Of course San Diego leads in sea mammal research

The secret life of dolphins

Dolphins have been credited with saving drowning humans.
  • Dolphins have been credited with saving drowning humans.
  • Image by David Covey

Bob Shepard, who trained animals at Sea World for 11 years and now works in its public relations department, relates a telling insight into the public’s view of sea creatures. Shepard travels all over the country and answers questions about marine mammals. There is, he says, one Big Question, a question which is asked so often that no other really compares. “Invariably, they’ll ask, ‘Are dolphins really as intelligent as we hear they are?’” Many people simply refuse to take no for an answer.

Belugas display a modified version of their dolphin cousin’s famous smile, and I smile back.

Belugas display a modified version of their dolphin cousin’s famous smile, and I smile back.

Kneeling down beside the indoor tank containing the two Beluga whales, I can empathize with that urgent curiosity. Today Edwina and Kojak, who look more like bleached and overgrown porpoises than whales, are participating in an ongoing experiment designed to map the range of their hearing precisely, and the researcher tells me they’re keenly aware of my presence. Kojak rears up to study me, and Edwina casts me salty looks, regarding me with eyes that seem bright and thoughtful. The Belugas display a modified version of their dolphin cousin’s famous smile, and I smile back, eager to know what’s going on behind their bulging foreheads.

San Diego fairly hums with brightly credentialed dolphin research activity.

San Diego fairly hums with brightly credentialed dolphin research activity.

Sea World

For the experiment, researcher Jeff Norris must separate the two animals. He puts them through a familiar routine. He calls both to him, rewards them with a fish, then gestures for one to swim through a wide gate to another tank. But Kojak isn’t going for it. Instead of following the order, he’s shimming around in circles, and I find myself mentally defending his lapse (“He’s probably just rebelling, or he’s bored. I’d do the same thing if I were in his place”). Norris partially concurs. “In this case, he has to know what I want him to do, ’cause he’s done it a hundred times before. But of course, you never really know what’s going through his mind.”

Acquiescent at last, Kojak leaves Edwina behind and cooperates with Norris and his assistant. The whale puts his head in a special box, grasps a bar inside . it, listens for a tone, signals when he hears it, then swims over to gulp a herring reward. The interplay interests me, but I find myself wondering about its relevancy. Here are two whales, warmblooded, big-brained talkers just like us. Can’t these people do something more productive than give them hearing tests? Mentally, I dig my heels in, stubborn and insistent, like my fellow humans across the country; I want to know how smart the whales are. If they’re so smart and we’re so smart, why don’t we just figure out how to talk to them and then ask them about their hearing?

My presumption of the whales’ intelligence, the human conclusion that these creatures are special and that they deserve man’s attention, is an ancient one. Cetaceans have leapt and splashed in and out of human history for millenia; in fact, it was Aristotle who classified the large sea mammals (dolphins, porpoises, and whales) as cetacea, the taxonomic order of carnivorous, wholly aquatic mammals. Carefully describing them, the Greek philosopher noted that “many stories are told about the dolphin, indicative of his gentle and kindly nature” (he then threw some of his own anecdotes into the pot). Several Greek cults even are believed to have worshipped the dolphin, with the most famous sect producing the temple of Delphi. In the centuries since then, the marine mammals’ popularity has waxed and waned, with cetaceans leaving their imprint on much art, folklore, and even royalty (such as the French Dauphin), but close contact with the public began less than 50 years ago. Familiarity has bred near adoration, making this truly the day of the dolphin, a period of cetacean stars like Flipper and Sea World’s performing “Brainy Bunch.”

As loose as the human-dolphin association has been, the anecdotes of unusual dolphin behavior spawned by it constitute one of the most fascinating arguments that dolphins are extraordinarily intelligent. Many tales arose from the sea and from the men who work on it, and government hassles notwithstanding, San Diego tuna men still spread such tales today. One local fisherman, for example, told me of accidentally hooking a dolphin some years ago, then plunging his arm past the animal’s mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, while the dolphin patiently endured the pain. “I knew he wouldn’t bite me. He didn’t even struggle while I set him free,” the man recalled. Historically, dolphin lovers can point to even more astounding incidents.

