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.
Lulu makes radio, pie, and stories in the hills of Charlottesville, VA. She first heard Radiolab when she was working as a woodworker's assistant in Brooklyn. And that changed everything. She thinks it is Miracle Gro for the mind and hopes to be making the stuff till she is blue in the hair. You can read and listen to her stories at LuTimesTwo.com.