Talk to Me

Dolphins communicate with each other, but can they communicate with us? Marine biologist Denise Herzing is drawing on decades of research, a vast digital library of whistles and clicks, and new computer wizardry designed to bridge the species gap. Tim Zimmermann goes deep with one of history's grandest experiments.

Group of Atlantic spotted dolphins.     Photo: Sheilapic76/Flickr

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.

HUMANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN fascinated by the idea of communicating with other species, and the past 40 years have seen some impressive breakthroughs. Koko, a gorilla born in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, learned American Sign Language and knows more than 1,000 signs. Kanzi, a bonobo chimpanzee at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, mastered a keyboard with more than 300 lexigrams and can understand some 3,000 words of spoken English. Alex, an African Grey parrot that lived from 1976 to 2007, could vocalize about 100 English words and count to six.

Harder to grasp is the idea that dolphins, non-primates that live in water and have been on a separate evolutionary track from humans for 95 million years, might be capable of two-way communication. Humans and their more evolved primate cousins, it was long assumed, were unique in possessing the necessary intelligence for sophisticated communication. But the two other dolphin cognition experts aboard the Stenella—Adam Pack, 49, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii, and Matthias Hoffmann-Kuhnt, 47, an acoustics specialist living in Singapore—know more than most about how wrong that assumption was. They met at the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory, founded by Louis Herman, a psychology professor and former Air Force intelligence officer. From the 1970s through the 1990s, Herman masterminded a series of experiments with his bottlenose dolphins, which lived in two interconnected saltwater pools near the beach in Honolulu and demonstrated startling language and cognitive skills. Herman’s dolphins learned the meaning of more than 30 signals, including nouns and verbs. They also mastered syntax and grammar rules. If a trainer signaled “person, surfboard, fetch,” the dolphins would bring the surfboard in the tank over to the person. But if the trainer changed the order of the words and signaled “surfboard, person, fetch,” the dolphins knew to bring the person to the surfboard.

The Kewalo dolphins were also able to grasp abstractions. They understood the difference between left and right, could comprehend the existence of an object even if it wasn’t present, and correctly responded to a trainer shown on a television screen, understanding that it was a representation of the real world.

Then, a decade ago, another extraordinary fact of dolphin intelligence was established. For centuries, humanity basked in the egocentric belief that humans alone were self-aware. In the 1970s, however, Gordon Gallup, Jr., a researcher at Tulane University in New Orleans, used a mirror to show that chimpanzees are also self-aware and can recognize that the image they see is not another animal but themselves. In the 1990s, Diana Reiss, now a professor of psychology at New York City’s Hunter College, in collaboration with Lori Marino, a doctoral student in Gallup’s lab, started using the mirror test on dolphins. By the way the animals acted, they, too, demonstrated that they were seeing themselves. To corroborate, Reiss used a non-toxic black marker to mark the dolphins: when one swam past the mirror for the first time with a mark on its head, Reiss says, it did a “classic double take” and immediately returned for a look. A human child starts to react to a mirror in the same way around age two.

Published in 2001, it was a breakthrough study, and dolphins became the first non-primate species to show evidence of self-awareness. The work affected Marino deeply. “Despite being so different in terms of how their brains are organized, and where they live and what they look like, dolphins show a surprising degree of similarity to humans in terms of the kind of self-awareness they have,” says Marino, now a senior lecturer in the neuroscience and behavioral biology program at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Marino, who has worked with Herzing, concluded that it wasn’t ethical to keep and study such an intelligent creature in captivity and switched to using MRI and other imaging technology to analyze the size and structure of brains from dolphins that have died of natural causes. One of the simplest ways to get a sense of brain potential is the encephalization quotient, which compares real brain mass with the brain mass expected for a given body size. An EQ of 1, for example, means the brain mass is what you would expect for the body housing it. Humans have the highest measured EQ on the planet, at 7, meaning our brains are seven times larger than our body size would predict. Chimpanzees, our closest relatives, come in with an EQ of 2.3. Marino’s calculations on dolphins showed that bottlenose dolphins have an EQ of 4.2, and dolphins on average have a higher EQ than primates. In short, Marino showed that dolphins are second only to humans when it comes to brain complexity.

