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“Save the Dolphins, Save the World”

September 15, 2010

Posted by Benjamin Harley

The Dolphin Dance Project has published a new page on our website that summarizes the primary threats from humans to the well-being of dolphins in the wild.  This is a relatively comprehensive survey and provides links to many of the organizations working to protect dolphins and their habitat.  The page is meant to be a practical resource which provides a review of the current situation and suggestions about what can be done to help.  It is also a stark reminder of the immense impact that our global society is having on the oceans and the world.  In many cases, the perils we create for dolphins signal a greater menace to ourselves. Please have a look, click here.

Banksy's sad dolphin

Dolphins (and whales), as apex predators and mammals, are a unique bellwether for us – a proverbial canary in the (deep blue) coal mine.  We have so much in common with them, not just our intelligence and creativity, but our basic biology:  we eat some of the same fish, we suffer from similar diseases, we can be poisoned by the same chemicals.  In recent years, we can attest that dolphins have been getting measurably sicker, they carry enormous loads of toxins, they are showing up stranded and starving . . . and it all amounts to a neon-flashing-sign proclaiming: ‘save the dolphins, save the world’.

The new page begins with a brief review of our similarities: there is ever more evidence that dolphins have sophisticated conscious lives, deep emotional bonds, and the ability to reflect on their own thoughts.  We are so alike, they are our homologues in the sea.  More remarkable, the fossil record strongly suggests dolphins have had advanced mental capacities for 15 million years; by contrast, humans have had similar capabilities for at most a million years, possibly only the last hundred thousand.  Dolphins (and other cetaceans) have been the most intelligent creatures on earth since long before humans diverged from the other great apes.  One can only imagine what this age of cetaceans was like, what kind of ocean civilization existed before humans started hunting them aggressively in the last 150 years, killing 90% or more of some species, decimating whatever culture existed, destroying the abundance of fish that must have allowed them great leisure to play and socialize.  But we do catch glimpses when dolphins in the Pacific gather around a pregnant humpback whale, providing safety and helping her give birth in a celebration of whistles and clicks.

What is most astounding is precisely how recent our deleterious impact on the entire dolphin population is.  Only modern technology has allowed us to hunt large numbers of dolphins with motorized boats, to ravage the oceans with invisible nets and hooks that cover miles at a time, to create chemicals that are poisoning dolphins to the extent that 50% of first born babies die.  And it is only our relative prosperity which has created a meaningful market for us to capture dolphins to entertain us, to risk catastrophic spills to pump oil from below the ocean, and to produce the huge number of commercial and recreational boats that crisscross dolphins’ natural habitat, killing and maiming dolphins as they speed by.

It is probably fair to say that before the 1950’s, humans rarely amounted to more than a local nuisance for specific pods – but in the last 50 years, things have changed radically.  One is left to contemplate what this must be like for dolphin societies around the world.  For 15 million years, their ancestors lived in relatively peaceful equilibrium with the environment in which they evolved, and for the last few hundred thousand years their most notable interaction with the ever more prevalent Homo sapiens was to nudge us to shore when we fell out of a primitive boat.   But now, in the equivalent of a blink of an eye, dolphins have been undergoing assaults that are perhaps more intense than what World War II did to Europe – hunted, poisoned, caught in ever expanding traps of fishing gear and debris, harassed in some places around the clock.

The way we live today as a global society – through the lens of our impact on the ocean – is nothing like the way we lived in 1930 or even 1950, much less the relatively minimal effects we had on the overall environment throughout human prehistory (with the important caveat of driving many large land mammals to extinction as we spread out from Africa).  What we are doing is devastating, and there is no reason to expect that the oceans will be able to survive it; in our lifetimes the oceans are becoming deserts.

How have we come to this?  It is not just our rapidly accelerating technological advances – these can be equally useful for neutralizing the effects of our society on our environment.  Rather, there is a deep and pervasive attitude that humans are allowed, even intended, to master the natural world to satisfy our needs and desires.  We believe that we are somehow separate from nature, that nature’s purpose is to serve us, that we are above the inevitable give and take of natural systems.  This belief allows us to escape thinking too much about the consequences of our actions – especially the impact they have on our fellow creatures.  And it runs the risk of blinding us to the threats we create for ourselves, making us unassertive even when we do recognize our interdependence.

