Dr. Denise Herzing began her research with a pod of spotted dolphins in the 1980s. Now, almost three decades later, she has forged strong ties with many of these individuals, has witnessed and recorded them feeding, playing, fighting, mating, giving birth and communicating.Dolphin Diaries is an account of Herzing's research and her surprising findings on wild dolphin behavior, interaction, and communication. Readers will be drawn into the highs and lows--the births and deaths, the discovery of unique and personalized behaviors, the threats dolphins face from environmental changes, and the many funny and wonderful encounters Denise painstakingly documented over many years. This is the perfect book for anyone who loves these incredibly versatile and intelligent creatures and wants to find out more than the dolphin show at the zoo can offer. Herzing is a true pioneer in her field and deserves a place in the pantheon of naturalists and scientists next to Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.
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St. Martin's Griffin
July 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Dolphin Diaries by Denise L. Herzing
First Contact with Dolphins:
Establishing the Relationship
If you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.
--APSLEY CHERRY-GARRARD, THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD
If you could ask a dolphin one question, what would it be? And what do you think a dolphin might ask you? These questions occurred to me when I first met a spotted dolphin in the wild early one humid summer morning in 1985. I swam slowly away from the boat that was anchored in the gin-clear waters of a shallow sandbank in the Bahamas. It was calm and peaceful out in the middle of the warm amniotic salt water with no land in sight. Two dolphins approached and swam around me, looking directly into my eyes. There is nothing comparable to making eye contact with a wild creature; it is like a sharp splash of ice-cold water on the face. I sensed a keen and mutually exploratory awareness; I sensed another "being" behind those eyes. Ten years later, after experiencing strong currents and large sharks, I would have a different type of respect for the ocean, one that probably wouldn't allow me to swim out so far alone in these waters with such a calmness. But this experience was different; it was my first encounter with a wild dolphin.
In all my years of work with marine mammals, nothing had prepared me for this. I found myself deeply regretting never taking an anthropology class. What is it like to meet and experience a new culture for the first time, a nonhuman culture? What do you do if they are curious and want to observe you? I was a biologist, a cetologist, who studied whales and dolphins. What brought me to the Bahamas was curiosity about the lives of wild dolphins, but the experiential part was not something I was trained for as a scientist. But this experience seemed perfectly natural. My ancestors evolved with plants, animals, and the Earth itself. Well before that, dolphins, as early mammals, returned to the ocean from their land ancestors twenty-five million years ago. This world of a highly evolved mammal was a window into the dolphins' unique aquatic world, not separate and estranged as the land and sea seem in the open ocean, but intertwined like a shoreline: mutually curious species carefully considering each other.
In the field of animal behavior the philosophy of "to know a goose, become a goose" was first formulated by Konrad Lorenz, considered the father of modern animal behavior. This level of participation has been productive for the study of many social species, including chimpanzees by Jane Goodall, mountain gorillas by Dian Fossey, and African elephants by Cynthia Moss. These pioneering women researchers provided solid examples of a productive way of illuminating the lives of wild animal societies. That is the approach and methodology I decided to use for studying free-ranging dolphins.
For years scientists had attempted to teach nonhuman animal species, including dolphins, the English language, without first learning about the dolphins' natural communication system. I was always fascinated by the idea that dolphin minds evolved in the aquatic environment, parallel, but potentially dissimilar to our own. What would that mind be like and how would it express itself? Could we understand their type of consciousness by studying their communication system and cross over that interspecies boundary? Could we really build a bridge? I decided to focus my work first on understanding how dolphins communicated with each other, using sound, vision, touch, and second to use those same natural channels of communication to explore the possibility of interspecies communication between humans and dolphins.
