the frisbee on the right, ignoring the one on the left, and takes it to the basket. She then receives a whistle that indicates that she is correct and receives a treat from the trainer (Chollar 52-53). As seen in the previous experiment, dolphins can be taught words in any order. Ake was taught an inverse language from right to left, therefore, she must wait for the entire command to be given before she can act upon it. Ake s pool mate, Phoenix, was taught the conventional left to right method, which proves that the dolphin can learn the language in any way that it is taught to them (Chollar 53).

One of Lou Herman s dolphins has learned to incorporate the ability to be trained with its own high level of intelligence. This was shown in a trick test done by Herman where there was no correct response. Herman firsts asked the dolphin if there was a ball in the pool. The dolphin then pressed a paddle that signified the answer yes. He then signaled for the dolphin to push a ball to a hoop; which it did. Now the trick came in: Lou Herman removed the hoop and told the dolphin to repeat the trick. Herman expected the dolphin to act confused or, at the best, to push the no paddle. Instead it carried the ball to the no paddle and stopped there. The dolphin in effect was saying I can do the first part but not the second because the hoop is not there. Herman was astonished. Herman responded by saying, This was a totally untrained response. We never dreamed the animal would think the problem through like that (Ola 55).

Following along with the ability to be trained, gender poses a question in whether the male or female species is smarter. Not much is known on this topic, but one dolphin in Hawaii has proposed an answer to this question. Elele, a female dolphin at the University of Hawaii lab, learns faster than her rather recalcitrant male companion, Hiapo (Chollar 53). This does not provide a definite answer, but it does provide enough information to suspect that there is an association with gender and the ability to be trained.

Dolphins have a language of their own that humans are trying to understand. Scientist do not know what they are saying, but one fact is for sure: their language is able to carry concepts and abstract information that could even be more sophisticated and efficient than human language (Levasseur Internet). Dolphins communicate at a speed ten times as fast as the human language (In The Wild video). Humans do not know what they are saying, but researchers are trying to understand their language and hope to find a way to communicate with them one day.

The dolphin is a highly vocal creature who depends on the communication with other dolphins to maintain its highly social behavior. The dolphin is capable of making three sounds: pulses, clicks, and whistles. The pulse-type sounds are short and contain a broad range of frequencies, with many in the ultrasonic range. The clicks can be produced in rapid succession, as to resemble a buzz. The clicks are also used as a form of sonar. Each dolphin has a signature whistle that is used to identify himself to other dolphins. This signature whistle is comparable to a human name. The whistles are used to communicate a particular emotional state, and thus influence the behavior of the surrounding dolphins (Tavolga 228). One experiment, done by dolphin researchers to observe the communication between dolphins in the wild, uses magnetic poles with microphones attached to them to form a barrier across the entrance to a bay. The pod of dolphins approaches the barrier slowly, but they keep their distance. The dolphins then send a scout to examine the barrier. The scout dolphin then returns back to the pod where a large amount of conversation is observed. The dolphins then proceed past the barrier. This shows that the dolphins rely on group communication for protection.

Dolphins and humans have shown a companionship for each other that has lasted for many years. This companionship is what has made it possible for the two species to communicate with each other. A simple observation of communication with humans is shown in the questioning of Lou Herman s dolphin, Ake. First, there are two paddles placed in the pool. One represents the answer no and the other represents yes. The dolphin is then trained to recognize what each paddle means. Then the dolphin is asked a yes or no question and the dolphin can respond with the correct answer. This has also been shown earlier when the dolphin Ake was asked a trick question and gave a creative response. This is simple, but it shows that the dolphin can communicate with humans (Chollar 52-53).

In Monkey Mia, Australia, there have been numerous accounts of dolphins and humans interacting with each other in a form of communication. Thousands of tourists have been coming each year to swim with these dolphins, and each year the dolphins keep coming back to play with the tourists. For four decades, scientists have been studying these dolphins. The dolphins are fed by the tourists, but seem to have a deeper reason for their repeated returns. This is evidence to prove that dolphins are willing to communicate with humans.

Another account of dolphins and humans interacting with each other is in Brazil. In a small village in Brazil, dolphins and humans gather together to participate in a fishing ritual. It is started when a villager claps his hands under water. This signals the dolphins to round up the fish and drive them toward the fishermen. The villagers then use nets to gather the fish. About thirty dolphins partake in this activity. The dolphins keep returning to perform this activity and now the villagers depend on the dolphins for their survival. This shows that dolphins and humans can, and do, communicate with one another to perform a task (Nature video).

Most dolphins choose other dolphins as their companion, but JoJo, a rouge dolphin living in the Bahamas, seeks an interaction with humans. He has made marine biologist Dean Bernelle his companion. Bernelle says, “JoJo expresses a longing for a companionship and play with humans.” JoJo is always involved in some sort of human interaction. JoJo’s friendship with Bernelle is JoJo’s idea and he has motivated himself to establish a meaningful relationship with Bernelle (Nature video).

JoJo is not only social with Bernelle but also with guests of the local Club Med. At first JoJo was a nuisance, since none of the guests knew how to treat JoJo correctly. The club organizers and guests started to complain about JoJo, so Bernelle educated the public and JoJo on the subject of playing nice. The public was taught rules about JoJo and JoJo was taught signals for stopping his current activity. JoJo and the public now get along fine, but what is unusual is that JoJo is getting no reward for his interaction with the guests. It seems JoJo comes here for his own pleasure and to communicate in some way with the tourists (Perrine 35-36).

