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Quest for Ocean Mind 
In terms of cortical size, degree of folding and cellular organisation, dolphins are the most highly evolved in the whole animal kingdom, and are, in every anatomical way, comparable to ourselves. Dr Lyall Watson

An order of aquatic mammals especially those of a fishlike form with teeth conic or absent:  the whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Britannica Dictionary

In the following pages I shall give an account of my first, most unexpected meeting with dolphins in the open sea.  That episode set Jan and me on a quest which now spans three decades and two oceans.

After 24 years spent in research, I wonder how much further I will go before answering the questions that first encounter aroused.  What are the capacities of large-brained aquatic mammals? What is the quality of their mental experiences? Could convergent evolution have produced an awareness, in the sea, with some potential for relating to large-brained bipeds such as ourselves? Could communication provide us with a window into ocean mind?

Meanwhile, I have attended two international conferences which considered these questions.[1] I have met curious humpback whales off Cape Cod, amiable scientists in Boston and Washington DC and four kinds of dolphins in the Bahamas, Hawaii and New Zealand.  I have corresponded with thousands of people who have met dolphins and whales.  I have had global feedback from my first book on this subject[2] and the  newsletters we have published per our 'Project Interlock'.

From all this, I now reflect: if a person could become detached from a species-centred viewpoint and move to some hypothetical 'other' position, then review the documentation of human/cetacean approaches that have taken place in open-ended situations, perhaps some of my questions would be answered with quite profound implications.

The greatest difficulty is to avoid distorting the picture through the lens of human perception with its potential for unbridled anthropomorphism or giving human characteristics to other creatures, on the one hand, and on the other, the Cartesian extreme whereby animals are seen as reflex machines with no mental experiences whatsoever - or none, that could be accessible to human investigation.

Coming to grips with the possibility of a non-human mind involves a delicate balance between the credulity of those who readily deify dolphins (as has happened in the past) and the institutionalised scepticism of some scientists who identify with the mind set of a generation that subjected cetaceans to captivity, invasive experimentation and weapons research, while larger species were being hunted close to extinction.

In considering the potential of the cetacean mind, I have encountered stumbling blocks.  There is a curious linkage between science and religion: both a high church cleric and a field biologist responded with equal scorn to our study.  To both, it represented a fundamental challenge to the existing order - a heresy!

Compared with most terrestrial mammals the field study of fast-moving ocean mammals is a 'Mount Everest' for science.  Ocean research is more expensive and difficult to accomplish than that of a shore-based laboratory.  There are really only two pathways for learning about cetacean living patterns - either through passive observation, such as the cliff-top studies of dolphins and whales,[3] or participatory investigation whereby communication may be used as a window into the alien mind.

The likelihood of reputable scientists receiving research grants for study of cetaceans would be greatly enhanced if the project were oriented towards captive subjects and classified military projects.  As a result, human understanding of our closest brain rivals has been marred by secrecy and pragmatism.  Military scientists are unlikely to give cetacean subjects the mutual respect and sympathy needed to develop an adequate two-way communication model.

Ironically, just as our tool-using species faces the prospect of a self-inflicted nuclear winter, we are on the verge of proving (Dr Kenneth Norris has stated he is 80% certain [4), both from the fossil record of jaw development and observed feeding patterns, that some species of toothed cetacean (dolphins and whales) may have evolved a lethal biological weapon.  It is possessed by each individual but never used other than for stunning prey; not even against their greatest predator - man.  Understanding such a powerful ethical code may be the most valuable lesson we could derive from cetacean studies.

Despite numerous barriers, scientific evaluation of the cetacean brain has now made considerable progress, and the most qualified scientists in this field have little doubt that an exceptionally complex biological computer parallel to those of terrestrial mammals but millions of years earlier, has evolved in the ocean.

