Posts Tagged ‘Bahamas’

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Popping the Cork on an Exciting New Year!

January 6, 2011

We’re ringing in the New Year with a sneak preview of things to come…more human dancers! Here is a lovely moment caught in an exceptional single shot last summer in Bimini by producer Ben Harley:  a sweet young Atlantic Spotted dolphin dives directly towards Kathleen Fisher and me and leads us, with a clear intention, in a basic dolphin ‘figure’ that we call the ‘corkscrew’.

Has the dolphin noticed that we were practicing moving with each other like dolphins?  Does he intend to show us?  Has his interest simply been piqued to join in?  One thing is certain, there is an attempt to engage in a moment of meaningful, shared movement – we are all listening to each other, we are all working hard to be connected.

Kathleen is a beautiful dancer, whom I met years ago, when she lived in NYC, dancing for the Trisha Brown Company. Kathleen has been living in Bimini for several years in order to spend more time with dolphins.  Following my week with Diana Reiss’ research trip last August, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with her as the Dolphin Dance Project begins to explore the possibilities for composing dances with multiple humans.

In 2011, our goal is to develop this work and for several humans to dance with each other like the dolphins dance amongst themselves – fluid groupings of synchronous members gliding and twirling, often in unison, sometimes in tender physical contact. I am  eager to experience the dolphins’ reactions. How will they dance with us if we can show them that humans can be cooperative and harmonious underwater, just like them? Will it mean something to the dolphins? As dancers, we can also explore the emotional impact on us of moving this way together.  We will be asking questions like these and documenting them on video as we develop the material for the feature length dance film and documentary we aspire to make.

As we work on the next phase of our project, we will offer more of these previews … and we will continue to let you know about additional screenings of “Together,” our award-winning debut film. In January, we have a few screenings in NYC:

On January 15 between 4 and 8.30 pm, “Together” will screen during the Japanese American and Japanese in America (JAJA) New Year’s party at the Japanese American Association (JAA) Hall at 15 West 44 Street, 11 floor. Admission is free and you will enjoy many performances and exhibits by Japanese and Japanese American artists living in NYC.

On January 27th at 6 pm, our festival tour continues with a screening of  “Together” on the Big Screen Project, a huge new outdoor screen near 6th Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets in NYC as part of the 39th annual Dance on Camera Festival. The best viewing will be from Bar Basque, which will be hosting the Dance on Camera short film celebration that evening; but “Together” and the other short dance films in the program will be visible from the street, the Eventi Hotel plaza and Foodparc.

If you can’t join us on the 27th, the Big Screen Project will show “Together” and the Dance on Camera shorts program several times following the celebration. For specific dates and times, please check their calendar.

As always – thank you so much for continuing to support us through your Facebook ‘likes,’ Tweets, word-of-mouth and your attendance at our screenings.

Happy New Year!

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An Introduction to Dolphin Field Research

September 7, 2010

My task was a ‘focal follow,’ filming a group of 2 – 4 dolphins for 2 – 4 minutes while they are doing whatever they are doing so my footage could complement video data shot by Daisy Kaplan, the graduate student of my scientific advisor Diana Reiss, PhD. In the lovely turquoise waters around Bimini, Diana and Daisy were collecting data for research correlating acoustic and physical signals in Bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis). Several students from the Hunter College Animal Behavior and Cognition program, where Diana is a professor, had joined the trip to assist in the research. I went to learn something about field research on dolphins for Dolphin Dance Project; and what better way to learn than by contributing to the data collection? So, although my camera could not record the high frequency sounds (audible to dolphins but not humans) that Daisy’s special rig did, I volunteered to to capture additional ‘focal follow’ footage for her. Well…I volunteered to TRY to capture ‘focal follow’ footage…

As I entered the water for my first attempt at filming, I was immediately approached by four calves, young Spotted Dolphins less than 4 years old, who had not yet gotten their spots. Tilly, a dolphin well-known to the dolphin boat (captained by Al Sweeting) and one whom I recognized from my trip here in June was in the lead. Tilly  is very recognizable as she has almost no dorsal fin, thanks to a run-in with a shark. As often occurs with Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Tilly came up very close, eye to eye, inviting me to play (see video).

 While normally, I’d follow the invitation by diving down, in this instance I was only allowed to follow…no ‘dancing’ that might skew the data collection, so I just swam along side her, the camera pointed at her face. Tilly was so close, I knew the shot was not at all what Daisy wanted, but I didn’t feel as though I could move away and yet also stay ‘connected’ enough to follow with the camera. As I was pondering my dilemma, one of the other dolphins came up under Tilly, inverted, and started rubbing pectoral fins with Tilly. Tilly kept her eye on me, even as I moved away just a little, trying to get both dolphins’ faces in the frame. Ignored, the second dolphin swam away and Tilly started to dive down. Great, I thought…I’ll stay on the surface as instructed and this will put a little distance between us. But when Tilly saw I didn’t follow, she rose up again next to me, made a burst of bubbles from her blowhole and and slapped her tail three times on the water’s surface.

