Archive for February, 2010


Following the Bubble Stream…

February 12, 2010

Following the Bubble Stream…

On this Valentine’s day (and the Lunar New Year), I’m excited to share an example of my very favorite human-dance ‘move,’ which I call ‘the swirl’. This ‘performance’ was documented on the first day of filming by our underwater cinematographer Bryce Groark.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also see it and a breakdown of the interaction in our new gallery.)

What an ecstatic moment! As I spiraled along the bottom with one dolphin, two others raced in to join, so that the four of us could ‘swirl’ up together to the surface. So magical!

In moments like this, when the wild dolphins allow me to join their beautiful underwater dance, I feel loved. I feel accepted. I feel joy. And watching this clip, the memory of that is what rushes back first.

Then, watching again, I marvel at how much of a ‘dance’ this moment is….undulating in time together we adjust our bodies and trajectories, all the while ‘listening’ to each other’s movements.  The first dolphin catches up to me, then crosses in front of me right to left, gracefully curving his/her body to look back at me…then two other dolphins join on either side of me…what a lovely spatial configuration we make as we rise up all together (click here to see still images from this sequence)! Like so many beautiful moments that unfold with any improvised dancing, no one could have choreographed it better. And to think…it was some tacit understanding between the dolphins and me that created this moment…amazing!

Caught up in the ‘dance’ with wild dolphins, I often wonder what the dolphins are ‘up to’? I wonder whether the dolphins are intentionally and knowingly making something ‘beautiful’ with me. I wonder whether the qualities that make these moments ‘beautiful’ to me are also ‘meaningful’ to them.

I have experienced ‘the swirl’ many times, and seen other humans caught up in it, too. I’ve experienced and seen it with Atlantic Spotted dolphins as well as these Pacific Spinner dolphins – so this is not a species-specific behavior. Yet I have not observed dolphins swirling in this way when they come up to the surface in the absence of a human. There must be some significance that is specific for the human-wild dolphin relationship in ‘the swirl’.

Recently, I met Diana Reiss, PhD, a professor at Hunter College and the head of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. Dr. Reiss conducted the seminal experiments with dolphins and mirrors, demonstrating that dolphins express self-awareness. In the future, I’ll be writing more about Dr. Reiss’s fascinating research and working with her and other dolphin experts who can provide a scientific perspective on the functions and meanings of interactions like ‘the swirl’.  One of the fundamental goals of the Dolphin Dance Project is not only to share the beauty of these human-dolphin ‘dances,’ but to provide the most complete understanding of what transpires – based on the latest research into dolphin behavior and non-verbal communication.

bubble stream in swirlTo my knowledge, there isn’t any scientific literature about ‘the swirl,’ but another behavior that is seen in this clip – the bubble stream – has been well-described and analyzed by several researchers.

Did you see the dolphin on the left hand side making a small stream of bubbles as he/she races in to join us? In ‘the swirl’ it is a bit hard to discern…but here is a clip – also shot by Bryce – that shows the bubble stream well.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also watch it in our gallery.)

Scientists who have studied Spinner and other dolphin species have observed that dolphins often make a unique (or at least distinct) whistle while emitting the bubble stream, and that they sometimes display this behavior (sound and bubbles) when entering social situations. A study in Bottlenose dolphins showed that they can identify other dolphins through these whistles strengthening the possibility that these whistles function as names. Based on research like this, the bubble stream is believed to be something of a dolphin salutation – like a dolphin saying, ‘hi…i’m [whistle]…nice to see you.’ The bubbles are thought to provide emphasis, as the whistle can be made without the bubbles.

Does this mean that the dolphin in this clip was ‘talking’ to Bryce…saying, ‘hello’ and telling Bryce his/her name as Bryce was filming? Was the dolphin who joined ‘the swirl’ coming up to say ‘hello’ to me or maybe the other dolphins? Whether this behavior has the same function in dolphin-human communication as in dolphin-dolphin communication isn’t known. But it is certainly tempting to think of a dolphin offering me a polite hello!

In ‘the swirl’ you might have noticed that I make bubbles, too. It’s been very interesting watching myself on video these past few weeks and noticing how often I (inadvertently) made a bubble stream out of my snorkel. I wonder if the dolphins are amused at my clumsy ‘hello’?  They must think it a strange attempt with no whistle!  Do they ask themselves whether I do it ‘intentionally’? Or maybe they are too smart for that…maybe they know I’m just making bubbles…

One thing I always try to keep in mind, when I am musing about what the dolphins ‘think’…

Dolphins are large-brained social mammals like ourselves, but they live in a radically different environment from us and experience it through an anatomy and physiology that have significant differences from our own. Their brains and ‘thought patterns’ might actually be so different from ours that we can never truly understand what they think or feel. That might seem a little disappointing…but I believe it is absolutely critical to maintain that doubt. In part, it is because I believe this doubt allows us to be respectful – it keeps us from imposing too much of our own human feelings, expectations and thought patterns on the dolphins. Maintaining this respectful point of view, our scientific observations can be more objective. More important, we allow the mystery to be ever present. We make room in our imaginations for a sense of awe.

