Dolphin and Whale Magazine :  January issue 2011
Reviews   Home  Site Map    About Us   Projects   Magazine   Media  Photos  Programs  Blog   Contact Us   Table of Contents

Reviews of Books and Films

Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication  By Kathleen Dudzinki and Toni Frohoff, 2008, Yale Univ. Press

“When we have friendly interactions with animals, everyone wins…”
- Marc Bekoff, from the Foreword

The authors have spent many years observing dolphins in the wild, and no doubt they have the highest of intentions regarding dolphins and human interactions with them. For anyone seeking a treatment of communicative behavior in dolphins this book is satisfactory as far as it goes.  But if you’re looking  for a breakthrough  regarding interspecies communication it is not here. There is plenty of accurate description of  behavior, ethology, and outstanding natural history.

The book explores mythology surrounding dolphins and to its credit concludes that much of it may be related more to fact than fiction. But when it comes to dolphins saving humans the authors keep stressing that dolphins sometimes are aggressive to people.
The fact that dolphins (and orcas and belugas) ever save people is in itself problematic from a scientific perspective. As far as we know, unprovoked aggression by these animals towards humans is extremely rare or non-existent, but on the other hand dolphins saving people is legion across time and space among diverse cultures. That only toothed whales among wild animals ever invest time and energy to assist humans is a very significant fact that should not be diminished by a few exceptions to the rule.

Throughout the book, the authors weave back and forth between their identity as scientists and their human admiration and affection for dolphins. For example, on page 1, Toni says, “My career as a scientist studying dolphins and being in their presence has revealed so much more than the data I sought to obtain. Dolphins are among my greatest teachers; they have guided me to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human ...” Then she adds, “dolphins continue to beckon and challenge me to deepen my perception as a scientist.”

The ultimate question is: if dolphins can teach us to be more human, does science dehumanize us? Therein is the underlying paradox of the book and our scientific culture.

On page 14, Toni explains that what she learned about human use of sonar helped her write the book. On a research trip to the Bahamas she broke her foot. The next day she entered the water with a dozen snorkelers whom she was guiding in a swim program with wild dolphins. Two spotted dolphins approached and came directly at her. “I felt an intense ‘buzz’ of echolocation, which vibrated through my injured foot then dissipated as it traveled up my leg.” The dolphins went on to investigate the other people, but none of them indicated that they received echolocation from the dolphins. She goes on to say that she was not miraculously healed by the dolphins but by “the wonders of modern technology” similar to dolphin sonar.

Dramatic cases of severe disease including microcephalia have been healed by dolphins that cooperated using sound emissions. That aside the incident raises questions.
Is there any modern technology that would rapidly detect a broken foot with the efficiency of dolphin sonar? Isn’t it astounding that dolphins would bother directing what could have been healing energy to Toni’s foot? How could she possibly differentiate between the healing effects of dolphin sonar and ultrasound therapy administered by humans? Is it possible that the spotted dolphins read Toni’s thoughts anticipating their response to her foot? And that is why they immediately directed echolocation to it? There is anecdotal evidence a mile long that dolphins are telepathic, and while many encounters of dolphins described in the book suggest the possibility, the authors do not consider it. It is after all taboo.
Membership - Click Here to Join

By playing the role of surrogate goose around newly hatched goslings who “imprinted”on him as their mother, Konrad Lorenz made revolutionary discoveries about animal behavior that had important implications for human development for which he received the Nobel prize. We applaud Dudzinski and Frohoff for not apologizing for feeling like kids and playing with wild dolphins, which has taught them much about dolphin communication.

While doing his master’s thesis research on beaver, Dennis Olson hid behind trees so as to be an “objective” observer who would not influence the behavior of the beaver or his observational data. One day a beaver waddled over, turned its butt against his boots and rubbed castoreum on them, then waddled back to the pond. Olson wrote in his journal, “Observer becomes participant.”

Rather unexpectedly, in l985 on the Orca Project in British Columbia, we befriended a pod of wild orcas simply by calling Nicola, the matriarch, by her name. She immediately swam with a calf close behind straight to our boat. Later, in an extremely ceremonial manner “orcastrated” by Nicola, pairs of cows accompanied single calves to shore until all of them had seen us close up. I suspect now that the entire ritual occurred because the matriarch perceived my call, or the thought behind it, as an invitation, which it surely was. Often I have defended my actions to audiences by asking them what they would do if they were sent on a mission to another planet to learn all they could about an intelligent lifeform. Would they hide behind rocks and trees and take notes, or would they befriend the aliens so as to facilitate learning more about them?

After a two-year absence Kathleen returned to the Bahamas where she had spent several years observing and interacting with a number of spotted dolphins. “Although it would be hard to test or prove scientifically, I wondered if the dolphins would remember
me. If so how would I know?,” she asks. She continues, “What surprised me most, however, was how closely the older ones – and their young born during the two years I was away – approached me. A couple of dolphins even rubbed their flippers against my body!” Then she asks, “Had they remembered me?” She goers on to say that there is no way to prove this or even to ask a dolphin what they mean when they rub a human. We would at least like to know how she felt about it.

Regarding another intimate interaction with a dolphin, page 84 states, “…more than at any other time in my life I wish I had Dr. Doolittle’s ability to talk to the animals.” The hope is expressed that more behavioral observations might permit conversing with animals in some form. Why not ask the dolphin what a flipper rub means? As I asked Nicola to visit us. Why not at least try telepathy as has been done so successfully by Frank Robson and other dolphin trainers? Now that Sheldrake, a foremost theoretical scientist, has broken the taboo against telepathy, isn’t it time to consider the possibilities it presents for scientific research and communication with other species? If not, why not?

Toni observed a wild, friendly beluga whale in Nova Scotia that had been interacting with swimmers and boaters for several years. She entered the water with the intention of being an “objective” observer. She says that the less she solicited attention from the
beluga the more persistent it was trying to engage or interact with Toni. “After repeatedly rubbing her body along my hands, which I kept relaxed at my sides despite the temptation to stroke her she reoriented her body at the surface so  we were both floating, head to head. She pressed her bulbous melon into my forehead ever so gently and just held it there ever so motionless.”

Toni says that she did not understand the meaning of the beluga’s behavior, but it seemed clear that the beluga wanted to interact with her. She saw the same behavior with an other wild but friendly beluga with a diver, but has never found anyone who has witnessed the same behavior between belugas. .

Obviously the beluga wanted to interact with Toni and the diver she observed.  How do we know? Because it did! What if the belugas were attempting to communicate telepathically with both people? If they are skilled telepathic communicators as much evidence suggests for both dolphins and orcas then we might not expect them to do so head to head with one another. Perhaps the belugas was trying to communicate telepathically.

The authors ask why it is important to study communication in dolphins. Their answer is that increased public education about dolphin communication and behavior may contribute to greater protection of dolphins and their habitats. A noble concept certainly, but on the other hand a very high percentage of the population already believes that dolphins are intelligent and compassionate towards people, and I suspect that a fairly high percentage of those believe that interspecies communication with dolphins already has been achieved. Though it is difficult to measure the influence of these perceptions in terms of human action and effects dolphins are still being slaughtered and the condition of the seas worsens daily. Demonstrable interspecies communication, in “some form,” to use the book’s words, would likely have the greatest possible influence on conservation of dolphins and their world.

I cannot resist asking if research on dolphin communication might be important in terms of what we learn, not about them, but from them?

- Randall L. Eaton, Ph.D.
Table of Contents