When I popped my head up, the crew were yelling warnings to me to stop following Tilly (even though I already had). I can’t blame them. Big bubbles and tail slaps are a dolphin’s way of indicating displeasure. I was feeling a bit shocked. I didn’t feel I was chasing Tilly, we were maintaining constant eye contact. In fact, I felt that I was trying to keep more of a distance than Tilly wanted to allow. As the dolphins swam away, I could see that Tilly had been with me, separate from the other three dolphins. I think if she were trying to get away from me, or didn’t want to be near me, she would have been with the other three dolphins. Back on the boat, I was chastised for being too close to Tilly…and I didn’t argue. But inside, I couldn’t help feeling that it was actually the opposite…that Tilly had expressed her dissatisfaction at my unwillingness to play.

Regardless who was ‘right’ about the interpretation of Tilly’s behavior, I knew that I had to keep a bigger distance between me and the dolphins if I wanted to get footage that could contribute to Daisy and Diana’s research. So the next day, I tried following a dolphin who didn’t approach me first. I thought maybe eye contact and proximity meant something to Tilly…and perhaps dolphins in general. I guessed that they meant, ‘let’s play!’ or at least, ‘let’s engage’. So I tried to avoid those signals from the beginning of the next ‘focal follow’.

As a young adult dolphin and calf came up to surface, I followed them first from behind where they couldn’t see me. I then maneuvered to their side, but far enough away so that their entire bodies were in the frame. The calf took ‘baby position’, swimming synchronously with its head under the adult’s belly. So sweet! I felt we had negotiated a very satisfactory distance for acquiring useful data.

Just as I was feeling very good about my ‘scientific’ footage, however, another bigger calf came between me and my subjects, peering into my eyes and into the camera lens. And then, appearing tail-first in my viewfinder…as if she had been waiting there for me to catch up…just in the right position to ‘ruin’ my ‘focal follow’…the chopped off dorsal fin…it was Tilly! There she was again, peering into my eyes. How could I not interpret her look as mischievous?

Tilly ‘ruined’ my shot, but I was happy and a bit relieved, of course. I felt as though Tilly was still my friend after I had not followed her invitation the day before. I know these are interpretations that cannot necessarily be validated scientifically…they are difficult to avoid when interacting with dolphins who are so engaging.

Later as we talked about how challenging the encounters were for me, Daisy responded with a comment that gave me pause. “Well, of course,” she said, “if you let the dolphins determine the distance, they’ll be right in your face.”

So then, I understood. As the researcher, YOU – the human – have to be the one to determine the distance (and if possible, type) of interaction, if you want to get the footage best suited for your data gathering. It can’t be left up to the dolphins. No wonder I had so much trouble…my usual intent is to negotiate a ‘leaderless’ dance of cooperation. If the dance must be led (and it sometimes is), I always want the dolphins to lead. To get a good ‘focal follow,’ however, I have to be more in the lead, even if it looks like I’m just following from a distance. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that…that’s not the kind of relationship I want to develop with the dolphins.

For the next couple of days, I filmed mostly Daisy. I shot footage that she can hopefully use for her grant applications – showing her in action, gathering data. I felt much more comfortable following Daisy. With the dolphins, I felt a bit like a sociopath – constantly avoiding interactions.

I learned not only about field research but a lot about dolphin biology and cognition during the trip. Each day before we set out on Al’s boat, Daisy and Diana  gave ‘lunch and learn’ lectures about dolphins. I was incredibly impressed with Diana’s enthusiasm when speaking and teaching about dolphins. After decades of studying them, dolphins are obviously still absolutely fascinating to her. Indeed, she struck me as having a mind much like a dolphin’s – quickly moving from one profound observation or topic to another. Like a dolphin she is also very gregarious, easy to approach, and so supportive – engaging her students in conversations that really seemed to feed their new and growing interest in dolphin field research. I had some great conversations with Diana, too…and I am looking forward to our continued work together studying dolphins in our respective ways.

Chisa behind the camera

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海の友達 (Friends in the Ocean)

July 2, 2010

During the first week of June, I went on my fourth trip on Dolphin Dream – a cruise to the White Sand Ridge of the Little Bahamas Bank, where a friendly pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins live and play with visiting humans. Having written about The Cove on a previous post, I had been planning on traveling to Japan. Instead, I returned to my favorite dolphin trip – Dolphin Dream – and aboard, I met just the people I was seeking: Japanese dolphin lovers.

