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Fin-Bump Across the Divide

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 09:00 AM

Still from the video 'Dolphin Recue Hawaii' Still from the video "Dolphin Recue Hawaii" (MantaRaysHawaii/Youtube)

On a recent Friday night, in illuminated blue waters off the coast of Hawaii, a dolphin came up to a human and asked for help. Or so it would seem.

This is the hypothesis of Martina Wing and Keller Laros, two divers involved in the encounter who have been interviewed widely over the last week. Here's how it unfolded. A bottlenose dolphin came up to a group of divers who were set up with cameras and bright lights to watch manta rays feed on plankton. The dolphin was swimming strangely and making odd clicking noises. Veteran diver Martina Wing, who's been diving for years, said she had never seen a dolphin behave that way. It seemed to be circling them, trying to tell them something. Then, suddenly, diver Keller Laros noticed that the dolphin's left fin was all tangled up in fishing line.

Laros started to work at the line on the dolphin's fin, but after a few moments, the dolphin started to drift out of arm's reach. Without thinking about what he was doing, Laros did an odd thing. He reached out his hand and gestured with his fingers... "Come here."

Perhaps there was a flash, ever so small, in which the thought formed in Laros' mind: what the heck did I just do? That there is a wild dolphin. It doesn't understand human gestures, and it has no reason to respond to human come hithers. But perhaps there was no time for thoughts like these. Because the dolphin... hithered. It swam in closer to Laros and rolled over, letting Laros cut away the fishing line with his dive knife. Once untangled, the dolphin swam away. Everybody emerged unharmed.

This whole episode reminds me so much of the Whale Rescue story that starts off our Animal Minds show. It's nearly identical. The calmness of the huge sea-creature, even as the humans came at it with knives. The certainty of the humans, who felt a communication had transpired. A "thank you" from a whale. A "help me" from a dolphin.

Only this time? There's video (if you want to skip ahead, Laros makes two gestures a little after the 4:35 mark -- one right before, and one right after, he pulls out his dive knife):

So watch, fair skeptics, and parse away. Did a real moment of inter-species communication take place? Or is this just googly-eyes in the water?

Keller Laros, recalling his experience in the water in an interview with CBS News, was humbled by what he saw as a moment of real understanding: "The fact that he seemed to recognize my gesture," he said, "that blew me away." But a dolphin expert with a bit more distance, Justin Gregg, saw the encounter a little differently from the dryland of his desk chair. On his blog, he wouldn't come out and say that the dolphin "asked for help," but he did find its behavoir odd as heck. "I am amazed at how boldly this animal approached the divers, how close he got, and how easily he tolerated being touched and prodded. This is especially baffling if, as I suspect, this dolphin had not had much exposure to human divers, snorkelers, or swimmers in the past... this level of contact – which appears to be a once-off occurrence – is rather rare." And then of course, someone like Clive Wynne, who we talked to in our Animal Minds show, would surely urge us to consider the fact that, in addition to the humans, the dolphin also approached a mooring. So maybe what happened here was less a grand communication across the great divide, and more a big sea mammal approaching a thing against which it hoped to scratch itself.

We probably can't know for sure.

We are each of us caged, by our own googly or squinty eyes, to see it how we're gonna see it.

Please weigh in -- we'd love to hear what you think.

And before I sign off, I'll leave you with only ONE of the myriad amazing dolphin stories I encountered while looking into this: these dolphins MAKE an impromptu raft to keep an injured dolphin afloat and able to breathe.

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Comments [9]

John from Indiana

One of the most universal "come here" gestures is to point at a person and then curl your index finger back towards yourself. Several years ago in a nature video I saw a chimp very clearly do this to another chimp. The theme of this segment of the video was the (then) recent discovery that the alpha male is not the only male to mate with the females in a group- there's a fair amount of hanky-panky going on when the dominant male isn't looking. In this particular scene, a female is interested in a particular non-dominant male and was trying to lure him away from the group for a quick roll in the hay behind some bushes. But she had to be subtle about it because the alpha male would punish them if he found out about it. So rather than vocalizing, she pointed at the younger chimp and used the curved index finger gesture on him.

Mar. 05 2013 01:50 PM
dy-wen from Brussels, Belgium

Hey Radiolab,

A looong time ago I had the oppertunity to play ball with a 3 year old dolphin who was born in captivity. Of course he was used to interacting with humans.
I would throw the ball, and he would swim after it. Then he would bring it back, and really tease me, swim away with it, splashing water.. Yes, I'll bring it back - no I won't etc. Really teasing, observing me - reacting to me and my body language (stretching my arms to take the ball) and then as a result: darn sweet naughtiness.
I know it's subjective, projection, etc but these sea mammals can communicate in so many complex ways. As we interpret their behaviour - why should they not interpret ours?

Just because they have fins, it's harder to make stuff as we humans do, what if they had hands and they could live out of the water.. ;-)

(and yes, I am not in favour of having these animals kept in captivity)

Feb. 04 2013 04:44 PM
Krystina Szabo from Raleigh, NC

our hubris is that we cannot imagine others have our intellect or ability to communicate or comprehend. Shame on us. We are all sentient beings, interacting with all our resources. This dolphin-human interaction was communication. How many dolphins do we kill? How often have beautiful attempts to communicate been met with death at our hands? And still they try. We are the ones just starting to catch up.

Feb. 04 2013 09:29 AM
Edward Z. Rosenthal from Marlton, New Jersey, United States

I'd say it seems the dolphin was allowing the diver to attempt to help and then it instinctively rubbed up against the mooring line but when that didn't work it returned to the diver to allow him to keep trying to help. The dolphin was in considerable distress which drove him to disregard his instinct to avoid contact with strange divers, as any creature in pain behaves differently than a healthy one. People are silly to be surprised that animals are capable of reason. My cat is constantly devising new and ingenious ways to get my attention and to earn treats. She thinks I'm a fool for her little tricks.

Feb. 03 2013 02:16 PM
Sharyl from Philadelphia

Even I "re-Tweeted" this one. No surprise it reached the "viral" category. I was on your website just now looking for more about Emily and Alan when I saw that you included this, Lulu. Thanks for showing both sides. My squinty, although amateur eyes see a conversation.

Feb. 03 2013 02:10 PM
Roberto Perez from Miami, Florida

It is truly incredible and amazing, but may be the dolphin had been release from some aquarium and has not forgotten the human experience. But then again the story of Elian the five year cuban boy that said he was saved by dolphins when his mother drown at sea escaping from Cuba about twelve years ago

Feb. 02 2013 01:18 PM
Kirsten from Philadelphia, PA

Huge thanks goes out to the diver that helped this dolphin. He is a true hero!

Feb. 01 2013 08:57 PM

I wouldn't say that the dolphin responds especially dramatically to the "come here" gesture...it seems to be moving toward and away from Laros constantly. Probably just a coincidence. But I can completely understand how it would feel otherwise; I've waved at a breaching dolphin and could have sworn it waved back with its tail.

The amazing thing here, to me, is that the animal does seem to recognize the human as a fellow being that can possibly help it out. Kind of a stunning display of intelligence, really.

Jan. 31 2013 06:28 PM
Matt from Chicago

Awesome...

Jan. 30 2013 03:45 PM

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