* * *
I grew up in the Midwest far away from any ocean, with the exception of the world of Jacques Cousteau that flowed from our living-room TV. I became both fascinated with and committed to the exploration of dolphins, potentially one of the most advanced nonhuman intelligence on the planet. My passion for this work began when I was twelve years old. I entered an essay contest for a scholarship in my hometown in Minnesota. One of the questions was, "What would you do for the world if you could do one thing?" My answer? "I would develop a human-animal translator so that we could understand other minds on the planet." As I continued to grow up and observe the natural world around me I became more and more fascinated by the idea of complex minds like ours evolving in the water. What could dolphins possibly be doing with all that brainpower if they didn't have hands? I knew then my lifework had been chosen. Simple questions often have the most important repercussions. Where did I see myself in five years, what kind of environment did I want to be in, what kind of people did I want to be around? I wanted to work at sea, in the environment where the animals lived. I wanted to be doing research--to be observing and documenting the lives of wild dolphins. And I wanted to be around stimulating people who could use a variety of talents to explore this unknown territory. These simple answers guided my decisions for the next ten years through graduate school and during the formation of my own research project and nonprofit organization, the Wild Dolphin Project, which became the support structure for my research with the Atlantic spotted dolphins.
So by the age of twelve I knew I wanted to study dolphin communication. After taking the advice of a wise college counselor, I left my hometown to venture forth into the world of marine biology, to get into the mud and see if I liked the field. I applied and was accepted to both the University of Washington, which had an undergraduate program in marine biology, and the University of Miami, renowned for its oceanographic work. But I decided to go to Oregon State University for two reasons. First, I thought Oregon would be a beautiful place to live with its green landscape and healthy lifestyle. Second, Oregon State had a marine mammalogist, Dr. Bruce Mate, and I wanted to study marine mammals. I jumped on boats whenever I could for oceanographic cruises off the Oregon coast or on salmon fishing boats with friends. I loved the smell of the ocean, the smell of seaweed, the roar of the waves. I discovered that I did, indeed, like the mud.
After completing four undergraduate years at the inland campus I spent my last year at the Marine Biological Station in Newport, Oregon. I observed harbor seals and sea lions at salmon hatcheries. I joined Bruce down in Baja for two winters studying gray whales; the first year with Jim Sumich, a Ph.D. student at Bruce's lab doing work on the metabolic rates of gray whales. San Ignacio Lagoon and other lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, are home to friendly gray whales that gave researchers close access and unique opportunities for studying the species. My second winter I helped with radio-tagging and monitoring from land with receivers for previously tagged whales. One day the field team came back to shore and I excitedly told them I had heard Blanco's radio signal, the first whale tagged. After the winter tagging season we quickly placed one of the radio receivers in a lighthouse on Yaquina Head, the Oregon headland where I had previously spent three years counting migrating whales. One night, back in Oregon, I heard Blanco's signal--he had gone by the lighthouse! We hopped in our cars and drove, while Bruce, a skilled pilot, flew, and followed Blanco up the coast. Blanco was eventually tracked all the way up to Unimak Pass, Alaska. All of these studies were of great value to me and provided opportunities and insight, and Bruce was an invaluable mentor and teacher.
Around that time I got wind of a beautiful 134-foot wooden barquentine (a form of square-rigged sailing vessel) named the Regina Maris and her six-week student program at sea. Taking advantage of her time in the Pacific, I jumped onboard Regina Maris for a six-week adventure. We spent most of our time in Magdalena Bay, another of the gray whale breeding lagoons in Baja. I met Dr. Kenneth Norris (the father of dolphin studies and a future mentor), Kenneth Balcomb (a renowned killer whale field scientist), and other well-known marine mammal scientists. Our chores were typical of being on a vessel at sea. As students we attended classes during the daytime and did watches four hours on, four hours off, to help run the ship. We took classes in celestial navigation and basic seamanship--we handled the wheel on deck, we hoisted sails, and of course we tied knots. Bolen knots, sheepshank knots, square knots--any kind of knot. We felt nautical! The training of young marine scientists should always involve extensive fieldwork because such experiences are critical for understanding the sea itself. I was developing a deep love for the sea, for boats, and my life was now set on a course through the waves. I loved studying the ocean from the small microscopic creatures to the large marine mammals off the Oregon coast.
