Swimming Dolphin
Above photo by Jeffrey Karp © 1995

Dolphins and Man.....Equals?

by Regina Blackstock
written May 1970
copyright 1970, 2004

Nineteen centuries ago, Plutarch, a Greek moralist and biographer made this statement: "to the dolphin alone, beyond all other, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage". 1 In our own times Barbara Tufty made the comment "he [Dolphins] also exhibits a friendly willingness to cooperate with other earth creatures -- a rare attribute which another animal, Homo Sapiens, has not yet learned to do with any consistency".2 Apparently there is something quite impressive about Dolphins. Not only now, when we are learning so much more about them, but even in the year 62 AD!

Outside of his striking friendliness, the Dolphin seems to have been blessed with a well developed sense of humor. Dolphins have been known to silently maneuver behind an unsuspecting pelican and snatch its tail feathers -- usually leaving the bird minus a few. Other pranks include grabbing unsuspecting fish by the tail, pulling them backward a few feet as well as bothering slow turtles by rolling them over and over. Once a dolphin was seen placing a piece of squid near a grouper's rock cranny. When the fish came out, the dolphin promptly snatched the bait away, leaving the puzzled fish behind.

In 1965 Anthropologist Gregory Bateson made the discovery that dolphins live in social groups dominated by a leader. This tie is so strong that dolphins kept in total isolation will suffer ill health and possibly death. It has also been observed that dolphins frequently stroke each other with their flippers, hence, indicating that they require physical contact much like humans. A dolphin's skin is extremely delicate and easily injured by rough surfaces--very similar to human skin.

At Marine Studio Oceanarium, Bimbo, an 18 foot pilot whale stopped eating and became aggressive to smaller dolphins in the tank. The trainers, after a long issue, decided that maybe his ego needed bolstering. So they proceeded to drain the tank to the three-foot level. Bimbo, now stranded, began to whistle piteously. Soon all the dolphins gathered around and comforted him with conversation which consisted of whistles, chirps and the usual dolphinese sounds. When the tank was again refilled, Bimbo's manners improved immediately.3

Underwater Dolphins
Photo by Daniel McCulloch © 1991
Do dolphins talk? Maybe. The above, the next two incidents, and the others scattered throughout this paper will probably lead you to the conclusion that they at least communicate with each other.

In 1962 Dr. Dreher and Dr. Evans were aboard the research vessel Sea Quest, 300 miles south of San Diego, studying gray whales. They had strung a number of vertical aluminum poles and microphones inside Scammon's Lagoon, erecting a type of barrier. A short time later five Pacific Bottle-nosed dolphins were spotted about 500 yards from the barrier. After a few minutes of what was labeled conversation, a scout was sent from the group. Microphones picked up his sonar soundings as he closely surveyed the poles. When he returned to the pod an explosion of whistles, chirps and Bronx cheer-like noises were recorded via microphones. After several minutes of conversation the dolphins proceeded through the barrier and into the bay.4

A similar occurrence was noted when, in 1962, several Lockheed Aircraft Corporation scientists erected a similar barrier across a channel, this time with stronger microphones. As the dolphins approached clicking noises were heard -- possibly sonar soundings. They gathered into a group in nearby shallow water about 400 feet from the barrier. During this time lots of clicks and squeaky-door sounds were recorded. A scout left the group and examined the barrier. When the dolphin returned he was greeted in the same manner as before. After about four minutes of conversation another scout was sent out. Upon his return he too was greeted with the explosion of whistles. After about two and a half minutes the dolphins merrily clicked through the barrier. Returning into the bay that afternoon, and the next morning leaving the bay, the pod did not send a scout when they came to the barrier.....nor did they even slow down.5

Dr. John C. Lilly, who has provided extensive research on dolphins, performed the following two experiments which I consider well worthy of notice.

As far as I know this is the first time that an obvious experiment has been performed on a human by another species -- and put into use afterwards. Dolphin #8 belonged to the species Tursiops truncatus; or commonly called a bottle-nosed dolphin.