Because certain experiments' of questionable ethics were carried out on living dolphins, scientists actually know more about dolphin brain anatomy than they do about our own.  A review of current neuro-anatomical opinion in this field provides a firm baseline for investigation of cetacean responses in the wild.  New evidence supports the view that a big brain does correlate with advanced neuro-behavioural qualities.  Dr Myron Jacobs, with colleagues Dr Peter Morgane and William McFarland, has made a comprehensive atlas of the dolphin brain.  At the 1980 I.W.C. Conference on Cetacean Intelligence held in Washington DC, I heard Dr Jacobs, and others, present their views on the architecture of the cetacean brain.

Dr Jacobs said: 'The great expanse of association cortex strongly suggests that cetaceans have a highly developed but different form of intelligence .[6]  Dr James Mead, Curator of Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian Institute, provided a most pertinent point - rather than clouding the issue with arguments of equivalence or superiority, we should be 'seeking to understand what the cetaceans do with their large brains'.[7]

The cetacean brain has been examined by the neuro-anatomists and has been found to be superb.  But what do academics know of its performance?

We could begin by examining the record of behavioural research into captive dolphins, such as the celebrated experiment in Hawaii, where Karen Pryor [8] rewarded a dolphin for providing new behaviours and then documented its performance of so many new behaviours that the experimenters were unable to categorise them adequately.

Dr Sam Ridgeway[9] recorded the ERPS (Event Related Electrical Potential) from a dolphin brain and compared them with similar experiments in humans and monkeys.  Only dolphins and humans were comparable in sharing properties of ERPS known to be 'decision' related.  In short, the enlarged areas of the cetacean brain operate at levels of complexity previously found only in our own brains.

A thorough review of captive cetacean research would be inappropriate here.  Such evaluations do corroborate the high expectations of the anatomists but still leave us on shaky ground.  If we wish to comprehend truly the capacities of a large-brained social creature, it should be in a context where performance is as unbiased as possible.  Only in a state of freedom can a creature manifest its full range of behavioural flexibility.

Scientific observers are doing their utmost to learn from the passive studies of field behaviourists, such as Dr Bernd Wursig.  In relatively few areas (Argentina, South Africa, Hawaii) has it been possible to observe the social lives of coastal dolphins from cliff-top vantage points

In the course of a four-year study of bottlenose dolphins in Argentina, Dr Wursig and his wife, Melany, gradually learnt to recognise most of the individuals in various subgroups.  He then found there was a degree of openness in the groups - some individuals changed their association after a few days while five or six individuals swam together consistently for at least 18 months.  When groups met after separation, they vocalised more than they ever had previously, usually stopping to exchange greetings, nuzzling and caressing.

Observing dusky dolphins feed cooperatively, he noticed that they took turns to go through the fish school to feed while others kept the school tightly packed.  Wursig realised that such cooperation required highly refined communication, otherwise certain individuals might grab more fish and spend less time herding.  He concluded that it was likely the dolphins knew and trusted each other enough to control the situation.  As well as remembering each other, they appeared to have an extended concept of 'groupness' rather like our concept of belonging to a club or society which excludes constant physical association.  Defining 'awareness' as being cognizant of one's actions, or thinking about past, present and future, Wursig asserts that we should admit the possibility of awareness in non-human mammals.[10]

Other field studies corroborate and extend Wursig's cautious suggestions.  In the Hawaiian bay where Captain Cook was killed, Dr Kenneth Norris,[ 11] Professor of Natural History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has set up a 14-year-old study of spinner dolphins.  The steep-walled cove offers a rare opportunity to study dolphins in the wild because of the cliff-tops, the clear, calm water and the habits of the spinner dolphins themselves.  This tropical species has a nocturnal feeding pattern and social groups spend the daylight hours resting and romping in large sheltered bays such as Kealakekua.  Prolonged observation has now yielded some exciting discoveries, far beyond what could be learned from placing such social creatures in captivity.

To date, passive field observation has shown that dolphins have strong, extended mother-infant ties; that females have bonds with infants other than their own offspring, and that maturation is a slow process involving much learning and play behaviour.  Their mating system involves rotating consorts without permanent pair bonds; dominant males tend to coordinate group activities, and there is evidence of coordinated group responses to danger and care of the dead.