Dolphin Dream has always taken me on the most remarkable trips – and my ‘Japanese week’ was no exception. The dolphins showed up in numbers…playing with us for hours and creating incredible experiences through which new human friendships were forged. By the end of the week, I had made wonderful new friends – human and dolphin. I also learned a great deal about Japanese attitudes towards dolphins…so much that, now back in NY, I’ve been inspired to make a Japanese video about protecting dolphins. I’m very proud to present it here…not only is it my first completed dolphin project, but the first which I shot myself! I have Amphibico to thank for the new underwater housing – they are a new sponsor of Dolphin Dance. I must also thank Dolphin Dream’s Captain Scott for a ton of expert guidance on shooting the video. Of course, much thanks goes to the Japanese women – Moriko and Kazuyon – whose love and dedication to the dolphins is what provides the whole basis of the video’s message. And not to forget – the biggest thanks goes to the beautiful Atlantic Spotted dolphins who generously share their playfulness and creativity with us! I hope you will enjoy the video and forward it to as many people as you can – especially in Japan.

My ‘Japanese week’ on Dolphin Dream was led by Takaji Ochi, a well-known Japanese underwater photographer who has been facilitating trips on Dolphin Dream for the last 10 years. Sporting the deep tan of a dedicated sea-man, Taka, as the American crew call him, is a true dolphin lover if ever there was one. He has even named a couple of the juvenile dolphins on White Sand Ridge after his own sons, Kaito and Hayato. Taka is very charismatic, so it’s no wonder he has a dedicated following amongst his clients many of whom had returned for their 4th, 5th or even 9th time. Most days Taka dived with us, shooting pictures of dolphins as well as human-dolphin interactions so that many of us had beautifully professional photos of ourselves with dolphins to boast by the end of the week (see the photos at Taka’s blog about this trip). For the many who brought their own (wow! high end) cameras Taka also reviewed photos, offering helpful hints on improving their shots. Yet, for the ladies (and one man) who were on the trip, this trip was not only about Taka or even about photography. For these wonderfully dedicated people, it was an annual pilgrimage – just to connect with the dolphins.

Shot by Takaji Ochi, this is the dolphin named after his son, Kaito

Moriko and Kazuyon are the particularly beautiful ‘dancers’ in the video. But they were not the only accomplished divers; and during the week, I learned that the reason for this was not only the fact of having returned so many times to the Bahamas with Taka. Many of my new Japanese friends had also been to Mikura Island to play with dolphins – but more remarkable – many, including Moriko and Kazuyon – practice weekly in a pool in preparation for their trips. These are truly dedicated dolphin ‘dancers’. They practice breath holding so they can dive down further and longer to be with the dolphins. They perfect their ‘dolphin kicks’ so they can more like the dolphins, to be allowed ever closer to them. And I think it’s obvious to see on the video – the dolphins clearly appreciate the effort, rewarding them with enchanting ‘dances’.

Does it seem surprising that there are a group of Japanese women who are so dedicated to connecting with wild dolphins that they practice weekly in a pool? Does it seem surprising that there is a Japanese photographer who loves dolphins and whales so much that he spends almost half the year leading trips to photograph them? I ask because all the recent media coverage of The Cove and of Japanese whaling could make a person think that most Japanese people wanted only to kill and eat cetaceans.

As it turned out, Taka knew even more about the dolphin slaughters than someone would learn from watching The Cove. He was a journalist prior to becoming a professional underwater photographer and he covered the dolphin-slaughter story when it was exposed in other Japanese fishing villages – Futo and Iki – decades ago. In 1979, Hardy Jones, Dexter Cate, Ric O’Barry and Sakae Henmi (among others) exposed the killing of dolphins in these villages through a series of photographs, and in 1992 Jones made a film for CBS and National Geographic that brought the issue to international attention. Hardy’s photos and films showed scenes almost identical to the horrific ones shown in The Cove…bloodied beaches with thousands of dying dolphins. Taka and other Japanese reporters wrote about the slaughter in Japanese newspapers; and they were largely halted. Indeed, that is likely why the hunts in Taiji had to be carried out in such secrecy.

Taka told me that back then, it wasn’t a move to protect the intelligent, self-aware dolphin that resulted in the end of the hunts in Futo and Iki. He told me that what got a response from the Japanese people – and Japanese government – was the revelation that the fishermen were killing animals far in excess of the government-set quotas. Regulations  were being flouted – but not only that – more animals were being killed than necessary for food. This waste of life was morally reprehensible to Japanese citizens, who were emboldened to support an end to, or at least a severe reduction of dolphin killing.