The brain size of a bottle-nosed dolphin is comparable to ours at birth and, during their lifetime develops well into the upper levels of the maximum size for modern man -- about 1700 grams. A dolphin's brain size increases very rapidly during youth and seems to slow down at nine years of age. This decrease is less than our slow down which occurs at our equivalent age of 17 years and afterwards.

As a brain grows in size and as a child ages, immersed in many daily language situations, both brain and language increase in complexity. The usual human brain reaches 1400 grams at 10 to 17 years of age. The levels of complex thinking at this time increase tremendously over that of beginning speech.

Absolute Weight of Brain: Man & Tursiops truncatus 8
Brain Weight
Age of ManAge of DolphinLength of
120041 months23 months6' 6"
135078 months28 months7' 8"
145017 years8 years7' 10"
160010 years8' 6"

This chart shows how brain weight between man and dolphin compares during normal growth. If brain weight versus body weight is an accurate indicator of intelligence, then the above chart would indicate that a dolphin continues to increase it's intelligence as it ages. From another source I found this; it compares a dolphin's brain weight with other animals.
Average Brain Ratios 9
SpeciesBrain WeightBody WeightRatios
Human3.1 lbs150 lbs2.1 %
Dolphin3.5 lbs300 lbs1.19%
Chimp.75 lbs110 lbs.70%

This information shows that, if brain weight is a true measure of intelligence, Man is superior, followed by dolphins with the chimp trailing third. The last table I would like to include in this paper more or less concludes the information drawn from the first two tables:

Largest Known Adult Brain 10
ReferenceWeight in GramsBody LengthSpeciesW/LCommon Name*
Vierordt H. (1890)1450
(average = 1250)
256 (220)Man1.00
Lilly (1958)17008'6"Tursiops
Tower (1954)6075?Proboscidae?Elephant4.19
Jansen (1952)720054'Balaenoptera
133fin whale4.97
Kojima (1951)920049'Physeter
188Sperm Whale6.34
* Best weight ratios in ( )

Comparing dolphin's brains to ours and others we can claim that it is deductible that dolphins could be intelligent enough to communicate.

The California Lockheed Company has done research on Pacific Bottle-nose dolphins under Navy contracts. Heads of Department Dr. John Dreher and Dr. William E. Evans have, after much research, reported 32 distinct patterns of dolphin whistles. Also, nearly identical sounds are made by Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins and Pacific pilot whales.

Another experiment, done by Dr. Lilly while stimulating parts of Dolphin #6's brain with electrical currents, proved that dolphins are capable of making more sounds than we had been previously aware of. Apparently Dr. Lilly's probe stimulated the part of the brain controlling the vocal cords. I couldn't find the exact number of sounds the dolphin produced, as it had been taped. However Dr. Lilly made the comment that he heard more types and variations of whistles, buzzings, rasping barks, and Bronx cheer-like noises than he'd ever thought a dolphin capable of.

Another dolphin was taped, after Dr. Lilly said "the TRR is now ten per second" (train repetition rate) repeating "TRR" in a high pitched, Donald Duck, quacking-like voice. The same dolphin also picked out "three hundred and twenty three" and also mimicked every laugh laughed in the lab at that time.11

A dolphin kept in complete captivity (with only human contacts) was trained to raise to the surface, emit a sound when any word was shouted over the surface of the water. After a careful examination of all the tapes, a conclusion was made that 18% of the sounds he emitted were considered humanoid emissions -- in other words, the dolphin was imitating our words.

There were several mentions where research was in process to compile a dictionary of "Dolphinese" but I couldn't find any results.

Bottlenosed Dolphin
It has been suggested that the reason dolphins always seem to be grinning is that they understand our language and are patiently waiting for us to learn theirs. With this thought in mind, I found that languages do exist in several human communities where people communicate by whistling. The most mentioned example was the Mazateco language in Mexico. Could Dolphins learn and speak one of these human whistling languages? Whether this is feasible or not, I don't know, but it might be well worth the effort if it could allow us to meet them halfway!

Ever since the first time man ventured into the sea, dolphins have been man's friend. Throughout history mentions are made showing this.