Then in 1981, shortly after I had finished my last year of undergraduate research on migrating gray whales, I had a nearly fatal accident. While out in the woods alone I fell off a deck of a house and down a ravine, and was subsequently smashed by the falling lumber and deck, breaking my ribs and severing the hepatic artery in my liver and nearly bleeding to death. After barely making it to my twenty-fifth birthday I realized there is nothing like a near-death experience to make you reprioritize your life. So once again I decided to join the Regina Maris, now in the Atlantic. With barely healed broken ribs, but my doctor's approval, I boarded Regina Maris in Gloucester, Massachusetts, this time not as a student, but as the " lowly student lab slave"--a dollar a day with room and board for six months. Our trip took us directly to Bermuda and down through the Caribbean for our final destination off the Dominican Republic to study humpback whales on Silver Banks, the remote offshore area dotted with undersurface reefs and rocks where humpback whale mothers spend three months birthing their calves or mating.
There's nothing like being in a large sailboat, hearing the wind and feeling the pounding waves. But it was October and hurricanes were brewing in the tropics to the south of us. As the days progressed I noticed the crew getting nervous as they watched the winds picking up. Sails were lowered and hatches battened down, closing off the incoming water. By the end of that day it was clear we were in the tail end of a hurricane. To make matters worse the bilge pumps, the usually automated pumps that keep water to a minimum in the hulls, stopped working. For twenty-four hours straight, rotating shifts, we hand-pumped from the deck, through rain and thirty-foot waves we pumped and pumped. The crew tried to heave to, setting the sails to hold the boat in place and to keep the boat steady in the wind. As the boat rolled on thirty-foot seas I was one of the few students on deck with my trusty Nikonos waterproof camera. I attached myself to the lifeline on deck and took pictures. It was both majestic and humbling. I felt like a cork, going up and down as the seas swelled and our vessel rose and fell again. After two days hove to we limped into Bermuda. But we had been lucky. Small sailboats were towed in from offshore, gutted, broken, and lifeless. This was life at sea, or death at sea, depending on your luck. I guess it was something I would have to get used to.
When it was finally time to leave Bermuda we headed south through the islands of the Caribbean and stopped at a small uninhabited island called Hogsty Reef. Our task here was to measure and count the amount of tar washed up on this remote island. There was tar on the beach, there was tar in the seaweed--there was tar everywhere. It was 1981 and already pollution was present, even on this remote island. We filled our days documenting and cleaning up the tar. Then one day, as I maneuvered the small inflatable boat toward the island, I saw the students waving frantically. I was heading right for a breaking reef invisible to me with the glaring sun. Although I did little damage to the reef itself, I broke the pin of the outboard engine and felt humiliated, unworthy of my position as a lab slave. That night after crying on cook Erma Colvin's shoulder, Perrin Ross, my understanding and skilled mentor, pulled from under his vest a small can of beer to share. Beer onboard the Regina Maris was a treat only dispersed on Saturday night, when the crew made trades and swaps, desperate to secure an extra beer. It was a gesture of understanding I would never forget.
It has taken me quite a while to learn to have patience and be sensitive to mistakes that young students will make on board my own research boat in the Bahamas. They forget to charge a battery, drop a piece of equipment, or leave the camera lens on. I also tell my students to expect problems in fieldwork. There will be weather days, your equipment will fail, you won't have enough funding for certain pieces of equipment, and you will just have bad hair days (usually involving salt). You need to expect it, need to be ready for it, and need to always be as prepared as possible because field time is valuable and expensive.
I'm always reiterating the need for redundancy on my boat. I have two cameras, two underwater housings. Film is cheap, videotapes are cheap, but field time is expensive. Use the time and use it well because it may not be there the next day. In twenty-five years of fieldwork I've only flooded one video housing, which is still a good record. Only once have I managed to copy over a piece of video footage. Sadly the footage was quite critical and when we had reviewed it the previous night I had not forwarded the tape for the next day. Again, after twenty-five years, that's not so bad, but we scientists value our data and our experiences in the field tremendously and any loss of data is a potential issue, such as the photograph of a long-lost animal or an unseen behavior lost to a mistake on the video. But at the end of every field trip, in every field season, if we get back alive and the boat is intact, it's been a good summer.
