Posts Tagged ‘diana reiss’

h1

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

Advertisements
h1

Moving Together

April 26, 2010

Holding each other’s gaze, we twirl. Keeping his eye on mine, my dolphin partner swims in excited circles, leading me around and around and down. Never taking my eyes off his, I undulate, twist and corkscrew to show my enthusiasm for our interaction by mimicking him as best I can while adding a bit of my own ‘flair’. ‘Let’s twirl and twirl  together some more!’ is what I mean. I have forgotten about breathing for a moment…but once I feel the urge to breathe, I realize I am already ascending, following my dolphin partner who is now spiraling around and up. Somehow, we ‘decided’ to turn up towards the surface at the same moment…how exactly is obvious in a way…we just started to ascend when we felt like it. At the same time it’s marvelously mysterious. It is as if he magically knew when I would need to breathe…and I magically sensed that we needed to finish our short dance so he could rejoin his family, who were doing twirls and swirls of their own as they traveled past beneath us.

This blog is about the power of dance to unite…to help us move together. In part, it is my response to ‘Why Dance Matters,’ a virtual celebration of World Dance Day.

But before I get into that…I want to thank the many of you who read my previous blog post on The Cove and who have added comments of your own. The protection of dolphins and their habitat is, of course, exceedingly important to me. So I’m really thrilled that some of the conversation about that is happening on my blog! This post doesn’t focus on the movie directly, but I hope the ideas I’ll discuss – synchrony and empathy – will have resonance – particularly with regard to improving communication between American and Japanese people about protecting dolphins.

It is a beautiful coincidence that dolphins and humans share the ability and inclination to communicate through synchrony – actions like mirroring and imitation.

Watch wild dolphins and their synchrony is stunning. Bonded pairs – whether mother/calf or life-long buddies – often swim together side by side – making the same arc, turning at the same time, even taking simultaneous breaths – as they express their close relationship with each other. Larger groups of dolphins are even more amazing, moving effortlessly in a kind of unison that is wonderfully fluid…at times absolute…but easily accommodating the youngster who needs to take a breath sooner than the rest…or a pair who twirl off for a ‘quickie’…a group who veer off momentarily for a swirling game of ‘chase’…but then return to a synchronously moving pod.

Humans also use synchronous movement to express relatedness. We are masters of imitation and this ability is related to our capacity for empathy. For example, when we are in agreement with each other, we often take on similar postures, gestures, facial expressions and speech cadences with our conversation partner (a tendency well-described by sociologists and psychologists). Often, we do not even realize that we are acting so similarly…yet if we don’t…if the other person doesn’t take on a similar tone or posture, we are likely to have the feeling that the other person just ‘didn’t get it,’ or that maybe they were just ‘going along’ with the conversation and really didn’t agree with us at all.

Some neurobiologists believe that the presence of ‘mirror neurons’ explains the connection between mimicry and the feeling of empathy (references at the end of the post). First discovered in monkeys, ‘mirror neurons’ are brain cells that fire both when we do an action as well as when we see someone else do an action. It is believed that when these ‘mirror neurons’ fire, we sense what it might be like for ourselves to act in the same way that the person we are watching is acting. In our minds, we ‘walk in the other person’s shoes’ – and through that experience, it is believed, we come to understand the other person’s point of view, motivation or feeling – we develop empathy.

There is evidence to suggest that humans and dolphins have ‘mirror neurons’ but science wasn’t the basis for me to approach wild dolphins through synchronous movement…rather, it was DANCE!

Most of you know that I’m an avid and long-time practitioner of Contact Improvisation, a form of dance that depends heavily on the kind same of ‘magical’ connection with one’s human dance partner as I describe in ‘twirling’ with a wild dolphin. In Contact Improvisation, dancers we connect through touch and sharing weight (partnering) as well as seeing or even hearing our partner move. The connection allows us to discover the dance between us – a ‘place’ where shared movement seems magically to occur – as if neither dancer were leading, but both are following some enchanted Dance that arises from and guides both dancers.