Dr Norris asserts that these dolphins know each other as individuals, each emitting a separate whistle call; that they live in a complex, learned society where a dolphin may know as many as a hundred other dolphins; that they spend about one-third of their day reaffirming relationships through caresses and responses.  He claims that their safety at sea depends on some kind of whistle network in which they maintain contact with all members of the school, modulating the whistle if danger threatens.

Norris concludes that dolphins are a high order of animals with a more complex social structure than a simple set of family ties; one that functions more like our own society where we have friendships and associations beyond the family.  He points us to the prophetic words of Dr Gregory Bateson (1966), eminent anthropologist and ethologist:[12] 'My first expectation in studying dolphin communication is that it will prove to have the general mammalian characteristic of being primarily about relationship.  This premise is in itself, perhaps, sufficient to account for the sporadic development of large brains among mammals.'

One day a whale researcher who had visited our project in New Zealand and understood the direction of our study, sent me a small book titled The Question of Animal Awareness by Donald R. Griffin .[13] An experimental biologist at Rockefeller University, New York, Dr Griffin is best known for his discovery that bats and other animals use echolocation to orient themselves and locate food.

Few books have given me more inspiration.  During ten years of exploring this field I  felt isolated and vulnerable.  In approaching any discussion of intelligence, mind and awareness, I knew I was entering a minefield, a highly controversial frontier of knowledge.  Subtitling his book 'Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience', Griffin makes some definitions which I find useful in calibrating my thoughts about mind and consciousness in the ocean.  For Griffin mental experiences are thoughts about events and objects remote in time and space from our immediate sensory inputs; mind  is something that has such experience; awareness is the whole set of interrelated mental images of the flow of events, as immediate in time and space as the toothache or as remote as the expanding universe concept.  Consciousness is the presence of mental images and their use by an animal to regulate its behaviour.

Griffin then goes on to review the evidence in areas of animal communication from bees to chimpanzees.  He concludes that their use of versatile communication systems is evidence of mental images and a capacity to communicate with conscious intent.

By that stage (1984), with the evidence from reputable scientists of dolphin awareness, and Griffin's definitions, I felt much happier about my own thesis that the ocean creatures I had been meeting possess awareness of a quality yet to be established; that ocean mind exists and may communicate with us if we can establish appropriate channels.  At the same time I was aware of the danger that this belief could be exaggerated, to the horror of scientists who dread the popular image of dolphins as 'humans with flippers'.

We must not jump the gun, however.  In accepting that dolphins and whales probably have mental experiences of a high order, we must not assume that they are identical with our own.  We know so little.  We are just beginning to perceive the first hints of ocean mind.  The implications of what we know already are so profound that it may take a century for it to sink in and even longer before our species can really come to terms with it.  In the meantime we should heed Dr Lyall Watson's advice: 'Allow for the animal's awareness, but do not make the mistake of assuming it will be similar, or even comparable, to your own.'[14]

In his final and most controversial chapter, 'A Possible Window on the Minds of Animals', Griffin outlines suggestions for the exploration of a scientific territory so unknown that its existence has been seriously questioned.  The anthropomorphism taboo has long made it dangerous for any ethologist to consider that animals have mental experiences.  This dates back to Descartes who regarded animals as mere machines.  To this day, some scientists consider them as 'prewired' genetic programmes.

Griffin suggests that, since animals do communicate  with each other, perhaps we could learn something of their minds if we approached them in the way that an anthropologist [15] studies a group of people whose language he does not know.  With communicating animals, the investigator might talk back and forth, perhaps through an appropriate model   [16] to  verify the meaning of its communication signals.  Griffin then outlines a novel approach for establishing a two-way exchange which he terms 'participatory research into interspecies communication'.[17]

When I read these words after years in the wilderness of intuitive gropings towards such goals, I felt I had come in from the cold.  Here was a formal exposition of the things I had been attempting: a style of approach for channelling appropriate communicative gestures.