Herzing, who has worked with dolphin researchers from all over the world, is respectful of captive research. But diving into the dolphins’ world is her preferred way to learn about them. (Most captive research has involved bottlenose dolphins; Herzing works with spotteds because they happen to be the dolphins she has the fullest access to in the wild.) “A captive dolphin can tell you things about its cognition,” says Pack, who also studies humpback whales. “But a wild dolphin can teach you things about its culture. And to have a dolphin assist you in understanding what other dolphins are doing is an area that we haven’t ever gotten into.”

Herzing has named each spotted dolphin at the Little Bahama Bank, using monikers like Little Gash, Linus, and Pointless (for a dolphin that lost its dorsal tip, likely to a shark). When they race in to ride the bow wave of the Stenella, she enthusiastically greets them with a wave and a whistle, grinning as they roll onto their sides to look up at her. One afternoon we watch underwater as Deni, a young female, tries to teach Cobalt, a new calf she is babysitting, how to fish. Deni uses her beak to show Cobalt how to dig a garden eel out of the sand, and then she deftly helps keep the eel in front of Cobalt as he learns to track its frantic course. Suddenly, Bijyo, a juvenile female, glides in and gulps down the eel, bringing the lesson to an abrupt and unscheduled end. Deni appears outraged, as if Bijyo has committed a serious offense against the sanctity of babysitting. She goes after Bijyo, opening her mouth in an aggressive show, and the two start twisting and turning in the water.

Herzing, Pack, and others believe that such structured social patterns may help explain the dolphin brain. “It’s sometimes called the Machiavelli hypothesis, and it is that individuals who live in complex social groups require complex cognition,” says Stan Kuczaj, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, who has been out on the Stenella with Herzing. “To thrive, you have to understand what the social rules are—when you have to obey them and when you can get away with not obeying them—and who the players are.”

The desire to better understand the dolphin brain led to efforts to communicate with the animals. Starting in the 1980s, Reiss and a few others, including Kuczaj, introduced keyboards and artificial sounds into their research. (In the late 1990s, Herzing, with Pack’s help, also attempted to use a whistling keyboard at the Little Bahama Bank, but it proved too clunky.) The captive research showed that dolphins could mimic and understand artificial whistles and would perhaps even use them on their own.

Herzing wants to build on that work by exposing wild dolphins to artificial whistles and associating those whistles with specific toys, in the hope that the animals start using the whistles to request the toys. The holy grail would be if, over the years, the whistle vocabulary developed to a point where the “conversation” might include social needs and insights into the dolphin world, with the spotteds perhaps communicating about things like predators, family, or sex.

“Why Denise’s work is exciting is that none of the dolphin studies have been truly two-way,” says Heidi Lyn, also a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, who has worked with both Kanzi the bonobo chimp and the Kewalo dolphins. “The humans could request or the dolphins could request, but Denise is working to achieve a back-and-forth. And if the dolphins introduce their own whistles, that would be amazing.”

ON OUR FIRST AFTERNOON at the Little Bahama Bank, the Stenella is swinging to her anchor under a humid sky. Herzing, wearing a bathing suit, visor, and dark glasses, is on the back deck, preparing to test the communication equipment in the water. Everyone has to be ready to don snorkeling gear and jump in anytime a dolphin appears. (Herzing doesn’t scuba-dive, because the bubbles distract the dolphins and the apparatus is too bulky for a fast gear-up.) “It’s kind of like being a fireman,” Herzing told the group during a briefing the first night. “You sit around a lot, and then there’s a sudden rush.”

To build the underwater communication devices, Herzing partnered with the Wearable Computing Lab at Georgia Tech, which I visited with her last April. There’s no shortage of futurism there: when you step out of the elevator, two eyeballs stare at you from a screen and track you as you walk away. The lab is run by Thad Starner, a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT who, together with a former student, developed a superfast pattern-recognition algorithm. “To really prove the value of the algorithm, we hope to use it to help Denise learn something new about dolphin vocalization,” Starner says.

Starner and his team have dubbed the communication devices CHAT boxes, for Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry. Two of Starner’s whiz kids—Stewart Butler, a beefy, 23-year-old computer-science major, and Daniel Kohlsdorf, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student, both of whom are on the Stenella—have spearheaded work on a prototype for months. Each unit consists of a milled aluminum box, about the size of a laptop, that contains a cell-phone processor and is loaded with pattern-recognition software written by Kohlsdorf. Wired to the box are an underwater speaker, two hydrophones, and a keypad. Buttons on the keypad allow a user to emit artificial whistles at frequencies within both human-hearing and dolphin-vocalization range—which extends at least 10 times beyond a human’s. For the initial work, Herzing has matched specific whistles to toys she knows the dolphins like: a rope, a scarf, and sargassum, a common local seaweed dolphins often play with.

