How the Hen House Turns: The Human Factor and Dolphins

How the Hen House Turns
The Human Factor and Dolphins
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Just what do we mean when we refer to something unique about humans? 

All life recognizes other life, so that’s not it. Recent science magazines report that bacteria communicate with chemicals, so individuals can form mats or colonies, when there are enough fellow bacteria nearby. Communication doesn’t make us unique. Perhaps we assume too much.

We experienced a fascinating example of shared experience in the Bahamas with bottlenose dolphins. Our boat was parked near a dolphin feeding ground. Pure white sand covered the sea floor, home to sea cucumbers. The dolphins came to the area twice each day to dig them out for mealtime, using their pointed beaks.

Within a few minutes of our boat’s arrival, the dolphins appeared and hung around to play. They loved to chase around with the dinghy, but we snorkelers had little to offer them. However, when they came back that evening, they discovered our pregnant tourist standing submerged on the boat’s water ladder. They were obviously fascinated. The entire pod gathered around and stayed for more than their usual 30 minutes.

One day I spotted a dolphin with a piece of seaweed hanging over his beak. I pointed to it, and he swam close by and dropped it near me. I picked it up, looked at it, then offered it back to him. In answer, he swam to me, hovered, eyed me for a few moments, then circled around my head and took off to join other dolphins.

In Roatan, at Anthony’s Key Resort, the week-long vacation package included a swim with dolphins in an L shaped lagoon pool. We were told to swim with our arms at our sides and to stay away from the leg of the L, which was where dolphins could retire if they wished. 

As we made our way across the sand beach, they swam toward us, then beached themselves when we sat down to put on our flippers. I swam straight out from the beach, ignoring the two dolphins that accompanied me. When they nudged my side, I reached for one’s dorsal fin, and she took off.

I was having a grand ride with those two, until a male dolphin took the place of the females. The ride had ended, and I soon realized that my thigh was the target for intimate contact. “No way,” thought I, and headed for the beach. The dolphin followed, and when I stood up he rammed me in the ribs then sped off.

Had I insulted him? Was he angry at being rejected? Had I made some kind of dolphin faux pas? Didn’t he know I was human? I guess he didn’t care, but he could have killed me. He didn’t, which says something.

Next week we’ll propose a definition for the Human Factor and try to decide how it fits into the larger picture of life on Earth.