To explore subtle aspects of the body language of the honey bee, he suggests using a model bee to interact with real bees; or impersonating a chimpanzee with a thorough disguise including appropriate sounds and pheromonal perfumes. (Our dolphin suit experiments parallel these proposals although the technology involved in modelling dolphins accurately is much more demanding and expensive.  We had no intention of deceiving the dolphins.)

Such efforts would meet with ridicule in some scientific circles but Griffin presents a long roster of researchers who, for the past 50 years, had attempted to deal with the complexities of the animal mind in a disciplined manner, trying to steer a course between the extremes of anthropomorphism and the Cartesian reflex machine.  Of the new genre of researchers he states: 'First they must overcome the feeling of embarrassed outrage at this notion and then laboriously develop the necessary techniques of disguise, imitation and communicatory interaction.[18]

He foresees that the researcher might experimentally control messages until he understands their effective content.  He, may be able to ask questions and receive answers about an animal's mental experiences.  A major objection then arises - the mental experiences of other animals may be so different from our own thoughts that we cannot recognise them.

Griffin takes comfort from the evidence of physiologists that the nervous system and neurons of all multicellular animals are basically similar and that an evolutionary kinship exists between animals and humans- 'Neurophysiologists have so far discovered no fundamental difference between the structure or functions of neurons in men and other animals." [19] Anthropomorphism he calls an obsolete straitjacket.

After I read Griffin's book, my quest for a context into which an understanding of ocean mind might grow met with another stroke of luck.  At the 1980 Conference on Cetacean Intelligence in Washington DC, I met psychologist Dr Michael Bossley of Magill University, South Australia.  Later he sent me an extraordinary unpublished manuscript - his review of the scientific evidence for non-human mind, which was a global survey of formal research into cognitive ethology since Griffin had defined it.  I read this with utter delight and suggested a title, Continuum, which Dr Bossley accepted.

The implications of Bossley's survey could upset many.  He insists that an entirely new ethical system is required, and presents compelling evidence for a continuity between human psychological processes and those of other life forms.  He urges our species to climb down from its imaginary pedestal: 'Everything grades into everything else.  We are part of the natural world.' Much of the research Bossley examines is recent and ongoing.  For the most part it has appeared only in highly technical literature accessible to specialised academics.  It may be several generations before the full implications are heeded.  Like the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, it could alter the way we view our place on this planet, how we treat other life forms and each other.

Legitimate evidence that five vital aspects of being human can be traced to other animals exists in the published work of established scientists.  In each of five chapters, Bossley summarises that evidence.  The presentation I am about to make of our own research into human/cetacean relationships belongs in this context - the continuum of mind that extends into the ocean and forests of this planet.  I do not wish to place cetaceans on a lonely pedestal adjacent to our own but rather, to provide hard-won evidence from the sea that extends and reinforces both Griffin's and Bossley's theses.  I suggest that we visualise the mind continuum not as a hierarchy or ladder ('The Great Chain of Being'), but as degrees in a compass rose.


For the great scholar, Gregory Bateson, 'mind' is a network of interactions relating the individual to his society and his species; 'ideas' develop and evolve according to the same laws that control natural phenomena.

In his collected essays Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Bateson wrote: 'The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body.  It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. [20]

In this book I propose to review ten years of my personal experiences with dolphins and whales, along with those of other people, in close approaches ranging from mutual curiosity to gamesplay, mimicry and complex interaction. Dolphin Dolphin included my study of altruistic encounters where dolphins have protected people, rescued them or warned them of danger.  Although space precludes further coverage of this aspect in this book, our files have expanded considerably since 1981.

Long regarded by scientists as rigid, stereotyped or capable of innate responses only, the care-giving or epimelitic behaviour of dolphins has recently been reappraised.[21]   The emergent picture reveals a long-lived, complex and mutually dependant dolphin society, involving extended parental care, cooperative feeding, and an extremely fluid social structure.  Within such a society - closely paralleling our own - behaviour is typified more by learned than innate responses.  When swimming with unrelated 'friends', mutually assured assistance is clearly important.  As with humans, selective pressure for more and more sophisticated acts of altruism can be expected.  Furthermore, there is much evidence that dolphins and whales extend their care-giving and cooperative behaviour to species other than their own.  In this context their assistance to humans becomes all the more credible.