After working with gray whales both off the Oregon coast and in Baja California, and finishing my degree, I was ready to move on to my graduate work. But there was one thing I wanted to do first; I wanted to travel to gain some experience in a country that didn't speak English and wasn't Western. I knew I wanted to study communication. I knew I needed skill sets perhaps beyond scientific training. Luckily at that time my sister decided to buy my half of our family house. It was a small and modest amount, but the money she sent as a deposit allowed me to stash away half for graduate school and half for a three-month trip to Asia. I departed with a backpack, no credit cards, and an awful lot of luck. I traveled to China, Nepal, and India, learning much about nonverbal communication and the universals of cross-cultural experiences. On the way I stopped in Japan to visit my colleague Masahara Nishiwaki, whom I had met in my sailing days onboard Regina Maris. The insight gained from these non-Western human cultural interactions, their similarities and differences, was invaluable. We really need so little when we travel (beyond clothes and shampoo) and we can communicate through body language and laughter quite often when language fails. I arrived safely back in the United States, now ready to give my life to my future graduate work and what I hoped to be my future career studying dolphin communication.
At this point in my life I was familiar with the work of three researchers studying dolphin communication. Louis Herman in Hawaii was famous for his cognitive and experimental work. Diana Reiss at San Francisco State University was studying dolphin communication in captivity. And John Lilly, a controversial scientist (but likely a visionary before his time), was exploring two-way communication. So I struck out to the San Francisco Bay Area. I had eliminated the idea of studying in Hawaii since Herman's work was experimental and not really focused on the communication aspects I was interested in. I arrived in the Bay Area and immediately went down to MarineWorld Africa USA where both John Lilly and Diana Reiss had their labs.
I have always had a clear vision of what my life would look like in the future. One of my visions for recognizing my future dolphin work was to walk into a facility and see a spectrographic analysis machine, which analyzes dolphin sounds. When I entered Dr. John Lilly's laboratory, I found the opposite. The staff seemed unclear and unfocused. Although the work was creative and interesting, I knew it wasn't for me. But after arranging a meeting with Diana I walked into her temporary trailer, saw a spectrograph machine, and immediately knew that this was my place. Although my goal wasn't to work with captive dolphins, I learned the importance of correlating sound with behavior since dolphins are, after all, acoustic animals and I learned about the complexity of communication signals. Most humans communicate in similar ways, but anthropological studies prioritize finding out the "meaning" of the signals. Who is making what signals and what is their relationship? Are they males or females, a mother and brother, or are they unrelated? The way to understand human communication signals is to put them in the context of human societies, networks, and relationships, and I imagined it was the same in an aquatic society. I knew I wanted to take a new approach and I knew that my work would involve a broader perspective than animals as subjects or machines. I wanted to take a look at dolphin communication with dolphins being a cultural animal and a member of a unique, intelligent society. I reasoned that this anthropological approach might be helpful. Little did I know how much the participatory approach would be critical in setting the tone of my work through the years.
Shortly after my San Francisco trip I ventured up to the Seattle area to check out one more person, Jim Nollman. Jim was known as an interspecies guy, he played music to orcas, to turkeys, and probably to other species. When I knocked at his door in Seattle I was greeted by a man who was clearly skeptical of science and scientists. The first question out of his mouth was, "Are you a scientist?" "Well," I stuttered, "I'm hoping to be." It was clear that this was not a scenario for me. Years later, while working in Diana's lab, Jim called to ask for her assistance in the analysis of a complex sequence of sounds, playback and response, with his orcas. Although I was glad to hear that Jim had finally learned to appreciate the scientific analysis that might be needed to truly understand interspecies communication, I thought it ironic. To establish a nonspecies-biased science we need to open our minds to other sciences, other disciplines, and other ways of thinking. And this applies to scientists as well. I had been exposed to a cutting-edge scientist and his work in the mind-body health field when working with Dr. Kenneth Pelletier in San Francisco. During my time assisting Ken in his research studies of the brain and mind, I watched as he walked a tightrope between traditional medicine and alternative medicine, eagerly using them to merge the possibilities. Today, Ken is a leader in the field of bridging the two. I knew this would be my challenge with exploring dolphins in the wild. I, too, wanted to bridge a gap.