This kind of reasoning may be unsatisfactory for many American dolphin lovers, who often rant, ‘Why can’t they understand that dolphins are intelligent, sentient beings whose right to life must be protected?’ But I think it reflects an important reality about the international conversations regarding cetacean conservation. Japanese people understand very well that dolphins are intelligent. But that is not what is most appealing or important from a Japanese point of view. To protect dolphins in Japan, messages that speak to Japanese perspectives must be honed. Preventing wasteful killing could be a goal for Taiji, where the dolphins are too toxic (mercury) to eat anyway. And we must listen to what people in Japan specifically love about dolphins…and how that may differ from an American or Western appreciation.

Over dinner I talked about this with Maki Maki, who was on her 9th trip with Taka. Although a hobbyist, she is very serious about photographing the dolphins and whales, having also traveled with Taka to Tonga to photograph Humpbacks. I asked why she was so enamored of the dolphins…why she had been back so many times to Dolphin Dream.

‘Well, it’s impossible to stop, isn’t it?’ she asked in response. And I had to agree I was addicted too. When I pressed her for why that was true for her, she simply said, ‘It’s mysterious, right?’ And I had to agree with that too.

Maki Maki wasn’t being shy or evasive. In a very Japanese way, she was affirming something really important – the mystery. We can’t quite put a finger on why it’s so amazing to be eye to eye with a dolphin. Were the reasons manifest, there would be no reason to return year after year.

I doubt that with an American person, you’d leave the conversation that way…‘It’s mysterious, right?’ The American way is to explain, to self-express. It’s because dolphins are intelligent… they have complex social connections…they are self-aware…because I love them. And while these reasons leave out that critical, subtle internal experience, they make a great platform for why we want to protect dolphins. On the other hand, how do you create an pro-dolphin campaign around ‘mystery’?

That might be one reason there isn’t much of a pro-dolphin campaign in Japan. Despite many people who love dolphins, there is no feeling that that love should be imposed on others. Sadly, what there seems to be instead in Japan is a big mis-information campaign led by the Fishery Ministry trying to convince Japanese people that eating whale and dolphins is some kind of deeply held traditional value. That’s just propaganda. True, small fishing villages have been involved in coastal whaling for centuries; but whale consumption only became widespread in Japan after World War II because of the shortage of other meat during that difficult time. At that time Japanese whaling grew enormously with US support. Prior to that, whales were traditionally protected in many areas of Japan, revered as an incarnation of Ebisu the ocean/fish god. Taka told me that decades ago when Japan did have a ‘grass roots’ pro-cetacean movement, it was indeed focused on spirituality.

My ‘Japanese week’ on Dolphin Dream was amazing…but this is just the beginning. I am still planning to visit Japan. I will see Moriko and Kazuyon in the fall when they will introduce me to Japanese dolphins at Mikura Island. I can hardly wait! And we are also already planning next summer’s reunion in the Bahamas on Dolphin Dream. By then, I am imagining that the human ‘pod’ will be as coordinated as the dolphins…and that will really be ‘Dolphin Dance’!

As I plan for next summer, I am well aware of the uncertainties. Oil from the BP disaster is literally around the corner. Some are hopeful that the oil will not move towards the Bahamas as it passes the Straight of Florida where winds tend to blow in a westerly direction. But others are rightly concerned. It is unknown what hazards may result not only from the oil itself, but from the dispersant Corexit that has been used in untested ways at the site of the leak (rather than on the water’s surface). There is evidence of underwater plumes, much greater than what is visible on the surface that is likely killing everything in its environs. Even if the waters around the Bahamas are ‘safe’…I can’t help thinking about all the dolphins and other marine life along the Florida coast, and of course, in the Gulf of Mexico that are being harmed, sickened and killed. The situation is enraging, disgusting, saddening…how to hold on to hope in times like this? Because we need hope and have courage if we are to keep moving forward and do what it takes to stop off-shore drilling, and discover and develop energy resources that are safer, cleaner, more sustainable.

Wild dolphins reach out to us humans from across a species divide to invite us to play. They invite us to see and experience goodness in ourselves – joy, love, creativity, trust – characteristics we naturally share with dolphins. For this, I am so deeply grateful. As I face all that is difficult – things that are personal or global – I understand more and more how important it is to ‘be like a dolphin’. I understand that I have to nurture my ‘delfin’ qualities – cultivate them – human nature won’t allow them to thrive otherwise. I need to cultivate these qualities because they are my most valuable internal resource – the source of strength and inspiration – that will help me do what I can to make our lives and our world a good and healthy place for all living beings who share planet Earth.