The whistles should be easy for the dolphins to mimic, though hoping they’ll confine their responses to the limited human range is sort of like asking them to speak very low and slow, the way a person might when trying to communicate with a foreigner. The hydrophones serve as underwater “ears,” and the pattern-recognition software has been programmed to identify the defined whistles—and to allow for some variation in frequency and modulation for a potential dolphin “accent.” Whenever the box detects a designated whistle amid all the other chatter that often accompanies dolphin encounters, it will convert it into the assigned English word and pipe it into the snorkeler’s ear via the underwater earpiece. Starner’s team is also working to embed an LED system into a specialized mask, programming it to indicate where a whistle is coming from, to give Herzing a better sense of which dolphin is vocalizing. “The real-time communication is key,” says Herzing, a dynamic and direct woman who loves to laugh and has short, sunbleached hair. “Imagine trying to have a conversation where you go away to figure out what was said and come back 24 hours later and try to pick it up again.”

Herzing is joined on the aft deck by Adam Pack. Butler and Kohlsdorf bring out the equipment, which is far from streamlined at this stage, giving the whole exercise a garage-invention feel. Herzing and Pack don yellow vests that have Velcro straps to snug the CHAT boxes against their chests. Once the boxes are secure, the keypads are strapped to their forearms. “First ve deploy zee Denise, zen ve deploy zee Adam,” declares Hoffmann-Kuhnt in an exaggerated German accent. This is his first time out on the Little Bahama Bank. His lab in Singapore builds all sorts of underwater gear, and he’s an improvisational whiz. Later he’ll layer cut-up pieces of a Mini Wheats cereal box to the interior of the CHAT devices to absorb any leaks.

Herzing’s strategy is to engage the dolphins by having two swimmers in the water play a game with one of the toys while using the CHAT boxes to whistle the sound for that toy. Dolphins, like children, are very good at learning by observing and then joining in. “If they really get it, I think they’ll go down to the bottom and grab something like a sea cucumber and bring it to us with a whistle,” Herzing says. “The intention is to convey that we want to interact and that we have the tools.”

Herzing and Pack press the buttons on their keypads and a series of distinctive trills cut through the still air. Then they put on their masks and snorkels and stagger to the swim platform as the Stenella rolls. “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli,” Pack jokes, channeling Seinfeld. He and Herzing trundle off the swim platform at the back of the boat, splashing into the water. Within seconds, both pull their heads out and shake them. As soon as the boxes were immersed in the sea, they quit. “That’s why they put the re in research,” Pack quips as he clambers back aboard.

Butler and Kohlsdorf gather up the boxes and take them into the makeshift workshop they’ve set up in the Stenella’s main lounge, which is quickly being overrun with spare parts and tools. The battle of Georgia Tech versus the ocean, otherwise known as prototype development, commences. Herzing is patient. “It’s counterintuitive to put a computer in salt water,” she says.

THREE DAYS LATER, AFTER a night in West End to escape rough weather and conduct a troubleshooting conference call with Georgia Tech, we’re back on the bank. Suddenly, Captain Pete Roberts shouts “Dolphins!” from the bridge. He toggles an alarm and stomps on the floor to alert everyone on the boat. Dark shapes are moving through the water to take up station in the pressure wave pushed up by the bows. It’s a free ride, and the dolphins love hanging there, adjusting their position with almost invisible movements of flukes and fins. Jessica Cusick and Bethany Augliere, graduate students at Florida Atlantic, who have been working with Herzing on the Wild Dolphin Project for three years, immediately start calling out names and taking photos. (Herzing updates her ID catalog every year as the dolphins grow and their spotting patterns change.) Once they have what they need, Herzing decides whether the conditions are right for a jump.

Butler and Kohlsdorf are still battling the boxes, pulling all-nighters and working their way through a fifth of Eagle Rare bourbon. They are being utterly confounded by small leaks, the capacitive oddities of salt water, and the gremlins that pop up when you field-test software for the first time. They adjust the code, tweak the hardware, the ground wiring, and the waterproofing, reassemble the boxes, and then dunk them into a large plastic vat of fresh water on the back deck to rinse them. Sometimes the boxes work, but usually not for long.

