This week brought a remarkable and delightful report from a group of scientists who have been studying whales and dolphins in the ocean around Hawaii. Off the coast of two different islands, Maui and Kauai, they saw whales and dolphins playing together. Specifically, in both places, a humpback whale lifting her head out of the water with a dolphin resting on her rostrum – her nose.
They watched as the dolphins “rode” the heads of whales: the humpbacks lifting the dolphins out of the water, and then the dolphins sliding back in. No sign of any aggression or distress; it was obviously play. Whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters often interact, but to see playful social activity such as this between species is extremely rare. These photos are the first recorded examples of anything quite like it.
(And, in case you’re wondering, the two incidents, off two separate islands were definitely not the same whale and dolphin, since the dolphins had different markings.)
In both cases, the dolphin was seen lying across the whale’s rostrum as she surfaced, and was clearly cooperating, making no effort to get away. When the whale was nearly vertical, with her eye just breaking the water surface, the dolphin would slide down the dorsal side of the rostrum while swinging her flukes upward.
And then they both did the same thing again.
The scientists have written at lengthabout whether this is straightforward play or whether something else is going on. They note that female humpbacks have a maternal instinct to nudge their babies and lift them gently out of the water as they go. So this maternal instinct may be leading them to do the same thing with a dolphin. But this doesn’t change the fact that it’s play – a fun thing to do, just like when you pick up your cat and waltz her around the room in your arms like you might do with a baby.
But the thing that took my attention the most was that if these scientists saw this twice, and around different islands, how many other times is it likely to be going on? Quite probably hundreds of times. And what does that tell us?
A few years ago, off the coast of Australia, an injured dolphin, who was taken to a theme park for veterinary treatment, spent some time watching other dolphins in the next pool along who were learning a particular trick from their trainers. It’s called tail-walking – the dolphin comes out of the water vertically and skips along the surface on her tail.
This particular dolphin must have thought it was quite a cool trick, because when she was returned to the wild, she proceeded to teach it to her friends and family. Scientists photographed her showing her pals the art of tail-walking, and they all started doing it together.
That’s what scientists call culture – behavior that we learn from each other, that becomes part of our lifestyle, and that we pass on to future generations. Dolphins and whales have extensive and sophisticated cultures. As well as learning new ways of catching food, they learn new kinds of songs, new games, all sorts of things, and they pass them along to other groups when they meet up for their version of a big conference.
So, back to the dolphins and humpbacks who look like they have been practicing a new game. The scientists saw it twice, which suggests that it could be happening all around the Hawaiian islands. Is this a whole new element of interspecies culture? Are humpbacks telling their friends and families about the great new game they’re playing with dolphins, and dolphins doing the same with their friends and families? How do they describe it to each other, so that another dolphin knows what to do when he or she meets up with a humpback? What does it tell us about their language, how they communicate, how they signal each other that they’re ready for a game – like a dog does a play bow to another dog or cat or human to signal that “I’m not really attacking you, it’s just a game.”
And do they tell each other about the kinds of games they play with humans? Like when they catch up with boats and ride the bow wave, or swim around with divers.
It’s a fascinating discovery, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it as time goes on.