I’ve always been fascinated by dolphins. In high school, I discovered the horrific dolphin slaughter that happened each year in Japan through the documentary The Cove, and dreamed of being Hayden Panettiere: dolphin activist. In college, when assigned an informational speech, I chose to highlight this species’ unique intelligence and to further shed light on the annual bloody dolphin slaughter in Taiji. Nonetheless, when I moved to Hawaii two and a half years ago, I never dreamed I would get to witness these creatures so intimately.
I’m not the only one to feel a deep love for dolphins. On the islands of Hawaii, some locals live their day to day lives swimming in the crystal-clear ocean waters, hoping for yet another dolphin encounter. A sea kayak guide in Kealakekua Bay expressed familiar daily interactions with the local dolphins, claiming that they recognize him by the color of his kayak day in and day out. Visitors to the islands are eager to see these creatures and pay big bucks for the chance of a dolphin encounter, and people flock to Sea World and aquariums to watch the mammal’s tricks and flips (this is an issue and topic of its own, as I agree with researchers and activists and condemn the captivity of these highly intelligent creatures). Even our armed forces celebrate dolphins as they were a part of our service for the previous five decades. (This was classified information up until the early 1990s. Now, dolphins are currently being phased out of the service due to activist efforts and more reliable robotic alternatives.)
So why do so many people find these animals so very special? As Susan Casey, author of Voices in the Ocean, puts it, “It’s not a what that you are swimming with, but a who.”
Watching these creature’s playful behaviors – much like those of our own – is awe-inspiring. On my most recent trip to the Big Island, I watched several dolphins take turns using their forward momentum to “catch” a leaf, passing it off to one another, playing a game among themselves. Dolphins perform acrobatics, leaping out of the water (in the wild, untrained), seemingly because of pure joy or emotions that we as humans can empathize with. Maybe it is the feeling that these animals are so, so similar to us that my infatuation with dolphins persists.
So why does it feel like you are swimming with a who rather than a what during these magical encounters? Maybe it’s because dolphins are one of the few species with the ability to recognize him or herself in the mirror. Researchers argue that this simple feat suggests the species’ ability to understand the idea of self. That dolphins operate in the same level of consciousness that we do is astounding.
In terms of the brain, dolphins have a big one. It is just as complex – and some scientists argue the possibility of it being more complex – than the human brain. Our neocortex, for example, is what allows us to reason, to use our senses, consciously think, and to socialize. While the human neocortex is thicker, the neocortex of a dolphin’s brain covers more surface area. Other research points to dolphins having high-level functions of judgment and intuition, much like that of our own.
While we know that dolphins are social animals – inferred by their pod-squad behavior – research points to the idea that dolphins have intense social networks and can identify relationships such as “my mother’s cousin’s husband’s friend.” The deep and intense level of empathy and interconnectedness exhibited by dolphins, sometimes illustrated by unexplainable group strandings, suggests that they may operate with a degree of interconnectedness even deeper than our own.
As it has been noted by researchers, comparing intelligence is a slippery slope. For example, dolphins may not be able to write things down, but we suck at sonar and echolocation. Nonetheless, there is no denying that these creatures are smart.
I am so grateful for the plentiful opportunities to swim with these beautiful creatures.
For anyone looking for a more in-depth understanding of the species’ history; a biological history as well as a history of dolphin activism and dolphin slaughters, check out the book Voices in the Ocean written by Susan Casey. These beautiful creatures are fascinating to learn about and I hope that they continue to thrive in the wild as they have for many millions of years.
Casey, Susan. (2015) Voices in the ocean. New York, New York: Penguin Random House.