Denise's work is exciting because none of the dolphin studies have been truly two-way. She's working to achieve a back-and-forth.
Stretching north and east from Grand Bahama Island, the Little Bahama Bank is a vast, crescent-shaped undersea plateau of sugar-white sand, patchy sea grass, and isolated coral reefs, layered under a shallow veneer of translucent water. It sits just 60 miles east of West Palm Beach, across the Gulf Stream. Yet, despite its proximity to the condo sprawl of Florida, it is another world, a wild seascape of endlessly changing water and light, fast-moving thunderstorms, and teeming bird and sea life.
My first contact with its alien underwater culture involved a snorkel, a mask, and fins. I dropped into the 83-degree sea, and on the periphery of my vision six sleek shapes wheeled and turned, gliding with perfect ease. Three were larger and mottled with spots. The others were colored a smooth, gunmetal gray. One broke formation and arrowed my way, scanning me with a sophisticated sensor system. I heard a high-pitched buzz that sounded like a zipper being ripped open and could feel a light vibration in my chest. As the creature shot past, it rolled slightly to make direct and steady eye contact.
The scientific name for the species is Stenella frontalis. The more common name is the Atlantic spotted dolphin. There are a group of about a hundred of them living near the western edge of the Little Bahama Bank, and for the past 28 years Denise Herzing, a marine-mammal biologist in her mid-fifties, has devoted her life to learning about them and their culture. Since 1985, she has spent close to 100 days every summer here, enduring baking sun and nosy sharks so she can observe their wild society. At this point, she recognizes about 60 of the dolphins by sight. (The others she identifies using her photo catalog.)
Over the years, Herzing has had close to 2,500 encounters with these dolphins and spent some 1,500 hours in the water with them, accumulating research for the Wild Dolphin Project, a non-profit in Jupiter, Florida, that she founded in 1985. She has an extensive video and sound library of the clicks and whistles the dolphins use to communicate. She has also learned intimate details about their complex world—how males form tight coalitions and cruise the waters like scrappy gangs; how young females babysit calves to prepare for motherhood; how everyone seems to have sex (or at least play at sex) with everyone. “It’s really interesting to see what’s going on in the mind of another species,” says Herzing, who is an affiliate assistant professor in the biological sciences department at Florida Atlantic University and has written or collaborated on some 30 scientific papers about the dolphins. “They have the potential to show you their world in real time.”
Now Herzing plans to take her relationship with the spotted dolphins to an ambitious new level. She is refining a set of portable underwater communication devices that can recognize and generate dolphinlike whistles, and she plans to use them to establish two-way communication. She’ll start by exposing the dolphins to a few of the whistles, using pattern-recognition software to tell her, via earphones she’ll wear underwater, if they use them to whistle back. Herzing hopes that once the dolphins, who are skilled mimics, get the idea, they can build a communication system together. “Maybe it will lead to an extensive artificial language,” Herzing says. “But the real breakthrough would be if the dolphins introduce their own vocalizations and whistles.”
It’s a radical goal. Herzing the scientist is trying to achieve something that has never been done before: two-way communication with a wild species. Herzing the person has a more existential aim: to open up an entirely different view of the planet and its creatures that is not so monumentally human-centric. “I think it could be our salvation,” she says. “Because if we don’t start including other creatures in the formula, there is not going to be a planet.”
To launch this grand experiment, we will spend 10 days at the Little Bahama Bank on the Stenella, the 62-foot power catamaran Herzing uses as her oceangoing research base. Herzing has two experienced dolphin researchers, two graduate students, and two computer techs on board to help her. A captain, a mate, and a cook keep the boat running smoothly so she can focus on her work. Inside, there’s a well-stocked galley, 12 bunks, a large lounge area to review video footage and log dolphin data, and generators to power the electronic gear and air conditioner.
We’ve dropped anchor in 14 feet of water. No dry land is visible. We are alone—save for the occasional passing boat—in a vast ocean wilderness, rocked gently by a building swell.