The first dolphin I encountered in the wild delivered, face to face, an unexpected personal message to correct my thinking.  I was prepared to look into the eye of another intelligent creature and see it mirror back my own curiosity and wonder at such an encounter.  But I did not realize that this experience would blossom quickly into a profound transformation of my relationship with the natural world as a whole.  It was as if meeting this non-human, but seeing it as an equal – and I do not wish to romanticize the experience, it is simply true that anyone unbiased will see in the eye of a dolphin a mind of equal depth and a shared curiosity about the minds of others – caused me to challenge a deep, if unconscious, belief that humans are somehow different, somehow separate, and somehow deserving of deference not offered to any other creature.  To really see that we are just another animal – special in our own ways, but no more precious, no more entitled than any other animal to reign over the creatures of the earth – was to reevaluate my place, the place of humanity as a species, in the continuum of life itself.

Joseph Campbell, the foremost scholar of human mythology, pointed out that one of the defining myths of Western Civilization, enshrined in the Old Testament and also in the legends of the Dorian Greeks, is the separation of humankind from nature, the separation of God from nature.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

It reflects the worldview of herders – people whose identity and survival depends on dominating animals – and it is the deep foundation for our heedless exploitation of nature in what has become the ‘modern’ world.  What I had not realized was that, even with all my ‘green’ sensibilities, I did not know how to see – really see, not just conceptualize – the world in any other way.

Just because we can dominate the natural world, bend it to what we think is in our interest, does that mean we are ‘entitled’ to do so?  or even that it is ‘wise’ to do so?  As soon as one takes seriously the subjective experience of other animals, the field of what we have a ‘right’ to do is constrained by the effects it has on their needs and their desires.  It is no wonder so many scientists fight against recognizing the emotional lives of animals – to the extent that science serves our technical mastery of nature, this would be a great inconvenience – even as bonobos can use sign language fluently to tell us how they feel, and everyone who cares for a pet knows they have feelings.  It seems increasingly strange to insist, until proven otherwise, that other animals are so cognitively different from us.

From seeing myself reflected in the eye of the dolphin, I find myself inexorably expanding the creatures in whose place I can put myself.  It throws into stark relief the blatant disregard for the dignity of other life in so much of modern society: pollution, habitat destruction, not to mention what we do to ‘domesticated’ animals in stockyards and laboratories.  It is the nature of things for life to devour life – but predator prey relationships have evolved gradually, balancing the interests of both.  As the few remaining hunter-gather cultures demonstrate, for most of our evolutionary history, killing other animals was considered a sacrifice, a sacred act, done with gratitude to the animal, and with an understanding that we were part of the same circle of life and death.  It is hard to imagine anything more distant from the modern industrial experience of buying a meal, filling a tank with gas, even visiting a nature ‘preserve’ on holiday.

Palace at Knossos, circa 1500 BC. Before the Dorians, the dolphins are depicted without human riders, and their eyes are drawn with intelligence and compassion like ours.

Two thousand years ago, a famous Roman author Pliny the younger recorded a short anecdote in a letter – the details of which make it especially convincing – about a wild dolphin and its eagerness to make a human friend.  As they still do today, and presumably as they have done since our first homo ancestor swam out into the sea, the dolphin takes the lead, approaching the human, indicating clearly that it wants nothing more than to share the joy of friendship.  The story rings true, not only for the delightful way that humans and dolphins come to love each other, but also for the tragic outcome.  Even loving humans can fail to do the right thing by their cetacean friends – and the forgiving, unsuspecting nature of the dolphin offers it no protection.

“There is in Africa a town called Hippo, situated not far from the seacoast: it stands upon a navigable lake communicating with an estuary in the form of a river, which alternately flows into the lake, or into the ocean, according to the ebb and flow of the tide. People of all ages amuse themselves here with fishing, sailing, and swimming; especially boys, whom love of play brings to the spot. With these it is a fine and manly achievement to be able to swim the farthest; and he that leaves the shore and out-races his companions at the greatest distance gains the victory.

It happened, in one of these trials of skill, that a certain boy, bolder than the rest, launched out towards the opposite shore. He was met by a dolphin, who sometimes swam before him, and sometimes behind him, then played round him, and at last took him upon his back, and set him down, and afterwards took him again; and thus he carried the poor frightened fellow out into the deepest part; when immediately he turns back again to the shore, and lands him among his companions.