“What the fuck?” becomes the most common technical question on the Stenella. Kohlsdorf, who was adopted from Korea by German parents and recruited by Starner from the University of Bremen for his coding skills, is also smoking his way through most of a pack of Camels each day. He has long, shaggy black hair and a sense of fatalism that serves him well. “That’s how it goes,” he likes to say. But his T-shirt subtly contradicts his poise. It’s black, and across the chest is a phrase in German. The translation: “It’s also shitty somewhere else.”

Herzing calls for a jump. She and Pack will take a scarf to practice the game that they’ll model for the dolphins once the CHAT boxes are operational. Herzing’s two-way strategy relies on the animals’ love of play. She has to get them thinking, Hey, I want to get in on that game, and they have to understand that the way to do it is to mimic the whistle for scarf or whatever the play object is. “As with kids, there is a lot of stuff that goes on before you achieve recognition,” Pack explains. “They have to see that the system is fun, that it is functional, and that they can use it to ask for things. So it’s a process.”

We all slide into the water. A small group of spotteds is milling around nearby. Herzing swims out, a red scarf visible in her hand, with Pack trailing. I can see the dolphins take note of her. She drops the scarf and points at it. Bijyo, the garden-eel poacher, swims by and plucks the scarf out of the water column, with two others trailing her. She drops the scarf in front of Pack, who points at it, and Bijyo grabs it again. Bijyo seems to enjoy being the center of attention. The scarf drops from her mouth, and I think she’s lost it—but then it catches on her pectoral fin, fluttering there as she cruises around.

Lucky, I think. But then I see the scarf slide off her pec, only to be picked up by her tail fluke. Luck has nothing to do with it, I realize. Bijyo, with impressively casual dexterity and awareness, has passed the scarf down her body. She finally drops it on the white sand. Then another spotted swoops in and with equal precision picks it up using a tail fluke. Other dolphins show up, until there are more than a dozen swirling around. The scarf game stops only when one of them eventually swims off with it.

It’s easy to see how the CHAT boxes will add an intriguing dimension to the proceedings. “Most social beings learn about each other through interaction,” Herzing says later, when we review the session on video. Pack adds, “You model the behavior for the player, but the others are watching. It’s like a classroom, but there is so much else going on, you can see how challenging it is. In the marine pool, you know they will be there at eight in the morning. Out here you have to hope you find them and, if you do, that the same players will turn up.”

IN THE IMMENSITY AND isolation of the Little Bahama Bank, you have to pause to figure out what day it is. Most of the time, the Stenella zigzags across the water, checking in on all of Herzing and Captain Pete’s favorite spots. Roberts has been working with Herzing for 12 years, and he knows this area like his own backyard. It’s never long before he finds dolphins and we’re in the water. When the sun goes down, margaritas and beers come out and the grill gets fired up. Any new dolphin data or interactions are logged in exquisite detail, and video is reviewed. When there is time to relax, the talk often turns to the science of dolphin cognition.

The idea that dolphins are the humans of the sea (which is what the Maori called them), and that there is a special connection between humans and dolphins, has existed for centuries. Herzing herself once watched Jumper, a female, break off what she was doing to escort an exhausted swimmer back to the boat. Another time, the dolphins were behaving strangely and would not approach the Stenella. The crew on board soon discovered that one of the passengers had died quietly in his cabin, from a heart attack. As the Stenella motored toward West End, the dolphins swam for a ways in escort, about 100 yards out on either side.

In the 1960s, John C. Lilly, a freethinking neuroscientist and friend of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, took the idea of a unique and potentially transformative bond between humans and dolphins to an extreme. Lilly, captivated by the intelligence and gentle nature of dolphins, believed that one of them could learn to speak English. He bought a house on St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, partially flooded it with seawater, and got his assistant, Margaret Howe, to live in the house with a bottlenose called Peter. Peter was incapable of producing the consonants and other sounds needed for English, but he did display an ability to closely mimic the patterns of Howe’s speech. The experiment, unsurprisingly, deteriorated along with the hygienic conditions and Howe’s tolerance for living alone with a dolphin. Lilly’s extreme methods—he also tried giving dolphins LSD—have colored efforts to communicate with the animals ever since.