Swimming with wild dolphins has made it possible for humans to experience the life of the dolphin. Denise Hersing of the Bahamas attempts to learn how dolphins communicate in the open seas. Hersing is not only interested in the sounds they make but the subtle gestures they use that may be a part of their language. Hersing swims with the pod and studies their movements. She then tries her own movements to see how the dolphins react. To her surprise, they follow her movements. When she nods her head in a direction, the dolphins will then swim in that direction. It is as if they have accepted her into their pod. She has experienced real communication with the dolphins (Nature video).

It may be possible for a dolphin to help a human to communicate with another human being. Dr. Betsy Smith, an associate professor of social work at Florida International University in Miami, wanted to test if the interaction with a dolphin and an autistic person might help the autistic person s communication skills with other humans. Dr. Smith brings an autistic boy to a trained dolphin to test her theory. She hopes that through an interaction with the dolphin the boy might be open to spontaneous activity and brought into more open communication with humans. She thinks her theory might work for two reasons: one, dolphins use non-verbal expressions to communicate, so therefore it will be easier for the two to interact. Two, dolphins don’t give up; they have a long attention span that will help in this communication process (Curtis 20). Dr. Smith’s tests are still in progress, but it seems that her theory is correct.

Communication between humans and dolphins in the wild is just one of the things that leads researchers to believe these creatures are smarter than once thought. Steve Leatherwood was doing research on wild dolphins in the Bahamas when he noticed a mother dolphin and its child swimming in the area. Leatherwood and his assistant immediately jumped into the water to get a closer look. The two dolphins swam over to Leatherwood and his assistant and stopped close by. The mother dolphin then gently nudged the baby calf toward the two researchers and swam a few feet away and waited. Leatherwood states, “It is as if the dolphin were saying, ‘People, this is my calf. Calf, these are people.’ The more time we spend with these creatures, the more we sense they have a natural affinity for man” (Ola 55-56).

Throughout the previous paragraphs, scientific evidence from research and experiments has been presented to prove that it is possible for dolphins and humans to communicate in a significant and meaningful way. This evidence has been shown through Lou Herman s ability to have a conversation with a trained dolphin. The wanting of human interaction by wild dolphins in Monkey Mia, Australia also illustrates the desire for interaction between dolphins and humans. The cooperation between village fishermen and dolphins in Brazil is yet another example of this human-dolphin communication. JoJo s seeking of a friendship with marine biologist Dean Bernelle further establishes this human-dolphin interaction. JoJo s cooperation with tourists in the Bahamas shows how dolphins can initiate the human-dolphin relationship. Denise Hersing s acceptance into a pod of wild dolphins further illustrates the dolphins willingness to initiate communication with humans. Dr. Betsy Smith s use of a dolphin to interact with an autistic boy is one example of man and dolphin working together for the good of one another. Leatherwood s encounter with a mother dolphin and her child is also an example of man and dolphin becoming friends and working together. Each of these examples demonstrates that it is possible for dolphins and humans to partake in significant and meaningful communication.

Dolphins and humans have shown a friendship for each other since the ancient Greek times. This friendship and companionship has allowed for humans to communicate with dolphins. Hopefully, some day in the future, we will have built a strong foundation based on communication that will allow us to have a deeper relationship with dolphins.

Works Cited

Chollar, Susan. “Conversations With the Dolphins, Psychology Today April 1989: 52-57.

Curtis, Patricia. Contact with Dolphins, Oceans February 1987: 18-23.

Dolphins: Close Encounters. Nature. Dir. Wolfgang Bayer with George Page. Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 1992.

Dolphin Research. Online. 28 January 1999.

Dolphins. In the Wild. Dir. Nigel Cole with Robin Williams. Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 1995.

Levasseur, Ken, V. Markou, Ostrouskaya, and Y. Godefroid. Dolphins In the Wild Social Life and Intelligence. Online. 28 January 1999.

Ola, Per, and Emily D Aulaire. Playful Genius of the Sea, Reader s Digest March 1992: 54-59.

Perrine, Doug. JoJo Rogue Dolphin? Sea Frontiers March-April 1990: 33-41.

Tavolga, Margaret C. Dolphin. Grolier International Encyclopedia. 1991.

Walther, Mina. (1978, January 8). the Highest I.Q. in the Sea. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. p. 39.

Works Consulted

Bottlenose Dolphins. Online. 28 January 1999.

Brooks, Bobbie. Florida Stories, Inc. November 20, 1977.

DeGeorge, Gail. Close Encounters of the Dolphin Kind. Business Week 10 April 1989: 101

Hovinen, Bradford, Onno Faber, and Vincent Goh. Dolphins: The Oracles of the Sea. Online. 28 January 1999.

Norris, Kenneth S. Dolphins in Crisis. National Geographic. September 1992: 4-35.

Parfit, Michael. Are Dolphins Trying to Say Something, or is it All Much Ado About Nothing. Smithsonian. September 1995: 78-80.

Walther, Mina. (1992, May 10). Dolphin Mothers Also Deserve Credit Today. Sarasota-Herald Tribune.

Wells, Randall S. Bringing Up Baby. Natural History. September 1991: 56-59.


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