EXCERPT: 'Dolphin Diaries,' a Groundbreaking Glimpse Into How Dolphins Communicate and Live

PHOTO: Shown here is "In Dolphin Diaries: My Twenty-Five Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas" book cover.PlayCourtesy Dr. Denise Herzing
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Dr. Denise Herzing has spent the past 25 years of her life immersed under the sea, immersed with a pod of wild spotted dolphins just off the coast of the Bahamas, to be precise. In those 25 years, Herzing has become like a member of the pod herself, forging strong ties with three generations of the playful animals that amuse us with their above-water tricks, engage us with their desire for human touch and intrigue us with their intelligence.

Her new book, "Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas," is like taking a voyage into an underwater aquarium with Herzing as the guide. The author, scientist and founder of the Wild Dolphin Project gives readers a firsthand account of her research and the intimate moments she witnessed and recorded her fellow pod-mates feeding, playing, fighting, mating, giving birth and struggling with environmental changes.

Most intriguingly, "Dolphin Diaries" also provides a glimpse into the dolphins' intricate language, the vocalizations, rhythmic posturing and signature whistles that captivate even onlookers far away on shore. Herzing's groundbreaking research, still underway in the Bahamas, includes interacting with the dolphins through an underwater keyboard for two-way communication, all in an effort to close the communication gap between humans and other species

"The deciphering of a nonhuman species language could be one of our greatest feats," Herzing writes. "It may yet be our best training ground for exploring the cosmos for other life, for if we can't understand and interact with life on this planet then there is no hope for our exploration of the galaxy."

Read an excerpt from "Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas" below, then check out other books in the "GMA" library.


In wildness is the preservation of the world. —Henry David Thoreau, Walking, 1862

I have been privileged to work with some of the most intelligent animals on the planet— dolphins. More than two de cades ago I came to this remote location in the northern Bahamas with hopes of finding a long- term research site to observe dolphins underwater and eventually attempt interspecies communication with a wild pod of dolphins. As a behavioral and marine biologist, I have observed three generations of dolphin families. This book is about that resident community of Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis. I have resided in their world for the last twenty- fi ve summers, tracking the lives, deaths, and births of more than two hundred individual spotted dolphins and two hundred bottlenose dolphins, watching them grow up, have fi ghts, develop friendships, and take on the responsibilities within their wild dolphin society.

My work is divided into three time frames based on my own pro cess of understanding and observations. Th e early years, from 1985 to 1991, I spent fi guring out how to observe and interact with the dolphins underwater. I discovered that through a patient, perseverant, and respectful pro cess the dolphins allowed extensive observation of their behavior and social interaction. Th ey let us into their lives and we became privileged observers of their courtship, mating, and childhood play for two de cades. Th ings took their own pace, drifting slowly into the knowledge of another species through observation, interaction, and exploration of their world. Within my work was always an awareness of the dichotomy between leaving wild dolphins alone and interacting with them, a balance I tried to strike while exploring this unique opportunity. During the middle years, from 1992 to 1996, the dolphins showed us extraordinary behavior and patterns. I began to see complex underwater behavior on a regular basis and to understand the pro cesses by which the dolphins developed these behaviors. In opposition to the fully actuated, adult, ritualized, and predictable behaviors were the "developing juvenile behavior," which contained similar, but uncoordinated body movements and vocalizations, not yet ritualized but varied with intensities of movements and sounds.

During the later years, from 1997 to 2008, I watched many individual dolphins grow up and produce a third generation. Observing and interacting with many of the now grandmothers and elder males of the society was like growing up with an aquatic family. I initiated some advanced projects with high- frequency sound recording equipment, ge netics, and cognitive studies, including social learning and teaching. In 1997 I also initiated my Phase II work, developing an underwater keyboard and interactive protocol for two- way communication between humans and dolphins, which led us through four fascinating years of interspecies communication experiments. Th en, in 2004 and 2005, the dolphin community was ripped apart and reshuffl ed from the impacts of Hurricanes Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma.

It is my goal to illuminate the lives of these individual dolphins to you through their triumphs, their failures, their development, and interaction with their environment. Th ese stories will, of course, be through my eyes, which, although trained, will still be limited to a human perspective. Yet we need to bear witness to the truths of the natural world as best as we can. Th e impact and passage of time only deepens and enriches the trust and quality of sharing during repeated encounters with the dolphins, a pro cess that anthropologists know well. Of course we directly and inadvertently aff ect the pro cess of our own research. In my case I was in the water, observing intimate details of the dolphins' life, and interacting with these individuals as another species. I describe the pro cess of establishing my research project, getting to know the dolphins, their personalities, and their patterns of behavior. I have tried to share my thoughts and feelings as well as my own triumphs and failures since they were vital learning experiences.

