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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Murder Most Fish

A recent New York Times story blasted dolphins right out of the water. "Evidence Puts Dolphins in New Light, as Killers," the headline read, with a zinger of a subhead: "Smiling Mammals Possess Unexplained Darker Side."

The story, which began on the front page of the paper's science section, jumped seven pages and continued under the subtly refined headline, "Evidence Reveals Dolphins in a New Light, as Senseless Killers." Nothing in the article was inaccurate—this was the New York Times, after all—and the evidence in question wasn't particularly new, but the intensity of its prosecutorial zeal was certainly novel.

There were three major allegations in the Times indictment. The First Count: Certain bottlenose dolphins often kill harbor porpoises, their smaller cousins, seemingly for fun.

(Some definitions here: The terms dolphin and porpoise were used interchangeably by scientists and the general public until the late 1970s, probably to avoid confusion with the cold-blooded dolphin fish, also called the mahimahi, a member of the mackerel family. These days, when scientists talk about "true dolphins" they are referring to the mammalian family Delphinidae, which contains 36 species, ranging from the five-foot-long Hector's dolphin to the majestic 30-foot-long male orca. True dolphins have curved dorsal fins and conical teeth, and are often beaked. Porpoises are of the family Phocoenidae: They are mostly smaller than true dolphins, are chubbier, have triangular dorsal fins, and generally lack beaks.)

It's true that dolphins and porpoises often occupy the same territory, with sometimes murderous results. Off the northeast coast of Scotland, bottlenose dolphins sometimes surround a group of harbor porpoises, single out an individual, and ram it repeatedly, using their beaks to toss the unfortunate creature in the air. The porpoises die of multiple injuries, including skeletal fractures and severe internal trauma. Scientists have observed similar interactions between bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoises off Virginia. The contest is manifestly unequal. Male bottlenose dolphins can reach a length of 13 feet and weigh more than 1,400 pounds, while harbor porpoises are among the smallest of the cetaceans, averaging about four feet, nine inches and 130 pounds.

Worse for the reputation of the bottlenose—our pals from the movie Day of the Dolphin and the television series Flipper—scientists don't believe the two species compete for the same food. It's not territorial, but apparently a form of deadly bullying play.

The Second Count (and more damning still): Observations in both Virginia and Scotland confirm that male bottlenose dolphins often kill newborn calves in the same way. Infanticide is a common reproductive strategy among mammals, especially in those species, such as bears, lions, and dolphins, in which females are not sexually receptive while rearing young. Female dolphins become sexually attractive to males within days after losing a calf.

The Third Count: Dolphins don't like humans that much and never have. In fact, people who have been in the water with wild dolphins have been bumped, rammed, bitten, and in at least one case even killed by dolphins. The permanent smile on the faces of some species of dolphin is purely anatomical, no more indicative of the animal's state of mind than are the tusks on an elephant. You moron.

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.")

Now the truth of the matter is, as the Times reported, that many people who have tried to swim with wild dolphins have been rammed and bitten. Well, some people have been bitten by gorillas, yet others sit in their midst unchallenged and unharmed. It is mostly a matter of etiquette, and the protocol is different for every animal. Dolphins, for instance, find a direct approach threatening—no surprise in a creature that uses head butts to drive off sharks, discipline unruly members of the group, and sometimes kill. Rule One: never, never, never approach a dolphin broadside and at a right angle. Let the dolphin approach you. Each encounter is taken at an oblique angle. Never chase. Don't touch.

Generally, when dolphins have had enough of you, they leave. There are, however, certain signals that suggest maybe you might want to get out of the water, right now. Just as you wouldn't approach a dog that is growling and baring its teeth, you want to avoid a dolphin that is clapping its jaws, or that continually approaches at a right angle, or that assumes a vertical S-shaped posture.

I have found, in my encounters with wild dolphins, that one or two members of the group approach first, in a kind of sweeping torpedo run. Reconnaissance, probably. Others follow, and they will swirl about, in slow oblique angles, inviting you to the dance. Now, I'm a former Big Ten swimmer—sprints and butterfly—but in the water with dolphins I am entirely too slow and have found that it is best for me to take the lead and let the dolphins follow. I swoop about in great loops, 20 and 30 feet in diameter, and the dolphins swim by my side, close enough to touch, and what I imagine I see in their round black eyes is a kind of gentle pity.

