Culture

For The Love Of Dolphins

A bottlenose dolphin near Dana Point, Calif., in 2012. i i
David McNew/Getty Images
A bottlenose dolphin near Dana Point, Calif., in 2012.
David McNew/Getty Images

I'm on vacation this week, resting and walking along the New Jersey shore. Naturally, I have sea creatures on my mind. Dolphins, especially.

In a post last week about dolphins, Robert Krulwich cited these cetaceans' big brains as the primary source of our fascination with them. Without question, these animals pack a cognitive punch. In the long list of dolphin smarts, my favorite comes from scientists at Australia's Shark Bay Dolphin Project.

Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins use marine sponges as tools when hunting fish; dolphin moms pass on these technological skills to offspring, often daughters and sometimes sons. It's dolphin culture.

Dolphin emotions are just as compelling as their intelligence. They plainly like to have fun, as when they engage in interspecies play with humpback whales.

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At the other end of the emotional spectrum, dolphins may mourn. I've gathered examples of dolphins expressing grief for relatives and friends who die. Visibly distressed mother dolphins may eat much less, or not at all, as they refuse to abandon their dead infants. Her social-group may get involved, too, escorting her in the water or even helping her support the lost infant during her vigil.

We feel connected to other animals through emotions like joy and grief. As I've noted, this isn't always great news for dolphins. Some people become so determined to bring that connection alive that they swim with dolphins or plan to give birth near dolphins. Other people, ranging from cancer patients to parents of autistic children, as Lori Marino wrote in Aeon Magazine on Tuesday, act on their belief that dolphins have healing powers.

As Krulwich put it in his post, for the animals' sake, we just can't "slip into thinking of [dolphins] as if they were variants of us." Failing to see dolphins as dolphins may cause serious stress for these creatures, as Marino's article painfully describes.

What we can do is choose to see dolphins as mammals who feel what happens to them. We can meet them on their own emotional terms. Their joy, or their grief, may not always look exactly like ours. But we can, right now, begin to treat dolphins with the respect and dignity they deserve.


Barbara's new book is How Animals Grieve. You can up with what she is thinking on Twitter.

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