Posts Tagged ‘science’

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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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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