“He was a visionary, ahead of his time,” Herzing says of Lilly as we cool off one afternoon in the air-conditioned lounge. “But he really lost the scientific process and decided to go off and explore his own mind with drugs. It has held two-way work with dolphins back for two decades, because people have been scared to death to be called another Lilly.”

Nonetheless, the idea of a deep connection with dolphins has motivated Herzing’s work from the start. She grew up in landlocked Minnesota and developed an obsession with the ocean by watching Jacques Cousteau and reading Encyclopedia Britannica. Even as a young girl, she knew she wanted to become a marine biologist and study dolphin communication. If she could do one thing for the world, she declared in an essay at age 12, it would be to “develop a human-animal translator so we could understand other minds on the planet.”

In the early 1980s, after earning a marine-biology degree from Oregon State University and traveling the world, Herzing realized she wanted to study dolphins in their natural environment instead of in captivity. She reasoned that if the best way to understand humans was in the context of human society, networks, and relationships, the same was likely true of dolphins. She wanted to study dolphin cognition and communication as an anthropologist might—in a natural setting. “I wasn’t as interested in doing experiments,” she recalls. “I was interested in observing, which is the most productive if you want to understand their culture.”

It wasn’t long before she became aware of a group of friendly spotted dolphins in the Bahamas, first noted by treasure divers in the 1970s. The water was warm and shallow, and the dolphins appeared to be easily accessible, even curious about humans. “I couldn’t believe no one was studying them already,” Herzing says. She began her fieldwork in 1985, which grew into the Wild Dolphin Project. Its motto captures Herzing’s research ethos perfectly: “In their world. On their terms.”

Still, her plan to develop two-way communication with the spotted dolphins presents an important ethical dilemma. Diana Reiss, for one, wonders whether there’s a danger of somehow changing or harming a wild culture by bridging into it. “You have the potential to learn something you would never be able to learn, because they have the potential to show you something in their world that they wouldn’t in an aquarium,” she says. “But the question is, should we introduce new vocal elements into a wild population? And if we do, are we somehow contaminating their vocal repertoire? It’s a basic philosophical question.”

Herzing worries about that quite a bit. “The potential is that they will start showing you their world in detail, and you can have some interface that will help you understand the wild mind,” she tells me one morning after sunrise as we sit on the Stenella’s bridge. “The danger is that you could get too much into their system. That you could have young animals who spend too much time with humans and don’t do the things they are supposed to do, putting pressure on the mothers. Or you could get dolphins who get to trust humans and a bad human comes along.”

In a way, it’s like the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, except here on Earth. The spotted dolphins are like aliens that inhabit a completely different world. Scientists at the SETI Institute, in Mountain View, California, are, in fact, paying close attention to Herzing’s work. “What we’re trying to do with SETI is communicate with a different form of intelligence,” says Doug Vakoch, the institute’s director of interstellar message composition. “Denise’s work has highlighted some of the things we need to take into account, like the importance of interactivity and a long-duration relationship.”

Inevitably, these attempts are open to ridicule. Rush Limbaugh, who somehow got wind of Herzing’s project, joked to listeners in May: “The dolphins can tell us how they keep health care costs down without Obamacare and how they avoid trillion-dollar deficits.” Herzing’s scientific colleagues respect her dedication and rigor, and when I ask Herzing if people think she’s a kook, she’s not offended. “No,” she answers. Then she adds, “At least not yet,” and cuts loose with one of her signature cackles.

DUSK IS FALLING ON Monday evening, our sixth day out. Butler and Kohlsdorf emerge onto the back deck carrying two complete CHAT boxes. They have made progress, but the boxes have to be totally reliable before Herzing will introduce them to the dolphins. “Having them quit in the middle of a session would be very confusing,” she says. There is a faint air of hope, but after repeated false starts everyone has learned to live by Kohlsdorf’s favorite response to all questions about whether the latest fix will work: “We will see.”

Herzing and Pack gear up, and the water is dark enough that Captain Pete drops a light off the stern. Herzing and Pack slip into the water for what seems like the 50th test, 10 feet apart in the green glow of the droplight. Herzing’s box seems to work fine. After a few seconds, Pack lifts his head out of the water and says, “My unit is not playing anything.”