So why are there so many hostile encounters between wild dolphins and humans? The one reported death happened in Brazil, and the details are instructive. In March 1994, a bottlenose dolphin that the locals came to call Tiao began appearing on the beach near São Paulo. Tiao did not seem to be associated with any nearby group and was obviously attracted to humans. Such animals, often called ambassador dolphins, are rare. No one knows why they prefer to associate with humans rather than their own kind. But the attraction was mutual. According to the BBC's magazine Wildlife, "At times, Tiao would be surrounded by up to 30 people, climbing on his back, tying things to his flippers, sticking things into his blowhole, hitting him with sticks, even trying to drag him out of the water to be photographed with the family and kids on the beach." In December, after nine months of this, Tiao rammed one man to death and injured several others. It is said there was drunkenness involved, and that the man who was killed had been trying to shove a stick into the dolphin's blowhole. ("Killer Dolphin Slays High-Spirited Baton-Twirler.") These days, when Tiao visits the beachfront near São Paulo, people get out of the water and accord him the respect due both ambassadors and wild animals. ("Killer Dolphin Beats Murder Rap.")

In my film project, there is a sequence involving a formerly abused ambassador dolphin in the Caribbean. Jojo, a bottlenose dolphin, appeared one day near the beaches of the Turks and Caicos Islands. He seemed to be soliciting human companionship, but when people attempted to touch him or swim with him, Jojo became obstreperous. Some people were butted. There were injuries.

Something had to be done. While human swimmers were taught the essentials of dolphin etiquette, a dive instructor named Dean Bernal began swimming with Jojo every day in an effort to convince him that humans do have some manners. There have been no more human injuries, and Jojo has since been named a national treasure of the Turks and Caicos.

Still, all is not well. Speedboats, jet-skis, and other watercraft from beachfront resorts make swimming dangerous for both humans and dolphins. An eight-year-old girl was cut by a propeller, and Jojo has been hit eight times. Two of his deep propeller cuts were life-threatening. ("Human Merrymakers to Jojo: It's Payback Time, Tuna Breath.")

The sequences of Dean and Jojo swimming together are easily the most popular among test audiences who have seen a rough cut of the IMAX documentary. It really looks like two mammals at play: Dean blows an immense air bubble, which expands as it rises; Jojo follows it to the surface and then scoots back to Dean as if to say, "Do it again, do it again!" In another scene, Dean and Jojo are perfectly vertical in the water, with Dean pumping his arms back and forth, as if dancing, and Jojo mimicking Dean with his pectoral fins. It is as if each mammal is looking into some strange, shimmering mirror.

In the matter of the mirrored relationship between dolphin and man, a scientist and poet named Loren Eiseley contemplated a world in which humans lived the life of dolphins (in the manner of his day, he called them porpoises). "If man had sacrificed his hands for flukes, the moral might run, he would still be a philosopher, but there would have been taken from him the devastating power to wreak his thought upon the body of the world," Eiseley wrote in his 1972 book The Star Thrower. "Instead he would have lived and wandered, like the porpoise, homeless across currents and winds and oceans, intelligent, but forever the lonely and curious observer of unknown wreckage falling through the blue light of eternity.... It is worth at least a wistful thought that someday the porpoise may talk to us and we to him. It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even unto himself."

This long loneliness, it seems to me, is the foundation of all human science and philosophy. It is why we set up radio telescopes to scan the stars for evidence of life on other planets and why we want, so desperately, to communicate with the dolphin. We imagine that the dolphin is peaceful, loving, joyous, and wise, because these virtues are the sum of our yearning. But dolphins are neither wise nor cruel. Not in the human sense. They are wild and free, and the lesson we might learn from them cannot be encompassed in any presently known language. Given this, the desolation of our singular awareness, the most depressing headline I can conceive of might read, "Dolphins: Only Human, Fully Comprehendible."
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