In Plutarch's book On the Cleverness of Animals and explanation was made of Odysseus worship of dolphins. Apparently Odysseus' son, Telmachos, fell into the sea and was saved by a dolphin. "And this was why his father had dolphins engraved on his ring and emblazoned on his shield, making his requital to the animal"12. A more familiar occurrence is mentioned in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Arion, a rich poet and musician had his life threatened by pirates on board his ship. His last will was to sing one last song, and since he must die, he wished to jump overboard, taking his own life. After a very high-pitched, long, whaling song, Arion jumped overboard. But he did not drown. A dolphin carried him about 200 miles to shore. The Greek people say that Arion was not a god and that this is true and happened while Pereander was king (about 60 years BC). This incident was also recorded by historian Herodotos and others.13

In about the year 200 AD Athenaios and Aelian both told the following story. A boy, Dionysios, had somehow made friends with a wild dolphin. The village people would come out on 'weekends' to watch the boy and dolphin play. It seems that the dolphin would take the boy far out to sea and stay gone for a 'long' time, possibly most of the day. No definite times were given. Hence the length of this relationship is not known, but the fact that 'rarely did anyone come anymore' made it sound like old stuff. Possibly it went on for several years before the dolphin met his tragic end. He followed the boy too far one day and was stranded on the beach. No one was around to help carry the dolphin back to sea and the dolphin died. 14

In 1962 a dolphin became very famous at Oponoi beach for his friendliness with people. He would show up every day and allow the children to play with him. About two thousand years ago in the Roman colonial town Hippo (now Bigerta, Africa, near Tunis) in the mouth of Hokianga Harbor a dolphin also allowed himself to be played with. In each case one person was allowed to ride on the dolphin's back.

There is a Greek legend that shows that the Greeks did consider the dolphin more than just a fish: Dionysos, god of wine and frenzy, was mistaken and to be sold as a slave. He was aroused to anger and changed the rowing oars into snakes. When the men felt "madness" coming on they leaped overboard, turning into dolphins. This is how the first dolphins were created, and why dolphins always help man.

In present day, man has started working with trained dolphins. A famous example of this is Tuffy, a trained porpoise who carried messages to Sealab I. He was by far the fastest means of transporting materials back and forth, as it took him only nine seconds for the round trip. Tuffy even rescued a simulated lost diver who called the dolphin with a buzzer.

In 1965 a young male dolphin named Keiki (who was caught in 1964 off Oahu) worked in the open sea off Oahu Hawaii, for 7 days. He was trained to return to a wire cage at night and come to a whistle. When he was first taken out to sea, he seemed fearful, but returned every evening to his cage and never once tried to rejoin wild dolphins even when a school swam within 400 feet of him.

After hearing so much good about dolphins, it's time to hear some of the bad. Right? Since I did want to produce a true picture I tried to look for some negative facts. Would you believe I really couldn't find any!

Copywrited photo of two dolphins
Photo by Daniel McCulloch © 1991
What if we could communicate with dolphins. What could we learn from them? Is it possible for man and dolphins to work side-by-side as equals? No. Most likely not as equals. Dolphins have no prehensile extremities; hence their intelligence has never gone in the direction of manipulating their environment -- their thoughts have been left to develop inward. Hence their culture would be totally different from ours. But I do think that there is a large possibility that dolphins have an intelligence at least equal to ours even if it is in another direction. If this is true then our future at sea has a most promising outlook!

As we continue in our quest to manipulate our environment, what does science hope to learn from the Dolphin? For one thing, the secret to his sonar would help the navy in sonar development. A dolphin's built-in sonar far surpasses the performance of man-made equipment. He can not only tell size, shape and texture, but also density. Furthermore, no one has, as of yet, been able to jam their sonar. The dolphin's ability to directionalize his sonar beam lends a glint of jealously in any scientist eyes. An excellent example of this is the fact that a dolphin can find a single BB (shot) when dropped at the far end of a 70 foot pool in less than 20 seconds.