In 1955, for example, a young female dolphin began playing with bathers off Opononi Beach in New Zealand, eventually building up enough trust to give children rides upon her back. As the months went by, and the tourists flocked to the area, “Opo” even devised and responded to elaborate games. The dolphin was so popular that the New Zealanders even passed a law protecting dolphins from molestation, yet “Opo” died mysteriously a short while after that.

Then there was Pelorus Jack, a Risso’s dolphin who also hailed from New Zealand and who drew attention from writers ranging from Kipling to Mark Twain. Fascinated by ships, Jack served for almost 25 years as a graceful escort to almost every ship which entered Cook Strait, leaping and diving around the boats and rubbing up against the hulls.

Isolated instances of dolphins’ contact with humans are no less astonishing: in one reported case, a band of dolphins persuaded some fishermen to follow them and save a baby dolphin in trouble; in other instances, the marine mammals have been credited with saving drowning humans, patiently supporting and pushing the choking swimmers to shore. Sea World in San Diego even has its share of remarkable (untrained) behaviors. Belinda, another Beluga whale, is one case in point. About one year ago. Belinda suddenly began playing a captivating game with children who’d come up to view her through an underwater window, a game with which she still delights visitors today. When she spots someone, the sleek female swims up to the glass, opening her mouth and soundlessly barking, an infectiously comical challenge which always sets up a game of cross-species peekaboo. Belinda barks, then the giggling child runs away, sneaking back to where the whale lies in wait. Though the action is aggressive, the delphic smile seems to make malice unthinkable. No trainer taught Belinda to play with her visitors.

Dolphin behaviors often astound the public, but other arguments are cited as evidence of their intelligence, the most prominent of which is the size of the cetacean brain. In Man and the Dolphin, Dr. John Lilly, the most famous and ardent proponent/defender of dolphin intelligence, points out that infants and microcephalies don’t ever speak; children only acquire language as their brain size increases. Lilly argues that the link between brain size and language seems strong. If the link is established, then cetaceans are good candidates for conversationalists, since their brains range from six times that of man (in the large whales) down to about the same size as human brains (in dolphins and small whales). Not only are the sizes comparable, but Lilly claims the dolphin also has a highly developed cerebral cortex, the area which in human brains directs all higher thought functions. In fact, while the cetacean cerebral hemispheres are proportionately smaller than man’s, Lilly says the cortex is more convoluted, giving cetaceans relatively more “gray matter” than humans.

Finally, there is the dolphin “language,” the wondrous assortment of whistles, barks, yelps, and other noises-even more wondrous when one considers that what we hear is only a fraction of what the animal is producing and hearing. (The dolphin’s sonic range is seven times man’s.) Cetaceans are fairly silent when they’re alone; they make these noises when they’re with other cetaceans. Surely, the argument goes, we can conclude they probably are communicating complex information to each other. The argument was one of the bases for some of the most dramatic work yet done with the marine mammals.

Lilly did that work, mostly in the late 1950s and early to mid-60s, working mainly in his own lab in the Virgin Islands. A neurophysiologist, he began drawing raised eyebrows from his colleagues when he made statements about some of his early dolphins “committing suicide,” and many of those colleagues completely wrote him off by the time Lilly began trying to teach dolphins to speak English. (He even constructed a special living quarters in which a researcher and dolphin could live and work together constantly. The longest such experiment lasted three months.) Rejecting scientific information as the sole means of evaluating cetaceans, Lilly even went so far as to speculate about the thoughts of sperm whales. (He figured that the massive creatures could mentally produce three-dimensional, full-color “instant replays” of any experience they would wish to relive. They would appreciate human symphonies, he mused; also they’d have transcendental religious experiences.)