Related to the altruism of dolphins towards humans are the well-documented (filmed) episodes of dolphins assisting fishermen.  Such commensal fishing is not necessarily altruistic, however.  In many cases both species appear to benefit, but it can be seen as part of a continuum of cooperative interspecific behaviour and offers further insights into the nature of the interspecies bond, and the surprising capacities of cetaceans to interact with us in open-ended situations. 

Anecdotal Evidence - For too long accounts of friendly or altruistic cetacean encounters have been dismissed as folklore.  Because such episodes may occur only once in a lifetime and credibility is at risk, many people become reticent.  This further isolates those who choose to speak out.  Even though these incidents are rare, they are hard-grain reality.  I have made a major effort to document and collate them, and claim that such anecdotal material should be considered in any evaluation of the cetacean brain.

Observation of open ocean behaviour is exceedingly difficult for scientists but the accounts I have amassed do not bear this out in all respects.  Where people have behaved towards cetaceans in a benign, communicative manner they have often met with prolonged and remarkable responses.  Yet, we must remember that brain anatomy, captive and field studies, all concur in respect to the quality and potential of this ocean mind.  Because close approach situations appear anomalous and have no relationship to scientific evaluation, they are often dismissed as irrelevant.  But this is not always correct.  Accounts given by lay people fit neatly into the scientific assessment of the cetacean brain.  The behaviours described may be uncommon but they are what might be expected of a large-brained social animal in a communicative setting with its closest brain rival.  Investigation of advanced, non-human minds is a novel field for western science.  After centuries of species-centred bias, it is going to demand unconventional adaptation of scientific methods.  The Russian scientist A.V. Yablokov believes it may be impossible for us to understand an alien, non-human thinking system from current anthropocentric research methods based on the premise that man is the centre of the universe. [2 2 ]

Lone Dolphin Encounters - During the course of our studies we became aware of a special category of human/cetacean encounter - the situation where a lone dolphin spends an extended period of time around human settlements.  In many cases its normal social intercourse seems to have been replaced by intensive interaction with people.  Such episodes appear to have increased in recent years, perhaps facilitated by the change in attitude towards dolphins - an account from last century culminated in the dolphin's capture and display on a hand cart! For want of a better name I have labelled these encounters Dints and now have a file of lone (though there have been pairs and even sub-groups) dolphin/human relationships.

Obviously these episodes offer little knowledge of the dolphin's normal social life but they do complement, in some respects, dolphin school observations, and they provide unique insights into the flexibility and complexity of their relationship with an alien species which does not share their acoustic, nonmanipulative culture.  By amassing a range of such accounts from all over the globe, certain patterns emerge.  Simplistic explanations of the phenomenon, based on too few examples, are shown to be unlikely.

Friendly Whales - Considering that a dolphin is really a small-toothed whale, it is not surprising that friendly encounters have increased among the more common of the 76 cetacean species.  As the whale killing industry winds down, populations are showing a promising resurgence in many parts of the world - in their former feeding grounds and nursery areas.  The situation has changed since the days before industrial man declared war on the cetaceans.  For the first time in history many whale grounds have been given sanctuary status.  We now have the technology which enables people to meet whales on their own terms and to listen to whale voices.  The understandable fear of close proximity to creatures many tons in weight, is proving groundless as we learn the appropriate ethics for meeting leviathan in a benign setting.  And so our files have accumulated accounts and photographs of close approaches involving humpback, grey and sei whales; minke, Brydes, fin and right whales; sperm and pilot whales; orca, pseudorca and beluga - all offering further insights into the capacities of ocean mind.