Sonar isn't the only dolphin secret science is after, not by far. The shape of the dolphin's body and its ability to reach unbelievable speeds (40 knots and up) could help aviation as well as seafaring vessel development. To be able to mimic the dolphin's ability to dive and surface quickly and silently would be highly desirable by any submarine captain. There could be a potential value of an air/sea eye, as well.

We do not yet know how dolphins navigate, they cold use the stars, moon and sun, or they might use methods involving depth (bottom of the sea soundings), currents, water temperature, salinity, plankton, water tastes, etc. At any rate this secret could lend a helping hand to science.

Dolphins have never in all our history been known to attack man -- even when man tries to make him. The dolphin will resist even until his death. This alone leads me to believe that there is something superior in dolphins than in any other creature.........including man. C.S. Lewis, in Perelandra (book two of his space trilogy), wrote about a planet where God had created two intelligent species....one that walked on the ground and one that swam in the oceans. What if.......

See an Estonian translation of this article.

NOTE: The above statement regarding dolphin attacks on man was true when this article was first written in 1970. However, during the last few years there have been several documented attacks and saves. The following are online:

Dolphin bites tourist, further damaging reputation
Red Sea Dolphins Save Swimmer
A Review of the Literature Pertaining to Swimming with Wild Dolphins [PDF]

Author's Note & E-mail the Author

Follow these links for additional information on Dolphins:

Dolphins Show Language-Like Learning
An August 2000 article from Yahoo! News.
Encounters between Human and Dolphin
A wonderful picture account of dolphin encounters at the St. Thomas Laboratory.
Brains, Behaviour and Intelligence in Cetaceans
by Margaret Klinowska, the Research Group in Mammalian Ecology and Reproduction, Physiological Laboratory, Cambridge University. A more in depth look at brain weights, sizes, etc. and how they relate to intelligence. Published 9/94 in 11 Essays on Whales and Man and posted on the web 4/96.
Dolphin Intelligence and the Captivity Issue
A series of papers written by Kenneth W. LeVasseur on dolphin intelligence, captivity issues and Man/Dolphin Communicator research.
Ultimate Guide to Dolphins
From Discovery.com. An Excellent resource that even includes homework help.
Lecture about Dolphins by Ulrich Reinartz
A more recent lecture covering evolution, brain size, and intelligence in dolphins. A very comprehensive piece well worthy of reading.
Earthwatch: Exploring Dolphin Intelligence
Current research by Drs. Louis Herman & Adam Pack of the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory, University of Hawaii.
Chronological List of Discoveries about Dolphins
Covers the time period of 1955 through 1976.
Dolphin Hotline
Report dolphin strandings.
Protected Marine Species Research and Information
An excellent site full of organized links. Has resources listed by subject, by species, and alphabetically. Great listing of organizations.
Pink Dolphin Home Page
Unique pink dolphins are endangered. Learn how they get their pink color, where to find them, and more.
John C. Lilly Homepage
Many of Dr. Lilly's artilces and research are now online. Website also includes downloadable recordings of dolphin sounds.
Synchronicity--The Dance of Dolphins
An excellent review of dolphin lore through the ages and addresses issues pertaining to the relationship between man and dolphins.
Dolphin Evolution
An overview of dolphin and whale evolution.
The Oceania Project: Caring for Whales, Dolphins and the Oceans
A nonprofit Australian based research and educational group. Visit their on-line newsletter for cetacean current event information or their search engine to locate cetacean info on the web.
Cetacean Behavior Laboratory Home Page
San Diego State University's Psychology Department. Includes announcements on current research with bottlenosed dolphins. Be sure to review the latest research abstracts and publications
Marine Conservation
Provides an overview of the issues and list of links to other info sites.
Shetland Cetacean Group
Contains records and information on cetacean activity in Shetland (British Isles).
Strategies for Pursuing a Career in Marine Mammal Science
Are you interested in a career working with dolphins? Then don't miss this site as it is filled with helpful information.
Careers in Oceanography, Marine Science & Marine Biology
Lots of links to career resources around the world.
University of Houston
Contains information about behavioral observations of wild dolphins being conducted through the University of Houston

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