For me – as for many improvisors – this is the place where the dance takes place…between what is familiar – like body postures and spatial organizations …and what is mysterious – like the soul of my dancing partner(s), be they human or dolphin.

Even as the dancing and science raise questions, one thing is for sure. When we encounter wild dolphins, we humans feel immense joy, acceptance and even love; and this human reaction is a fact.It is certainly true for me, when wild dolphins surround me and allow me to join in their beautiful underwater dance. I am sure that those of you who have swum with wild dolphins feel the same way.

So I am eager for us to reflect to the dolphins what we feel so strongly in their presence. I want to encourage us, as a human species, to act in a way that is consistent with giving to the dolphins the same loving and accepting feelings they inspire in us. That might mean leaving them alone when they need to rest or feed. Or raising money or awareness about dolphins to protect them and their habitats. (For example, you might spread the word about ‘The Cove,’ which is making a big difference in Japan) It will mean different things for each of us, but for each of us, the action will likely make us feel even better…as loving actions always do.

May there be much love in our hearts on this Valentine’s day and every day!

Bubble Stream


Dolphin Dance Project presents . . . our first underwater video clip!

February 1, 2010

I’m excited to share my first video clip from the Dolphin Dance Project! This clip was shot by Brett LeMaster on the last morning of our trip – the very special trip about which I wrote at the end of my previous blog entry. We recorded much beautiful footage of the human dolphin dance during the week – but it was not until that last morning that all the conditions were right for us to film the intimacy of the human-dolphin ‘duet’.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also see it and a breakdown of the interaction in our new gallery.)

On that morning the ocean had quieted after days of high surf. Leaving the harbor at sunrise, we quickly found dolphins cavorting in a bay not far away. The dolphins must have had a good night of fishing as many dolphins were playful and interactive, not yet resting, even though that is what they had come to the bay to do. As we slowly and carefully approached in the boat, several dolphins gathered around, spy hopping to see us. The water was not very clear, churned up by the surf from the days before…but I could hear the dolphins chattering as soon as I entered the water.  As I glided towards the chatter, seven dolphins quickly surrounded me…inviting me for a swim in their midst! Leina and Ben joined me in the water… as did, eventually, Kasumi and Patrice. And the dolphins seemed to enjoy us all. Often separating into twos and threes, those seven dolphins stayed with us for over an hour that morning…leading us this way and that…diving down with us…and circling around…choreographing us in a lovely dance. The clip you see here is just one moment from this human-dolphin dance.

Moments like this are incredibly precious – but not actually rare. Dolphins seem to be as attracted to us as we are to them, and often approach us with great trust. Still, I think footage like this is quite uncommon, and perhaps that is because this moment is really a ‘trio’ between the dolphin, me and Brett, who was filming. As we dance, I am following the dolphin’s lead…and I hardly know where Brett is. So it had to be Brett, who positioned himself just so…and the dolphin who had to lead me towards Brett.

A view from below: Diving down deep, Brett often had dolphins circling his head as he held the camera

No doubt it was helpful that Brett is a veritable ‘dolphin magnet’! As Brett stayed many feet below, holding the camera – and his breath, for what sometimes seemed an incredibly long time – I often saw the dolphins circling over his head in seeming admiration.

Please rest assured that as we pursue the Dolphin Dance Project we are always diligent about dolphin ‘etiquette’ – as everyone who swims with dolphins should be. Our encounters with wild dolphins are completely voluntary; we never coerce them in any way. Only the dolphins’ generosity and curiosity leads our interactions. If you have the opportunity to meet wild dolphins – please follow these guidelines, which also guide us. They were written by Kathleen Dudzinski, PhD who has conducted one of the longest standing field research projects on wild dolphins and is quite expert in interacting with wild dolphins.

In my experience, wild dolphins of all kinds are amongst the most generous and inviting ‘cultural groups’ that a person could ever hope to encounter. Indeed, visiting dolphins is a little like visiting a foreign country. The more I learn about the ‘local’ culture – through books, videos, or observation – the better I can ‘fit in’…be polite…and have the best social interactions possible. If you would like to learn more about Spinner dolphins, or dolphin communication, please visit our website’s new Links Page where we have some recommendations for you.

Thank you for viewing my very first video clip! I hope you enjoyed it and that you will enjoy the series of clips that I will post soon! I am very interested in your reactions…so please post any and all of your comments…anything that strikes you…or any questions that may come up

In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more clips from the Dolphin Dance Project. As I do so, I’ll tell you more about our experiences with the filming and also about any relevant scientific knowledge regarding dolphins. I hope this will inspire increased interest and regard for our incredible dolphin friends. And I hope this will lead us to consider dolphins in our daily lives: what we eat, what fuels we use, what we do with our garbage, and so many other human activities, affect the well being of dolphins, the oceans in which they live, and the planet we all share.

And thanks again to all who are making this Dolphin Dance Project possible…truly a dream come true. Thanks to Heather Delaney and Kimio Wheaton for helping procure the necessary hard- and software for this endeavor, my crew for their continued help and support, my donors – those of you whose generous donations helped pay for our trip! – Bryce, Kasumi, Patrice, Leina and Brett…and above all, the Pacific Spinner Dolphins!

May we all dance together for a long time to come!

Chisa with multiple=