Lilly terminated his dolphin research in 1967-68, concluding, “I no longer wanted to run a concentration camp for my friends, and if they were as I found them to be, and if this was not only my imagination, then there was an ethical problem of maintaining them in a confined state in which they may not survive.” He had worked for more than a decade, spent millions of dollars, and his results about dolphin intelligence, at best, were inconclusive. The research pioneer is making waves again, however. After a stint with Esalen and higher consciousness, he established the Human-Dolphin Foundation in Malibu, where he’s vowing to crack the communication problem using computers and dolphins which can return to the sea at liberty. Traditional marine researchers doubtless will continue to eye Lilly suspiciously. His recent writings call for according individual dolphins and whales the legal rights of humans and assert, “We must learn their needs, their ethics, their philosophy, to find out who we are on this planet, in this galaxy,” a view guaranteed to clash with rigorous scientism.


In contrast to the vague rumors surrounding Lilly, San Diego fairly hums with brightly credentialed dolphin research activity. The Navy is tight-lipped about its work with cetaceans (“We don’t talk to anyone about anything,” one Naval Ocean Systems Center public relations officer put it succinctly), but the military research center at the end of Point Loma is acknowledged to be the most sophisticated in the continental U.S. Among nonmilitary institutions, Scripps Institute devotes little research to cetaceans, but the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla is very involved in tuna-porpoise studies and population dynamics, and when one considers the work being done at Sea World and the research institute affiliated with it, San Diego ranks as the dolphin research capital of America.

The 14-year-old Sea World affiliate, christened formally this summer as the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, sprawls in the tangy air of Mission Bay, behind the aquatic park. The institute has close ties with the Navy: it handles some Navy contracts, Navy and institute researchers sometimes work together. plus the institute director, Bill Evans, worked for the Navy for 14 years until this January. Unlike the Navy, however, the institute is open about its work, and the researchers generously take time to talk about what they’re doing. They make it abundantly clear, however, that studies of dolphin intelligence have a low priority.

“We can tell you how the Belugas hear. We can tell you about the characteristics of the Delphinus echolocation pulses. But any discussion of intelligence would be for the most part anecdotal. We’re not really into intelligence research.’’

Rusty White, the institute’s research coordinator, says this almost apologetically; in fact, the very question makes him squirm. The minute it comes up he starts shifting around in his chair, thinking about the time the National Enquirer pestered him on the subject and then sensationalized his answer; thinking about how the masses keep asking it and yet won’t take no for an answer.

In the office next door to White, Bill Evans, the institute director, sits behind his large desk and selects his words as if they were laboratory slides. Evans doesn’t like questions about intelligence, either. (“I don’t want to talk about it or I’ll start ripping things off the wall,” he says with a terse laugh.) A lanky man with iron gray hair, Evans has worked with the sea for so long that it seems as if he ought to have gills behind his protruding ears. Like the cetaceans he works with, he has a forehead which is broad, intelligent-looking, but his demeanor is restrained, almost aloof. He’s talking about how there’s this communication gap between scientists like himself and the public. “Before, that was fine, but now there’s more of a public awareness of our work and we scientists are still talking to each other in little groups. So the public has had to draw its own conclusions and it has lost some of the complexity of the problem.

“By watching scientists on television,” he says, “I think the public thinks we’ve been credited with lots more than we deserve because people don’t understand how complex it is. There is a lot known, but it’s a very, very specialized type of knowledge. I can tell you how much two metal plates have to differ in thickness before the porpoise can tell the difference acoustically. I can tell you what difference it makes if those plates are aluminum or copper. But ‘how old are they when they start to breathe?’ ” (He answers his own question with a blank stare.) “ ‘How long do they live?’ ‘Well, how many are there?’ ” The scientist hurls the questions at his own ignorance.

Irony stalks his words. A few hundred feet away from this office, tourists are jamming into Sea World. There, they’ll watch porpoises called “The Brainy Bunch” going through a routine which has the dolphins beating the human actors at a comic IQ test. At another pool in the park, Shamu the killer whale delights his fans by going to college. Yet here sits Evans, one of the most renowned cetologists in the world, insisting he doesn't even know how many porpoises the seas contain.

