Photo: Ocean Alliance/Chris Johnson
In the late 1960s, the biologist Roger Payne began analyzing the sounds of humpback whales. He discovered that the noises humpbacks make are far more complex than random chatter, but instead patterned speech just as organized as songs with themes. He also found that these sequential themes were different among different mating groups, and that they changed slightly from season to season.
Another scientific pioneer of the 60s, Dr. John C. Lilly, was a leader in the study of interspecies communication. Lilly’s work focused on small whales—dolphins—and he was one of the first scientists to suggest that dolphins might be even more intelligent than humans. He pointed out their extraordinary brain-to-body mass ratio (one second only to humans) as well as their own incredibly complex communication patterns.
The brain-to-body ratio of a living creature may seem simplistic when it comes to measuring actual intelligence, but it isn’t really. The fact is, the brain is one of the most expensive organs to operate when it comes to consuming and burning calories. The bigger the brain, the more work one needs to do to keep it. In nature, efficiency is paramount to survival, so if you don’t need something, you have three options: 1—Never develop it in the first place; 2—Lose it; or 3—Go off and die childless. Conversely, it is safe (and more than just intuitive) to conclude that if you have a big, expensive brain, and have for millions of years, then there must be a good reason.
Myself, I am not a scientist and I make no claim to a scientific background. I have read a lot of books and journals by scientists like Roger Payne and Rachel Smolker. Over the years, I have watched a lot of documentaries about cetaceans. I’ve read some of the more philosophical treatises of people like Jaques Mayol (Homo Delphinus) and Capt. Paul Watson (of Sea Shepherd fame). I’ve talked with the natives of British Columbia about their own spiritual beliefs regarding whales and dolphins, as humpbacks breached by the bow of our boat. At best, you might say I’m an “armchair” cetaceanist.
But I’m also an experienced diver with many hours in the water, from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with whales and dolphins in their natural environment—the wild.
On what would be my final day as a volunteer at the National Aquarium, I dived the dolphin exhibit at Pier 4. The experience of being in that barren tank is what ultimately led me to my decision to leave that position. As a result of what I now know—as well as what I believe—about these intelligent, vulnerable dolphins, I climbed out of that exhibit, thinking as clearly as I ever have in my life: “those animals do not belong in there.”
We do know that dolphins are dependent on echolocation for food, and they use sonic communication to express emotional states and to identify each other. Dolphin activist Ric O’Barry describes the conditions of an aquarium as the equivalent of “living in a hall of mirrors.” It is also known that dolphins might travel some 50 miles a day in the wild, eating a variety of fish and squid. Obviously, these are natural conditions that cannot be simulated with captive dolphins.
I started this blog as a way to share my experiences as a diver, both in the National Aquarium and in the open seas. To some degree, I expect it to remain that. But now I hope it might also become a forum to discuss an issue of growing importance: animals—marine mammals in particular—in captivity.
With the recent success of The Cove, and the concidental events at Sea World Orlando, this is a matter getting some long-deserved attention. I only hope that the public outcry doesn’t fade away over the next few years. While I happen to agree with the opinion of people like Ric O’Barry, the Oceanic Preservation Society and the Humane Society of the United States (plain and simply: marine mammals do not belong in captivity, you can download the HSUS report here), I do believe it is important to recognize the complexity of the issue. Perhaps the question is this: If there were no zoos and aquariums in the first place, would I even care today?
I like to think so.
It’s also important that I point out what I believe are the good intentions of people behind institutions like the National Aquarium. In the same way our politics are so much easier to define when we draw partisan lines, issues of conservation and social awareness are emotional areas that tempt us to jump to fundamental conclusions. I personally know the divers at the National Aquarium. I know divers, volunteers, safety officers, biologists, aquarists and veterinarians there. And I know for a fact that they are genuine, good people who, though perhaps of a different opinion than my own, share my love for the ocean world and want what’s best for the animals that inhabit it.
So that being said, I’d like to open the forum. Where do you stand? Should humans capture and/or breed animals to display them for entertainment purposes? For educational purposes? Conservation purposes? What is the trade-off, and are there any viable alternatives?
Me, I believe there’s a better way to learn from and about our self-aware marine partners on Earth, the dolphins. A much better way. But now I’d like to know what you think.
Photo: Jeff Nesmith