Fictionous dolphins and reality

Magnus Redin


This essay was written for the 22nd EAAM (European Association for Aquatic Mammals) symposium with the intention to bring some simple, hopefully interesting remarks about mythical dolphins and some ramblings about real ones from a hobbyists point of view.

A symposium, wonder what happens on them? There ought to be a lot of research reports and interesting people, I will soon know. But it would be fun to bring some kind of paper even if one has no research to present. Thus I am writing this small essay a day before the start of EAAMs 22nd symposium. I am good at writing dialogues over Internet but this is kind of new for me so please forgive my perhaps odd style of writing. Now what can a hobbyist tell a seasoned researcher? I do collect fiction and try to learn some about cetaceans in general so I will start with a few examples of how research on cetaceans has influenced a few science fiction books. Then I will ramble a little about my impressions of the domesticable cetaceans and research on them. But first I need to tell you that when I write about dolphins in the text I refer to the general opinion of a dolphin which is mostly a tursiops.


Written fiction mostly seeks what its audience find appealing and sometimes it lends from the scientific world view centered on ideas and reasoning and you get science fiction, literature that is based on ideas. A small subgenre of science fiction has lent ideas from the research on dolphins. I will here tell about a few of those books.

The great eye catcher on cetaceans was John Lilly's work where he told his opinion that cetaceans were as intelligent or more intelligent then humans since they have big brains. It was a thought that was very appealing to the common man but its poor scientific quality probably hurt the investigation of cetacean intelligence.

One of his experiments where he let an investigator live in a toy home together with a dolphin is probably the inspiration to Easy Travel To Other Planets where a researcher get too emotionally engaged with a dolphin and both get unnerved to the point of tragedy when separated. Its written with a very 70s feel with drugs and strange meditation.

A different and calmer view of research is Dolphin Island where Arthur C. Clarke brings his reader through a tour of the seascape he loved and thought was out of his reach after an accident. It has an idealized research station with dolphins one can talk with and he uses the classical meeting between a drowning boy and a helpful dolphin.

Research done during the cold war is portraited in The Day of the Dolphin where it develops into the crucial part of the cold war some military planners probably hoped for when funding research on marine mammals. This book is also a film, unfortunately I have not seen it.

The drift for seeking knowledge regardless of it is in the subjects interest or not is shown in A Deeper Sea. A determined Russian researcher finds why dolphins do not speak and forces them to talk. He is funded by the military and his research is used in WW III. A game that the

dolphins in some parts enjoy as his dolphins are somewhat like humans. Even after that he brings his subjects to the deepest sea of all and destines his subjects to follow humanity without end. A bittersweet book, one of my favorites.

The grim aftermath of such violent visions is shortly shown in ''Johnny Mnemonic'' with a junk addicted cyberpunkish dolphin. Both A Deeper sea and ''Johnny mnemonic'' are quite recent stories with a darker view on humanity.

Another result from manipulation of dolphins is shown in the space opera Startide Rising where most of the characters are gene altered dolphins. The result of the human longing for a companion species. Dolphins are not what one want them to be but that can be arranged with genetic manipulation. In his book the result of humanities monkey curiosity is quite entertaining and it is not a dark fable. A good read if one likes space opera.

Dolphins have a solid reputation of being the teddybears of the sea, an idealized creature without evilness and sin forever playing. This prejudice is a good fond to show how evil and non PC humans are.

The book I have found to be the strongest criticism against mistreatment of the environment and whaling is The Last Whales where death is described repeatedly in a deep black vision. It contains a lot of details, the author has done background research on his subject. But it is a repetitive story and painted in only one colour. To be read if you are trying to get depressed.

Another way to criticize whaling is Cachelot where the heros follow a quest over a water planet inhabited by intelligent cetaceans. Refugees from earth that tell stories of historic mistreatments. A simple straightforward story good to read while resting to treat a cold.

Dolphins are also good if one wants to illustrate how evil a great evil empire is. In Hyperion another space opera book a pastoral planet is invaded by the larger part of humanity in one of the numerous subplots. The dolphins in the subplot who are somewhat un-human complain and are massacred with depth charges.