Sea World’s business is entertainment, however, while Evans’ business is science, so the irony doesn’t really dilute his words. If cetology is so new that hundreds of basic questions are unanswered, IQ tests diminish in importance and hearing tests begin to make more sense. (In fact, I learn that audiograms like the ones being administered to the Belugas have been done on about six other marine species, never on Belugas, and usually using only one animal from the species. “Marine animals are hard to get. They’re still somewhat of an exotic species,” one researcher explained with a shrug.) It makes sense to pose easy questions like “how well can this animal hear?” before tackling ones like “how well can he think?” Particularly, it makes sense to those who fund research. “Technology is where the funding is going,” Rusty White says; the technological applications of studying dolphin sonar, dolphin hydrodynamics, dolphin populations, are obvious. “A lot of us are interested in the intelligence question,” White adds complacently, “but we run into the funding difficulties.”


Tell that to the folks in Peoria, I grumble silently, the ones who keep asking your PR man how smart the dolphins are. Those people devoured The Day of the Dolphin and tuned in each week to Flipper and they’re thinking that if we ever find out how smart the dolphins are, we might want to treat the marine mammals differently. The knowledge might persuade us, like Lilly, that the research pools really are no better than watery concentration camps. They’re thinking that if we tap the dolphin mind, it might unlock vast knowledge of the sea, knowledge carrying its own technological fallout.

So the folks in Peoria keep asking about the dolphin’s intelligence, and these guys are mumbling about not having enough funding. The excuse hobbles until one couples it with the other half of the scientific reluctance.

Pressed, the researchers confess that if they had the money, they’re not sure what they’d do with it; what kind of tests they would do to get the answers; indeed, what, precisely, the questions ought to be. “There are lots of ways we could go about testing dolphin intelligence, but I’m not sure just what it would tell you,” Evans says testily. “People are the ones who invented the term and we don’t really know what it means. Until we do, it seems to me the question is a little ridiculous.”

One of Evans’ colleagues, a San Diego State University psychologist named R.H. Defran, is even more emphatic on this point. Defran is experimenting with behaviors in a number of different animals, including a bottle-nosed dolphin and killer whales at the institute. But he says, “I’ll never do a research question which is aimed at answering the intelligence question. I won’t do it because of the difficulty of making cross-species tests that are fair.” When 10 tests of our own species are inadequate, he says, IQ tests of other species are almost laughable.

Defran points out that the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, drastically influenced our modern notion of intelligence when he designed a quantitative test for it around the turn of the century. Binet hypothesized that one could talk about some general intelligence factor, a notion comparable to the general concept of health. Like health, which is composed of many separate physical factors, intelligence broke down, Binet said, into a number of individual elements, specific mental attributes (like memory, verbal ability, and so on) which could be tested. Since then, however, identifying those attributes and figuring out how to test them objectively, free from cultural biases, has been the problem (witness our struggles to assess the mental abilities of ghetto children accurately). The notion of general intelligence has remained intact, however; useful, Defran hastens to point out, but vague. “We have a loose concept of intelligence, but most times it doesn’t really matter if it’s loose. When you hire someone, for example, you want them to be intelligent, but it generally works well enough if you measure them against that loose concept.” You may want them to be bright, but chances are you won’t care if their IQ is 121 or 126. Thus, IQs are what the tests measure, and those scores at their best match up with our loose notion of intelligence. True, the tests favor humans in some cultures over others, but at least almost all humans can sit down, look at the test sheet and hold a pencil in their hands. What do you do with dolphins, living with no hands in the middle of the ocean?

One solution says you search for dolphin-style questions which will measure the marine mammal’s general intelligence level. “If you could just figure out how to ask dolphins the same questions as those on the Stanford-Binet (IQ test), you’d be home free,” Defran says. The approach, however, is fraught with problems.

