The sense of kinship between humans and dolphins goes back thousands of years. Citizens of ancient Crete honored dolphins as gods, while the Greeks kept a special sanctuary for what they considered to be the dolphin god. The Maori of the South Pacific regarded dolphins as messengers of the gods. These and other early cultures celebrated the divine features they saw in dolphins.
Dolphins are no longer elevated to the status of gods, but to many people, they are the “humans of the sea” – wise, shrewd and superintelligent. Some aquariums and marine parks contribute to this view by promoting their dolphins as “personalities”. Movies, television and science fiction novels do the same thing. To feed our appetite for this connection, stories about breakthroughs in dolphin communication have often been exaggerated by the media.
To be fair, more than on scientist has reported as communication a dolphin’s mimicking of an English phrase – something a parrot can do. But despite continuing efforts, researchers have been unable to have conversations with dolphins or to determine whether they do, indeed, have their own spoken language. Although some interspecies communication does exist, it is more akin to what occurs between you and the family dog than to the exchanges you would have with your friends.
Are dolphins superintelligent? The brains of dolphins and porpoises vary in size from one species to another, but all are fairly large. Yet brain size reveals little about the nature or extent of intelligence. What do dolphins use their brains for? Some researchers have suggested that big brains may be needed for sonar and sound processing or for the demands of social living. But these explanations have been called into question. Others have argued that a dolphin’s level of intelligence is somewhere between that of a dog and that of a chimpanzee. The answer is, we don’t know, and it may be unfair to make comparisons. Just as human intelligence suits human needs, dolphin intelligence is perfect for the dolphin’s way of life. Until we know more, we can say only that it is different.
What, then, do we know about dolphins? Dolphin research, which is just a few decades old, has caused much excitement. Some behavior studies have helped verify certain ancient accounts. Although Aristotle recorded that fishermen in the eastern Mediterranean Sea could identify dolphins by the nicks in their fins, generations of humans, including scientists, dismissed it as fable. But Aristotle, who was the first to recognize that dolphins are air-breathing mammals and not fish, seems to have known what he was talking about.
The same is true of 19th century Australian whalers, At Twofold Bay, whalers came to know individual orcas by name. Hunting in packs, the orcas would help the whalers by chasing a humpback whale, then grabbing its flippers while the whalers made the kill. As the big humpback was towed to shore, the orcas, fond of eating large whales, took only the lips and tongue, leaving the rest of the carcass for the whalers to render for oil. This close and mutually beneficial association between humans and orcas lasted for several decades, until the 1920s.
Today, research into life among wild dolphins reveals that they are curious and apparently sociable. They sometimes even allow people to touch them and swim with them. Ancient Roman stories about boys riding on dolphins are likely true; in recent years, children, as well as adults, have ridden dolphins along the shores of the United States, Ireland, France, Spain, Yugoslavia, Australia and Great Britain. Dolphins have also been known to support drowning swimmers and nudge them to shore. However, there are several documented cases of dolphins pushing people AWAY from safety and butting them or holding them underwater. No wild dolphin is known to have killed a person. yet dolphins are strong, independent animals that must be respected at all times.
Rather than striving to give these fascinating sociable mammals human status or confining them to the realm of the divine, though, we should appreciate that the ways of dolphins are uniquely their own.