“We know dolphins and other animals are communicating with us.”
A New Beginning for Dolphins
Part Three of “Dolphins and Us”
A New Beginning for Dolphins
Could Tilikum Also Be Set Free?
Making the Case
Is SeaWorld on the Ropes?
In the World Spotlight
SeaWorld Testifies before Congress
How You Can Help
Interviews & Reports
The Case for Dolphin Rights
When the Watchdog is Just a Guard Dog
Communion in the Wild
Toni Frohoff has worked with dolphins in captivity and with dolphins in the wild. She says there’s simply no comparison – in captivity, what you see most is just a lot of stress. Now she specializes in the behavior of marine mammals in the wild, on which she is one of the experts of our time. We talked with her about what she’s learned from dolphins she worked with.
Toni Frohoff in the ocean with a dolphin who’s bringing her something interesting to look at.
You’ve been involved in research programs with dolphins in the wild and also in captivity.
Toni Frohoff: I’ve never enjoyed studying dolphins in captivity because after seeing dolphins in their natural environment, it was like trying to study a dolphin in a goldfish bowl. It just seemed really unnatural.
Dolphins are somewhat unique among wild animals in that they will sometimes initiate social contact with humans. At times, especially in the early days, that put us in a quandary because the general protocol among researchers was to try to stay in the background and not interact. But in a sense, that’s like trying to be an anthropologist among different kinds of people. You may not speak the same language, but you can’t just pretend you’re not there and expect these other sentient, intelligent beings to act as if you’re not there.
So, rather than avoiding opportunities for close contact, it can actually be very helpful in learning both about and from dolphins when and how it is their choice – while also learning how to protect them. That’s the whole new concept of what we call interspecies collaborative research.
What’s the main difference between studying them in the wild and in captivity?
TF: In captivity, typically you see a lot of stress – everything from self-mutilation, hyper-aggression, stereotypic patterns of behavior that indicate a negative state of well-being. And so, since they’re so negatively impacted from a psychological perspective, captive dolphins just don’t make for good subjects if you’re trying to look at what’s normal for them.
Another thing in captivity is that the humans are the predominant feature. We’re the ones controlling the environment and dominating everything that happens. But when you do collaborative research with cetaceans in the wild, the humans are no longer the predominant feature. The dolphins share the stage in terms of who is important and if anything, are given more control than the researchers.
So while you can control certain things in captivity, you can’t control the numerous and well documented impacts of captivity itself on dolphins.
In the wild, however, dolphins and whales can be studied as they have evolved for millions of years to live; as exquisitely interactive with the elements of their vast and varied natural habitat. Also, when you are in proximity to them in the wild, in a truly collaborative and respectful manner, it’s minimally invasive. (I always say “minimally invasive”, simply because of the fact that we’re obviously there – in a boat or in the water.) But they have the opportunity to choose to participate in this research or even be near us.
Communication and communion
Some people would say they can have a lot of communication with dolphins who are in captivity.
TF: Unfortunately, more often than not, what I see is interspecies miscommunication. A classic example of that is when people see dolphins in captive swim programs, and the dolphins are trained to give them a “kiss.” Or even worse is when dolphins exhibit a behavior such as an abrupt type of splash that a more experienced person might see as a warning to the swimmer. We have video of a woman saying, “Look how cute he is; he wants to play.” And then the dolphin bites her, likely because she continues to approach the dolphin. We put these intelligent and sensitive animals into confinement and when they try to communicate with us, we just see what we want to see. And that is a serious and often tragic form of miscommunication.
Think, for example, how vilified Tilikum the orca was when he killed his trainer. The irony is that people don’t talk about how peaceful orca societies really are. They are top predators – some of the most physically potent and dangerous animals in the world – and yet they exhibit less violence in their societies than even bottle-nosed dolphins and most humans. And yet we call them “killer whales.”
If you really look at what we’ve subjected them to, they’ve been extraordinarily tolerant of people, especially given the extreme and chronic cruelty that we’ve inflicted on them.
Again, this is where this collaborative research is different. It’s really looking at who they are as individuals and not what they are. To me, the goal is interspecies “communion” even more than interspecies “communication” since the latter is obviously so fraught with human misinterpretations and expectations.
Explain what you mean by communion.
TF: When I say “communion,” it is clearly not in a theological sense, but about an efficient and respectful mode of communication where there is a true exchange of signals that flow between the individuals. It is communication at its best where humans listen respectfully and respond appropriately, which is something that we humans seem to be challenged with even in communication within members of our own species.