Try to measure the animal’s learning abilities, for example. One tool commonly used to evaluate other species is the maze, but envision an underwater maze big enough for dolphins and whales. Even if you had one, how could you fairly compare the maze-probing abilities of the dolphin, an animal accustomed to ranging freely throughout the world’s oceans, to the rat, who virtually spends its life penetrating natural mazes? On another tack. Rusty White points out that the ability to use tools was once considered an acid test of mental sophistication—until Jane Goodall’s work with the wild African chimps. Once the notion that humans have a monopoly on tools was shattered, researchers soon spotted other contradictions. “We can go right out there and you can watch a seagull get a mussel off one of the pilings, then fly to where he can drop it and break it open on the concrete, as opposed to the grass,” White says, as one example. Meanwhile, dolphins have no hands and no need to build anything, so what can one meaningfully say about their use of tools?

Analysis of dolphin behaviors proves to be even more frustrating: researchers like White are whizzes at poking holes in the astonishing anecdotes. Consider the alleged dolphin “rescues” of humans. “Sure, you can say that the dolphin saw the human, realized he was in trouble, figured out what it would have to do, and then took appropriate action,” White says. “But alternatively, you can realize that dolphins have a strong maternal instinct for keeping their own young in touch with the surface, and they also spontaneously push inanimate objects through the water. So the ‘rescue’ may be nothing more than an instinctive response. Who knows how many people the cetaceans have innocently pushed out to sea? You don’t ever hear about those.”

White relates another anecdote from his own experience. Some time ago, he had decided to photograph the killer whale underwater during one of its shows, something which never had been done before. So, loaded with weights, he selected a spot in the tank and waited for the preselected shot. For a while, the animal went through its normal routine. Then it suddenly stopped, dove down to White, enfolded his torso in its massive jaws, and gently pulled the researcher across to the other side of the tank. That done, the whale returned to doing her tricks. White had instantly understood that the animal didn’t intend to harm him, so he returned to his original spot, only to find that she repeated the entire maneuver. “At this point, I realized something very unusual was happening, so I got out of the tank and we tried to analyze it. And on the one hand, you could look at this as a play behavior; you could say the animal was having fun, that it didn’t want its picture taken from that angle, or whatever. But here’s another way of looking at it. Any other time we’d ever been in the tank with her, we’d always interacted with the animal and then gotten out. But in this case, I was totally ignoring her. Her normal routine was disturbed and she was simply reacting to that. You could conic up with an explanation of the behavior that you could define in acceptable terms without getting into any intelligence-type explanation.”

These problems hint at the possibility of yet another problem: what if cetacean intelligence differs from man’s not just quantitatively, but qualitatively? Certainly their sensory experience, primarily aural rather than visual, differs from ours not just in degree but in kind. They live in a radically different environment; what if they have radically' different minds? How. then, could our tests ever begin to evaluate them?

No wonder, Defran points out, that people prefer simple answers to their questions about dolphins. No wonder they cling, as he puts it, “to the notion of the dolphin as an aquatic human.” He elaborates: “Deep down, people have got the notion that dolphins are very like humans, but that their minds are trapped in an unusual body beneath the ocean.” The psychologist waxes sociological; dolphins have become almost religious- symbols, he asserts. “There’s a kind of pessimism that makes people search for this intelligence and advanced mentality in dolphins. Just like people in religion view the hope of God as being that He’ll take care of man, people want to believe dolphins...hold a secret that we’ll never be able to know....”

Talking to Defran, I grow pensive; I can’t write a story about how dolphin intelligence compares to our own. What troubles me even more is the specter of humans having no way of dealing with members of an alien species, other than deifying or enslaving them. Defran interrupts my thoughts. There’s a question I’ve forgotten to ask, he points out. I haven’t asked how well dolphins are adapted to their environment.

“When we start talking about how well-adapted they are to their environment-why, then they’re a knock-out!” he says. “Their echolocation alone is incredible. Feature this: you can find groups of maybe 2,000 dolphins, swimming together through the ocean, feeding themselves and maintaining complex relationships and knowing exactly where they are at all times. They’re mammals, just like us, screwing around in the middle of the ocean without anything to hold on to! And doing a great job of it . . . feeding their babies and thriving!”

Defran’s voice is suffused with delight and wonder, and the feeling spreads to me. I think about the question and his response. It may not be an answer to the one Big Question, but at least it seems to leave deification and enslavement behind.

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