ENCOUNTERS WITH WHALES AND DOLPHINS
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.
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
and two oceans.
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. 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 and the newsletters we have published
per our 'Project Interlock'.
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.
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
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.
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, or participatory investigation whereby communication
may be used as a window into the alien mind.
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
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
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.
Jacobs said: 'The great expanse of association cortex strongly suggests that
cetaceans have a highly developed but different form of intelligence .
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'.
cetacean brain has been examined by the neuro-anatomists and has been found
to be superb. But what do academics know of its performance?
could begin by examining the record of behavioural research into captive
dolphins, such as the celebrated experiment in Hawaii, where Karen Pryor 
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.
Ridgeway 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: '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.'
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 . 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.
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.
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
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.'
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  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  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'.
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.
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.)
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.
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." 
Anthropomorphism he calls an obsolete straitjacket.
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.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
regarded by scientists as rigid, stereotyped or capable of innate responses
only, the care-giving or epimelitic behaviour of dolphins has recently been
reappraised. 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
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
"Cetacean Intelligence & the Ethics of Killing Them', Washington DC 1981.
'Whales Alive', Boston 1983. Both held under the auspices of the
International Whaling Commission.
Dolphin Dolphin, Hodder & Stoughton (1981 Auckland and NY).
B. Wursig, R. Payne et al.
4. 'Do odontocetes debilitate their prey acoustically?' Abst. Fourth bien. Conf.
Mar. Mam. San
P. Morgane et al. "The Whale Brain & the Anatomical Basis of
Intelligence' (Scribner, NY
Jacobs, 'Studies on Cetacean Brain'. (Paper at Conference,1981.)
7. J. Mead,'Whalewatcher'. (Fall 1985, No 3.)
Pryor et al. 'The creative porpoise: training for novel behaviour'. Jour.
Anal. Behav. 12: 653-661.)
Ridgeway, 'Cetus' 3/5, p4.
10. B, Wursig, 'The Question of Dolphin Awareness Approached through Studies in
5-1, pp 4-7.
11. K. Norris et al. 'The
Behaviour of Hawaiian spinner dolphins Stenella longirostris'. Fish. Bull. 1986, 77(4),
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
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
Preamble: Friends In the Sea
SOLO DOLPHINS IN NEW ZEALAND AND
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.
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
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
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 ?
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.
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.
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.