Synchrony is definitely one of the ways through which we develop a sense of connection in improvised dance. When someone approaches me at a dance jam moving in a manner similar or complimentary to me, I understand immediately that this person is interested in dancing with me. In the simple act of imitation, they not only say, ‘I want to join you,’ but also, ‘I understand what you are doing, and I like it!’ Having left some of his own ideas aside in order to bother to dance like me, he also communicates respect – even deference for my dancing. A measure of trust is generated. We are doing the same actions – our bodies must be experiencing similar sensations. I know he knows very viscerally how I feel.

So, I reply, ‘OK, let’s dance!’ – not in words, but in my movements. I might continue in an imitative mode – so now I’m imitating him imitating me. We might just actually laugh about the absurdity of that (there’s plenty of spontaneous laughter at Contact Improvisation jams). Or maybe I elaborate by adding new movement elements or even contrast – theme and variation. As we play back and forth, the lines between leader and follower blur…until we both become participants in a shared collaborative dance whose creation seems to come from both of us and neither of us. When we start in synchrony, on common ground, it often seems easy to get to such a ‘magical’ dance.

With Contact Improvisation jams as a reference, it was easy to recognize the synchronous motion that goes on during wild dolphin socialization as a kind of expression about their relatedness. And it was easy to sense that synchrony would be an appropriate way to approach wild dolphins – that wild dolphins would likely understand what I ‘meant’. It seemed obvious that wild dolphins and Contact Improvisers use synchronous motion to express similar things: I like you…I respect you…I understand you and want to join you…

My dance ‘investigations’ are completely (and delightfully!) unscientific…so it was great to find some ‘real’ research that corroborates my experiences. In a recent publication, Denise Herzing, PhD reported mirroring, imitation and synchrony in the interaction of wild Atlantic Spotted dolphins with human researchers in the waters around the Bahamas. Attempting to use a simple keyboard to try to establish communication with the wild dolphins, she found that cooperative use of the keyboard between humans and wild dolphins was most likely when there was synchronous movement (and eye contact) between human and dolphin.

I’ve danced with the very dolphins in Dr. Herzing’s report on several delightful past trips (including a very memorable one with friends last August). And…I’m excited to announce that I will be going on a research trip to this area with Dr. Herzing’s mentor, Diana Reiss, PhD in August this year! Dr. Reiss is a professor of Psychology at Hunter College, director of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. She is the researcher who used mirror recognition studies to show that dolphins express self awareness. As you can imagine, I’m very excited to be making the trip with her…stay tuned for some ‘real’ dolphin science coming your way on this blog soon!

Meantime, I am wondering…if we can use dance to reach across species – from human to dolphins…can we also use it to bridge a cultural gap?

Since I wrote my blog on The Cove, I’ve ‘met’ (mostly online) quite a few Japanese dolphin enthusiasts…and I’m beginning to understand that dolphins (and whales) raise difficult issues in the relationship between my two home countries – Japan and America. There is controversy and politics, strong emotions and unfortunately, lots of misunderstanding. How can we work together? How can we help American audiences understand that Japanese people are not ‘anti-cetacean’? That mostly, the antipathy to western pro-cetacean activism is less about dolphins and whales per se and more a retreat from potential embarrassment due to ‘outside pressure’? How can we help the many many Japanese people who love whales and dolphins to speak out and let the Japanese government know that holding on to whaling is not the way in which they want to assert Japanese sovereignty?

I am dreaming about working on Mikura Island…a place in Japan devoted to dolphin study, protection and eco-tourism. According to researcher Justin Gregg, PhD, who worked there for several years as part of the Dolphin Communications Project (DCP), ‘encounters with the dolphins there can be quite spectacular’. An American (DCP) and Japanese research group (formerly, the ICERC; now the Mikura tourism office) already work in collaboration there. I would love a chance to create a work of inter-species dance there through the collaboration of wild dolphins, Japanese and American people to inspire mutual understanding and cooperation in the efforts to protect dolphins and their environment in Japan and around the world. Are you an underwater-and-improvisational dancer, underwater cinematographer, composer, funder or cetacean-and-dance lover? Would you like to join in helping to realize a project like this? If so, please contact me!

[ For more on ‘mirror neurons’ start with…this NOVA show…or this article ]

h1

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