We know dolphins and other animals are communicating with us; so it’s really about how much are we willing to listen, to be tapped in to what they’re saying and not just interpreting it in ways that make it more politically or socially or psychologically expedient for us.
Is it true that different species of dolphins know each other’s dialects and languages?
TF: I’ve never studied this myself but it makes complete sense to me intuitively. It’s fascinating. We’ve seen how dolphins and whales can accommodate humans when they meet us in the ocean. So, that to do this with one another seems very reasonable.
What we’ve learned from meeting dolphins in the wild
How do you find individual dolphins in the wild when they’re such social animals?
TF: The solitary individuals we study the most are orcas and beluga whales who have been orphaned and don’t have access to their families, perhaps because of geographic isolation or mortalities. We also study individual bottlenose dolphins. They sometimes associate with other dolphins, but they’ll also choose to socialize with human swimmers, waders and boaters. They are all free-ranging animals who have initiated and engaged in prolonged and intimate interactions with humans, sometimes over weeks, months or even years.
The solitary belugas often treat the human community they associate with almost like a surrogate pod. There are more and more of these solitary belugas, incidentally, because they are from highly endangered populations.
In working with them, we put their well-being first and foremost. And the priority for the research is to learn how we can improve their well-being because their mortality rates are so high. They’re more stressed, most likely from not being with others of their species. But also by trusting humans, wild animals are almost always at increased risk, since we often are not a trustworthy species. Even if humans don’t hurt them intentionally, incidental injuries with boat propellers, for example, can be related to a leading source of mortality for these individuals.
What have you learned from your research with them?
TF: One of the take-home messages is that interspecies communication occurs all the time between humans and dolphins.
In the wild, we’re seeing more subtle aspects of their life. For example, one dolphin I had the chance to meet in Ireland created, in a sense, her own experiment. Somebody threw an orange into the water to see what she’d do, and she surprised us by pulling up an underwater camera that she’d stashed in a treasure trove of rocks. It turned out, she had all sorts of objects in various areas of her habitat – objects that she would pull out and offer to us or bring to us. We ended up opportunistically engaged in a collaborative and interactive “choice” of object experiment with this dolphin; one in which she seemed to be as interested in what we chose as we with her.
You mean she’d bring something out to see how you’re going to react?
TF: We have to be careful how we interpret her intentions. But dolphins are constantly surprising us with their innovative behaviors, whether it’s bringing us objects that they’ve found, or even sometimes bringing unsuspecting turtles over!
They’re giving us access to their lives and their natural societies. In the birthing lagoons in Baja, Mexico, some of the mother gray whales bring the calves over to interact with us and even initiate extended periods of touch.
Do you have a sense of what’s going on with all of this?
TF: It is so complex and fascinating. You’ve probably heard about rescue behavior in dolphins, and a lot of people tried to dismiss what appears to be the fact that dolphins will sometimes (I note sometimes!) attempt to rescue humans when they’re in distress. But two respected scientists, Ken Norris and Richard Connor, wrote a paper decades ago with evidence that supports the argument that these are true altruistic behaviors. I’ve seen dolphins come to the aid of a distressed swimmer myself.
Some people have said that the great whales just want to get a massage, so to speak, when they come up to the boats and initiate touch, sometimes receiving virtual massages from eager boaters. But there’s also eye contact involved …and complex variations of interspecies play. People will splash water onto the whales and the whales will splash water back. I can’t yet prove it, but I would venture to say that many cetacean individuals have a wonderful sense of humor.
I think a lot of what we’re seeing and documenting is a new concept in science, but it’s an old concept in terms of the human-animal bond. We have a lot to learn from other species. Not just about them, but from them.
Toni Frohoff, Ph.D. is a consultant, writer, and Director and Faculty Affiliate of TerraMar Research and Learning Institute. She specializes in the behavior of marine mammals, with an emphasis on psychology, communication, stress, and wellbeing of cetaceans in the context of human interaction and anthropogenic activities. She conducted the first studies of dolphins in captive swim programs and dolphins interacting with human swimmers in the wild. Near her home in Santa Barbara, Frohoff and her students are studying the behavioral ecology and psychology of coastal dolphins. She is the author of Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication and Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond. She lectures internationally, most recently at the TED Global 2010 conference in Oxford. Her work on wildlife psychology and wellbeing has contributed to the implementation and revision of legislation protecting marine animals in over a dozen countries.