When I work with animals I
try to interact with them to foster a long
term relationship. I don't rush or harass them, I try to give them
space and deal with them on their terms. Ultimately what I hope for is
to be accepted in their world enough that I can capture natural
behavior. Sometimes this means keeping a respectful distance and only
slowly moving closer when I recognize that the animal is comfortable
with me. Sometimes it means spending days, weeks, even months letting
an animal learn that my presence is not a threat.
Occasionally an animal will show the same curiosity towards me that I
have towards it. It can be a wonderful experience when the animal you
are with not only accepts you, but is interested in you. That was a
fascinating aspect of being in the water with dolphins. If the
circumstances were right they would actually seek out interactions with
If you chase an animal they are going to try to get away from you, it's
as simple as that. When you are with dolphins you don't want to
aggressively swim at them, you want them to accept you. I think that
dolphins may be able to sense your general intentions, whether you are
open and positive or whether you are aggressive and try to force
things. My best experiences with dolphins while in Hawaii occurred when
I let the dolphins come and interact with me.
One morning I was snorkeling in a beautiful cove with corral reefs near
the shore and black volcanic rock at the waters edge. I'd already seen
some dolphins and I was mostly just touring around taking in the all
the beauty and life that I was seeing. Under the water, invisible from
above, appeared a wall of 40-60 dolphins passing by and then circling
around me. For the next 20 minutes I constantly had dolphins around me.
I saw a nursery pod of mothers with their babies swimming so close that
they were almost touching. I had dolphins obviously checking me out, I
could actually see their eyes making contact with mine. They were close
enough that I could see the markings on their skin and the wounds from
cookie cutter sharks.
The most fun moment was when a particular dolphin took and interest in
me and leaped right over the top of me, two times in a row. I was
enjoying everything so much that I was actually laughing into my
snorkel! You have to keep in mind that these are wild animals, they are
not trained or rewarded for interacting with people. They made a
conscious choice to investigate me in much the same way that I was
making a choice to investigate them.
Even in clear water visibility falls off quickly. Dolphins depend on
echolocation sonar more than their eyes. Scientists have covered
dolphins eyes and noted that the animals can still maneuver around
obstacles, but when they cover the area that receives sound used in
sonar the dolphins start to bump into things. Their sonar has a longer
range than their vision. They can sense things with sonar from a lot
further away in the water than we can see. A dolphin knows where you
are through echolocation well before you can see them. If a Dolphin is
within sight it is the result of a choice on the part of the dolphin,
either it wants to see you, or it wants to be seen by you.
Dolphins have brains that are the same proportion to their body size as
our brains are to our body size. It was obvious to me that I was in the
company of intelligent, curious beings. One day I swam back to shore
carrying my friends flippers back. My own were on my feet, so I put the
extra pair on my hands and swam back with flippers on both my hands and
my feet. Before I could make it back in there were dolphins all around
me. I'm sure that curiosity was driving them to check out what that
weird person was doing.
When I was around the dolphins I felt a seductive mix of intelligence,
curiosity, social behavior and play. There is also an fascinating
combination of sameness and alieness.. While they are obviously
intelligent they also have abilities and senses that are outside of our
own. In addition to being able to echo locate they have a rich
communication, complete with vocalizations that scientists have shown
are unique names for themselves, and most of this communication takes
place at a frequency beyond what we can sense. According to research
they can even "look into" each other bodies, to determine a dolphins
health, or even if a dolphin is pregnant or receptive just through the
use of sound.
We manipulate our environment tremendously. Dolphins do not. They have
evolved down a different path. I can only imagine what millions of
years of evolution in the use of sound and in social interactions have
wrought. I have had all too few interactions with them, but it has left
me with tantalizing thoughts of being accepted and connecting more on
their terms... and realizing that I have only the remotest ideas of
what that actually means.
Charles St. Charles III
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