That was some fictitious dolphins, written to show hopes and wishes about how dolphins ought to be or to show how humans behave in fables. This subgenre of science fiction probably contain about 100 books of witch I have found about 23.


But how are dolphins in the reality?

It is fun to try to understand the biology of real dolphins. It is not easy since I have found few papers to read and not to many books. To judge the information and pick a reasonable opinion is hard and harder still without peers.

Many of you who read this text work with finding a piece of knowledge and pack it in a way that makes it understandable for others. The scientific method to think a thought that is testable in reality and possible for others to understand and test. Probably the only working method for sifting knowledge.

The common reference for all humans are ourselves and we always try to find parts of nature that can be related to ourselves, birds sing of happiness, dogs are loyal , donkeys stubborn and dolphins are intelligent.

But this is crude. One example is the only good definition I have found of intelligence. That is the mental abilities humans use to survive. So the layman's question of intelligence is probably a question of the likeness with humans.

Puzzling together what the dolphin equivalent of intelligence is from many different test of cognition and learning, etc is an interesting task to follow. One also wonders if they have some kind of ''culture'' in the wild? Do they propagate knowledge and behaviour from generation to generation?

But comparing dolphins with humans is interesting.

I think that dolphins enjoy to manipulate humans and humans love to be manipulated. That is they enjoy learning humans to respond to their behaviours. That dolphins enjoy learning behaviours is obvious. To find such a behaviour, the ability to learn and capture the attention ought to make most humans to think of dolphins as akin to human children. Then it is self evident to try to learn them behaviours in the same way as one teaches human children. I wonder if this speculation is correct? Please give me pointers to reports on early training methods if there are any.

Maybe that easy way to think has lead to experiments where researchers has tried to learn dolphins human languages like chimps can learn some sign language? But I have read far to few papers to know if my suspicion is correct.

If this is right it ought to mean that one can get more communication, better ''bandwidth'' with dolphins if one instead tries to think of ones subject as something alien and not human. And try to behave more like a dolphin instead of making the dolphin behave like a human. That might be a game the dolphin finds more rewarding to play. Both parts trades attention and the human part tries to describe what he is doing.

I have heard that the method to train dolphins is loosely based on the methods used for circus animals. That is reward training but without close control of physical movement or physical punishments for incorrect behaviour.

I do suppose that all communication fundamentally is based on trade. This fits naively easy with the usual method of reward training of animals.

I have also gotten the impression that dolphins has quite a varied social behaviour with varying alliances and pecking-orders. And that they do include humans that relate to them when figuring how to behave against each other. Then again I lack data, most is based on a story of how a tursiops provoked a violent reaction from a tursiops higher on the pecking order to get attention from the keepers.

Wonder how far from reality my model of (mostly tursiops) is? I will probably never be satisfied with it, as it should be.

That was some speculation about dolphin behaviour and dolphin-human interactions. One of the things I find rewarding about this kind of speculation is that it gives some knowledge about human behaviour. Probably more so then it gives insight in dolphin behaviour.

It would be fun to some day test the weak Redin motto. If a dolphin do consider me to be funnier then a ball. One should not have to high expectations on appreciation.

Then there is the last question. Why do I like dolphins? I think it is that I simply get happier by looking at them. They are a beautiful part of nature and a culture that to my delight is to big to ever fully understand and growing in front of my eyes.


These are the books that are referenced in the text. I have learnt ideas and concepts mostly from other sources than fiction but I don't have a good enough memory to trace the sources of it all.

Easy Travel To Other Planets by Ted Mooney
Dolphin Island by Arthur C. Clark
The Day Of The Dolphin by Robert Merle
A Deeper Sea by Alexander Jablokov
''Johnny Mnemonic'' by William Gibson from the collection Burning Chrome
Startide Rising by David Brin
The last Whales by Lloyd Abbey
Cachelot by Alan Dean Foster
Hyperion by Dan Simmons


I thank you for reading my essay. If you have some criticism positive or negative do write me a letter or preferably email ( I am also extremely grateful for tips about interesting works of fiction and good research reports, please email me a copy if you have something you think I might appreciate.

This essay is freely distributable as long as it remains unchanged and there is a reference to the author. But I encourage readers who get it and like it to send me some token of appreciation.

LSFF:s hemsida