Now their community has shifted and changed, and although it may once again reach some equilibrium after nature's fury, it will undoubtedly be diff erent. How would we know how life has changed without those observations from the last two de cades? We simply would not. Th is is the real value of long- term research.

Dolphins are like icebergs— what you see on the surface is only a small part of the activity underneath. Th ere are stories of the individual dolphins that make up this group. Th ere are stories of their families and their encounters with sharks. Th ere are stories of my encounters with sharks. Th ere are stories of fi rst arriving in the Bahamas and the years it took to win the dolphins' trust. Th ere are stories of data gathering, storm chasing, and people dynamics. Th ere are also stories of juvenile dolphins that grew up in front of my eyes. Some had calves of their own and went on to become productive members of their society. Others struggled and died in the wild. Over the years we documented their range, their movement, and the habitats in which the dolphins spend time. I have seen dolphins hunting on the shallow sandbanks during the day and off the deep edge of the sandbank where fi sh and squid amass at night. I have watched the fascinating and complex relationship between the spotted dolphins and resident bottlenose dolphins, which entails foraging, aggression, and interspecies babysitting.

Dolphins live in a complex society with friends and relatives: they eat and hunt, raise young, share responsibilities, avoid predators, and resolve confl icts. Th ey also live in a sensory world we can only imagine, full of diff erent sounds, sights, and tastes, and a world we may never entirely understand. What we can share with dolphins is their family lives, their daily challenges, and their fierce devotion to their off spring and community. It is here where the boundaries between humans and dolphins intersect and it is here where we must look for hope in their cultural preservation, as we hope for our own.

I use the technique of "anthropomorphizing" to describe what the dolphins do in the wild and the closest human analogies possible. In this book I tell the stories and share observations of my dolphin work that are diffi cult to include in scientific papers.* In some instances I have used the tool of anthropomorphizing and ascribing emotions to the dolphins, as justifi ed in Charles Darwin's Emotions of Animals and Marc Bekoff 's recent book Th e Emotional Lives of Animals. Both make the argument for emotional continuity in other species and its scientifi c support. As Donald Griffi n said in Th e Question of Animal Awareness, a groundbreaking book from the 1990s, "anthropomorphizing is a tool for us to think about what might be going on."

I also discuss my thoughts about dolphins in captivity and the ethics of the dolphin trade. As Al Gore labeled his fi lm about climate change An Incon ve nient Truth, captive dolphin issues are also somewhat of an incon ve nient truth. It is incon ve nient because it challenges both the human assumption of uniqueness and the lucrative fi nancial business of capturing wild dolphins for swim programs and human- assisted therapy. I know of very few dolphin- loving humans who would condone these programs if they knew that their child was swimming with one of its victims. If I could, I would apologize to the dolphins for this behavior by representatives of the human race.

Humans have the most complex brains on the planet, and even beyond the great apes are dolphins, with the second- most evolved brain. Yet dolphins have no hands to manipulate objects or build things; the qualities we often subscribe to advanced intelligence. Can we put our imagination and creativity, our best science and technical advances into action to understand another species? Th is would be a diff erent challenge than we've ever undertaken before, perhaps not all technical but empathic, scientifi c but participatory, and interactive instead of invasive.

The goal of Phase II, interspecies communication, was to attempt to close the gap, to build a bridge of understanding. Like a migratory species I returned every summer to the shallow sandbank of the Bahamas, as I have for the past twenty- fi ve years, still asking that big question: What are they doing with all that complex brainpower in the vast ocean?

What my work in the fi eld has taught me is that dolphins are intelligent beings with complex lives, relationships, and communication. In the wild we have a chance to observe how their cognitive and communicative skills are put to use in the survival game of the real world. It is the closest we can get to living in an alien culture and to gain insight in the pro cess of engaging another species. I am grateful for eager young graduate students who will carry the torch a while longer. Even then we will have only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg.

It is with great plea sure that I now take you under the water with me, although you'll be able to stay dry and free of jellyfi sh stings and salty hair. Or maybe you won't. Perhaps you'll feel the force of the winds as they kick up the gin- clear seas. Possibly you'll imagine what it must feel like to have an annoying little remora sliding around your body or a large shark follow you back to the boat. It's up to you. Let me take you there to the Bahamas and underwater with the incredible community of wild dolphins I have known for twenty- fi ve years. It would be my privilege.

* For technical and scientific papers see www.wilddolphinproject.org library or the selected reading list at the end of the book. Also, http://home.earthlink.net/~dolphindiaries.