The fame of this remarkable accident spread through the town, and crowds of people flocked round the boy (whom they viewed as a kind of prodigy) to ask him questions and hear him relate the story. The next day the shore was thronged with spectators, all attentively watching the ocean, and (what indeed is almost itself an ocean) the lake. Meanwhile the boys swam as usual, and among the rest, the boy I am speaking of went into the lake, but with more caution than before. The dolphin appeared again and came to the boy, who, together with his companions, swam away with the utmost precipitation.

The dolphin, as though to invite and call them back, leaped and dived up and down, in a series of circular movements. This he practiced the next day, the day after, and for several days together, till the people (accustomed from their infancy to the sea) began to be ashamed of their timidity. They ventured, therefore, to advance nearer, playing with him and calling him to them, while he, in return, suffered himself to be touched and stroked. Use rendered them courageous. The boy, in particular, who first made the experiment, swam by the side of him, and leaping upon his back, was carried backwards and forwards in that manner, and thought the dolphin knew him and was fond of him, while he too had grown fond of the dolphin.

There seemed now, indeed, to be no fear on either side, the confidence of the one and tameness of the other mutually increasing; the rest of the boys, in the meanwhile surrounding and encouraging their companion. It is very remarkable that this dolphin was followed by a second, which seemed only as a spectator and attendant on the former; for he did not at all submit to the same familiarities as the first, but only escorted him backwards and forwards, as the boys did their comrade. But what is further surprising, and no less true than what I have already related, is that this dolphin, who thus played with the boys and carried them upon his back, would come upon the shore, dry himself in the sand, and, as soon as he grew warm, roll back into the sea.

It is a fact that Octavius Avitus, deputy governor of the province, actuated by an absurd piece of superstition, poured some ointment over him as he lay on the shore: the novelty and smell of which made him retire into the ocean, and it was not till several days after that he was seen again, when he appeared dull and languid; however, he recovered his strength and continued his usual playful tricks. All the magistrates round flocked hither to view this sight, whose arrival and prolonged stay, was an additional expense, which the slender finances of this little community would ill afford; besides, the quiet and retirement of the place was utterly destroyed. It was thought proper, therefore, to remove the occasion of this concourse, by privately killing the poor dolphin.”

– translated from the Latin by William Melmoth, Harvard Classics

This is an especially sad ending.  The authorities were not able to understand the message which the children so readily acknowledged.  The joy of the dolphin was in seeing the humans voluntarily choose to play with him.  This became the joy of the children.  If only it had become a defining joy to the civilization – making it unthinkable to harm the dolphin for petty human-centric concerns.

Perhaps saddest of all, it illustrates the perennial threat to dolphins of being loved too much.  There are so many more humans today – and we have killed off so many dolphins – there is a great imbalance between the humans who want to see them and the dolphins in places that are easily accessible.  As the industry grows to feed the ever increasing appetite to experience dolphins on our terms, in ways that are convenient to us, rather than on theirs, it is having negative consequences on the dolphins themselves.  It is clear that many dolphins enjoy interacting with humans and will seek them out on their own terms – just like they were doing two thousand years ago.  If you want to experience this for yourself, be sure to find a guide and a situation that ensure the dolphin’s needs come first and allows the dolphin to come to you out of its own desire to make a connection – then you will be as joyful as the boy in the story and no doubt experience the mutual fondness which may transform your relationship to nature itself.

With all this attention to the menace that humans have become for dolphins in the wild, it is important to remember that there are so many inspirational examples of us helping them.  Ordinary people, expressing great tenderness, make enormous efforts to save stranded dolphins and whales.  Researchers work doggedly to understand them and identify what can be done to protect their health.  Citizens invest countless hours and resources to reduce the impact of our modern society and to educate and inform others to stop direct threats like hunting and live capture.  Our new page lists many of the organizations that are devoted to these causes, please support them.

The human heart, like the dolphin heart, is capable of such beautiful compassion and understanding.  At our best, we rise above our own self concerns and take into consideration all the other creatures with whom we share this world.

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2 comments

  1. Beautifully and thoughtfully written, Ben – Thanks!


  2. […] We are proud to support cetacean conservation efforts through our films and other efforts. For more information on protecting dolphins and their habitat, please visit our Protect page and related blog post. […]



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