But where, I wondered, was a location where I could study wild dolphins underwater and in an accessible environment? While I knew of no one who was working in such conditions, I knew somewhere it existed, but how to find it? The answer, like Jacques Cousteau, flowed into my consciousness through my living-room TV. I happened to see a documentary by filmmaker Hardy Jones on a group of friendly spotted dolphins in the Bahamas. I was intrigued by his underwater footage of these wild dolphins. Could these dolphins be easily and regularly accessible to allow long-term observations? This was a potential long-term field site that might allow an opportunity for observing what dolphins do, underwater, in the wild. The water is warm, clear for viewing, and the dolphins seemed uniquely curious about humans. I thought, "Surely there must be someone out there studying them already!" I called Hardy on the phone and he agreed to let me see some outtakes of his film so I could gain a better sense of the possibilities. So in 1985 I ventured out to the Bahamas for six weeks to ascertain if these dolphins were really as accessible as I suspected. These dolphins were discovered by treasure divers in the 1970s and they subsequently befriended the working treasure hunters anchored on the shallow sandbank looking for lost Spanish galleon ships. Their sand-blowing equipment exposed tasty fish morsels for the dolphins that came around occasionally for snacks.
I wanted to know if one could see natural dolphin behavior on a regular basis. As I reviewed Hardy's footage it was clear to me that the Bahamas was a place where a fragile, terrestrial human could work in the water for extensive periods of time and observe behavior underwater, and where the dolphins were accessible because of their curiosity about humans. And to my amazement no one was out there studying them scientifically!
At this point I was fairly convinced that this community of dolphins was an ideal group for a long-term research project. But I wanted to go see it for myself, to assess the true potential for long-term work. Luckily, an organization I had worked with on gray whale research, Ocean Society Expeditions (OSE), was starting to run ecotourism trips out to this area and they agreed to let me go out as their naturalist for a month and explore the possibilities. But what equipment should I bring to the field? I readied my Nikonos camera for photo-identification work and I acquired, through the eager support of a friend, an underwater video housing in which I placed a video camera and an external microphone, called a hydrophone, to simultaneously record the dolphins' vocalizations and behaviors. If there was one thing I learned from graduate work, it was that dolphins communicated in many sensory modalities and that to record them simultaneously was critical to understanding the context of their communication. It was also important to know the individuals, their relationships, sex, and history to make sense of the greater context of their lives. So my plan was to spend time with this wild group of dolphins, figure out who was female and male, identify them as individuals, record their behavior, their associations, document the sounds they make with various behaviors, and then try to make sense of it all. Not so easy in the end. How does one really prepare for meeting another species in hopes of establishing a long-term relationship to allow such an intimate glimpse? I knew of no road maps except the work of Jane Goodall and others who applied patience, perseverance, and appropriate etiquette over time to build trust to access a nonhuman world. These were the models I would follow to enter the dolphins' world.
My plan was simple. I would get in the water, try to stay detached and log identification marks on an underwater slate so I could start identifying individuals. I would try not to disturb their behavior and keep to myself. But as I soon discovered, the dolphins had other ideas.
It was 7:00 A.M., the water slick and calm, as it often is during the hurricane season. Out of the topaz blue haze appeared two dolphins, one large, one small, swimming side by side, scanning me as they moved their heads and sent clicks of sound toward me as they approached. I froze, not in fear, but in awe. In all my years of work with marine mammals, the shock of this first contact with another intelligent animal was new. I felt as though I was experiencing a new culture for the first time--a nonhuman culture.