"Cetacean Intelligence & the Ethics of Killing Them', Washington DC 1981.
'Whales Alive', Boston 1983. Both held under the auspices of the International  Whaling Commission.
2. Dolphin Dolphin, Hodder & Stoughton (1981 Auckland and NY).
3. Drs B. Wursig, R. Payne et al.
4. 'Do odontocetes debilitate their prey acoustically?' Abst. Fourth bien.        Conf. Mar.  Mam. San    Fran., 1981.
5. Drs P. Morgane et al. "The Whale Brain & the Anatomical Basis of Intelligence'      (Scribner,     NY 1974).
6. M. Jacobs, 'Studies on Cetacean Brain'. (Paper at Conference,1981.)
7. J. Mead,'Whalewatcher'. (Fall 1985, No 3.)
8. K. Pryor et al. 'The creative porpoise: training for novel behaviour'. Jour. Anal.  Behav. 12:  653-661.)
9. S. Ridgeway, 'Cetus' 3/5, p4.
10. B, Wursig, 'The Question of Dolphin Awareness Approached through Studies in Nature'.  "Cetus" 5-1, pp 4-7
11. K. Norris et al. 'The Behaviour of Hawaiian spinner dolphins Stenella longirostris'.  Fish. Bull. 1986, 77(4), 821-49.
12. G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (Chandler Pub Co. 1972 p337.)
13. D. Griffin. "The Question of Animal Awareness', Rockefeller Univ 1976. 'Animal Thinking', Harvard UP (,Cambridge 1984).
14. L. Watson. Whales of the World. (Hutchinson, l,ondon, 1981, p49).
15. Griffin, op, cit.p88.
16. Ibid. p  95.
17. Ibid. p 95.
18. Ibid. p 95.
19. Ibid. p IO4.
20.  G Bateson, op.cit. p436.
21. 'Are Dolphins Reciprocal Altruists?' R.Connor & K.Norris. Am. Naturist, Mar. 1982, Vol. 119/3, pp 358-374.
22.A. Nablokov, 'Behavioural Difference between Species and Groups of Species'.      [Comment at Conference, 1981).

Preamble: Friends In the Sea


From very early times there have been tales of lone dolphins straying from their pods and seeking human company.  But only recently have we learned to respond to these creatures with care and friendship. 

In Friends in the Sea Wade Doak presents with fascinating detail his personal encounters with Solo dolphins.  These gentle cetaceans leap, roll and dive alongside their human friends, constantly inventing new games.  They respond to underwater music and human sounds.  They have even been known to rescue people in difficulties.  Also recorded here are stories that reflect their joy and wonder as they discover the unique personalities of these remarkable sea mammals. 

New Zealand dolphin researcher Wade Doak, together with his wife Jan, founded Project Interlock in 1975.  The aim of the project is to gather details of encounters between humans and cetaceans globally, and develop an approach based on mutual respect and admiration for creatures that are, beyond doubt, our closest brain neighbours. 

Quest for Ocean Mind 

"Since my first meeting with wild dolphins in 1975 I have sought to answer the questions that unusual encounter aroused.  What are the capacities of large brained aquatic mammals ? What is the quality of their mental experiences ?  Could we open a window into ocean mind through communication ? 

My studies led me to initiate many more encounters with wild dolphins and to seek the experiences of others.  The material my wife Jan and I gathered from New Zealand sources through our Project Interlock is presented in Dolphin Swimming in New Zealand. 

But during the course of our studies we became aware of a special category of human/dolphin encounter:  the situation where a lone dolphin spends an extended period of time around human settlements.  In many cases its normal social intercourse seems to have been replaced by intensive interaction with people.  Obviously such episodes offer little knowledge of the dolphin's normal social life, but they do complement in some respects, dolphin school observations and they provide unique insights into the flexibility and complexity of dolphins' relationships with an alien bipedal species which does not share much of their acoustic reality.  

By amassing accounts from all over the world I found certain insightful patterns emerged.  Eventually I collected so much material from New Zealand and Australia that I can now provide a documentary which concentrates on the history of solo dolphins in these two countries." END of PREAMBLE.