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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Murder Most Fish

I received half a dozen copies of the times article by mail, fax, and e-mail from those friends who know that I have been working on an IMAX documentary about dolphins and collaborating on a companion book for National Geographic Books. The scientists among my correspondents—and there were many, all of them consultants on either the book or the movie project—found the article highly sensational and the headlines especially inflammatory. It isn't that we were unaware of the information in the Times piece or that any such material had been omitted from my book. To the contrary, it's all there, mostly in a single essay, written by Bernd Würsig, professor of marine mammalogy at Texas A&M University. The essay is titled "Reality Check."

This material is folded into a larger context, and our error, I now see, is that we supposed our audience would be composed of people who are aware that dolphins are wild animals and fierce predators. The Times piece supposed that its readers loved dolphins uncritically and was designed to shock the credulous. Like my scientific colleagues, I found the headlines incendiary—even irresponsible—but as a journalist they stuck like a burr in my brain. In fact, as I reviewed my notes, I was besieged by a mind-swarm of new and even more disgraceful headlines, many of which would not be suitable for the New York Times.

The article in question, for instance, didn't include information about gang rape among bottlenose dolphins, because, while certainly sensational and shocking, the news probably wasn't fit to print. In Monkey Mia, off Western Australia, some bottlenose dolphins herd females in estrus away from the group and subject them to repeated and apparently nonconsensual copulations. The males sometimes band together in what are called coalitions to fight off other bands of male dolphins, bent on the same rape themselves. ("Behind the Smile: Unspeakable Abuse.")

Additionally, dolphins do not mate for life, as is sometimes supposed. The male's contribution to rearing his progeny usually stops at conception. The paintings one sometimes sees of a happy dolphin family —Mom and Dad swimming proudly with a new infant—are not entirely accurate. The female's reproductive strategy is to mate often and apparently indiscriminately. Monogamy is seldom if ever practiced, and each of a female's offspring is likely to have been sired by a different male. In the documentary I'm working on, there is a brief and very typical mating scene. It consists of a few rapid pelvic thrusts and is over in a matter of seconds. Blink and you'll miss it. ("The Most Inconsiderate Mammal.") Nevertheless, dolphins are extremely sexual creatures. Before an orgy, however, they tend to eat like gluttons. For instance, off New Zealand, dusky dolphins often herd great schools of fish, drive them to the surface, which acts as a wall, and then swirl about them, concentrating the bait fish into a compact ball. The duskies take turns swooping through the terrified fish, snapping up several in a single pass. ("Dolphins Nip Marlins.") After such a meal, the duskies in their hundreds will leap acrobatically, sometimes dozens of times, as if in ecstatic celebration. ("Dolphins Fined for Poor Sportsmanship.") After-dinner socialization consists of flirtations, mock copulations, and repeated bouts of actual sex, often initiated by the females. ("Slutfish Confess: We Do It for the Halibut.")

Ok, ok. i admit to a certain mush-brained affection for dolphins, even a slight reverence. Stories of relationships between dolphins and humans are as old as the written word, and I am a sucker for them, the more sentimental the better.

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about a musician named Arion, a lyre player sailing home after a successful concert tour. The ship's crewmen, music critics all, apparently, tell Arion that they are going to take his money and toss him overboard. Arion is granted one dying wish and asks to sing a final song. His music summons friendly dolphins, and Arion steps over the side of the boat, whereupon he's carried ashore on the back of one of the big cetaceans. ("Dolphins Steal One From Mariners.")

In the first century a.d., the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote of a boy who rode a dolphin to school every day across the Bay of Naples. One day, tragically, the boy died. A few weeks later, the dolphin washed up on shore—dead, one is given to understand, of a broken heart. ("Boy, Dolphin in Bizarre Suicide Pact.")

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