Back on deck, Herzing is philosophical. “Shit happens,” she says. “It’s a tough environment out here.” The next morning, the carcass of Pack’s CHAT box lies open in the lounge. Water found a way in and drowned the components. Throughout the day, Herzing, Hoffmann-Kuhnt, and Kohlsdorf discuss the modifications they’ll make to improve waterproofing, software stability, and electrical grounding. Kohlsdorf is wearing a different black T-shirt. It depicts a toddler in a Jason-style hockey mask, dragging a bloody chainsaw.

If and when the CHAT system is finally debugged, it’s likely the dolphins will be ready to show Herzing something new. The next morning, we drop in on a curious scene featuring three bottlenose dolphins and a group of seven spotteds. About 100 bottlenoses share the Little Bahama Bank with the spotteds, but they are more skittish, and Herzing hasn’t spent as much time with them. After days of looking at friendly little spotteds in the water, the bottlenoses appear enormous and a bit menacing, like outlaw bikers. With penises visibly erect, they have been mauling a young spotted male named Lhasa, while Lhasa’s three buddies—Linus, Malibu, and Kai—hover nearby. When I get into the water, two bottlenoses swim up toward me, their pale erections still waving in the water. Don’t get confused, boys, I think nervously.

Instead, they turn away and direct their attention to Malibu. They swarm around him, trying to jam themselves into him. Malibu twists and turns, but he doesn’t try to flee. The other spotteds follow the action but don’t intervene. Eventually, the bottlenose dolphins break away and swim off. At that point, four of the male spotteds abruptly turn and, in tight formation, swim right up to me, so we are all eye-to-eye. They are like four authoritative bouncers. With my puny human hearing I can’t know if they have anything to say to me. But their posture and eyes alone convey a simple and direct message: Enough already, human voyeur. It’s time for you to leave. With that, they spin away and disappear. I head for the swim ladder.

“That’s some crazy shit,” I say on deck, abandoning any pretense of scientific inquiry. “What’s up with that?” Herzing agrees that it is pretty remarkable behavior, but she and Pack don’t really have an explanation. Over the years, Herzing has seen lots of bottlenoses hanging around with spotteds, and vice versa, and she has also seen evidence of limited interbreeding. Despite the controlled aggression, what struck me was the ritualized nature of the interaction. The spotteds never tried to fight or flee; most just hung around as if observing a frat-house hazing. It is clearly an interesting relationship. There is confrontation, but it has limits, and Herzing doesn’t know for sure, but she has never seen aggression between spotted and bottlenose dolphins escalate to killing. Pack is also intrigued by the sympatric relationship that the spotteds and bottlenoses have, sharing the same territory yet coexisting and maintaining their distinct cultural and genetic identities without extreme violence. It’s a thought-provoking, perhaps even instructive, model.

BEFORE WE HEAD BACK to Florida, we make one last drop with a large group of spotteds. I count 24, traveling slowly across the sand flats, a community on the move. The ever excitable calves sometimes dart away, only to be chased down by their mothers or babysitters and firmly set back in the pack. Groups of males are swimming in close formation, keeping an eye on us. Deni and Bijyo are still hassling one another. Small groups break off to chase fish out of the sand. The entire community forms and reforms in a hundred subtle ways, and I can see lots of pec touching, the dolphin equivalent of a reassuring hand. I know I can’t comprehend 99 percent of the social dynamics and communication in play, but it’s also impossible not to feel that they’re there and worth trying to fully understand.

Herzing will spend another 70 days on the Little Bahama Bank this year, and more in the years to come, refining the CHAT system. Stan Kuczaj and Diana Reiss, among many others, will be watching, to see how far she can take it. “There is a difference between communicating and engaging in a meaningful conversation,” Kuczaj says. “Conversations require shared interests, and finding common ground may be more difficult than we imagine.”

If any human can find that common ground, it’s probably Herzing. She is arguably more connected with a wild dolphin culture than anyone else on the planet. One evening I ask Pack if he’s confident that a few decades from now we’ll have cracked the code of dolphin communication. He thinks and then answers: “As long as we’re on a positive trajectory and have technology, we’ll understand more of what the code is. It may not be what we thought it would be, but we’ll have a general understanding.”

The boat settles in for the night. Overhead there is a thick carpet of stars, and a warm wind whispers over the undulating water. I know the spotted dolphins are somewhere nearby, perhaps headed into deep water to feed on squid. Their world seems both separate and connected to ours, and it’s suddenly easy to believe that something extraordinary will happen if Herzing builds a meaningful two-way connection between humanity and the wild and alien culture that thrives on the Little Bahama Bank.

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