Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking The Secrets Of Communication'

From the introduction: Toni

I began to study dolphins a little more than twenty years ago. I am often asked how my career began, which takes me back to my childhood. That's when I began my quest to unravel the mysteries of the animal mind and heart. As a toddler, I was enthralled with animals, even those considered by others to be bothersome or boring. As a teenager, my first experience with dolphins came on a visit to an amusement park. My friends and I stopped at the dolphin tank and watched a performance, after which everyone turned to leave for the roller coaster. "Wait!" I cried out. This was my first chance to see "live" dolphins do what they do in their free time, not performing tricks requested by trainers during a show. My friends grew restless watching the dolphins slowly mill about, and moved on to the rides. To me, however, nothing in the park compared with watching these beautiful, lustrous animals. Enthralled, I watched the dolphins for the rest of the day and caught up with my friends later. Only years later did my enthusiasm for that experience wane when I came to know enough about dolphins to question the practice of keeping these keenly aware animals confined in a raucous amusement park tank.

As a teen, I caught the end of a television show featuring a biologist studying dolphins and seeking ways to communicate with them. Something clicked, and I knew that I wanted . . . no I had . . . to study dolphins for the rest of my life. I am usually methodical about making decisions, so this sudden career declaration was hard to explain, let alone justify, to myself. I knew I needed to begin a course of study. I found books written by the pioneering researcher John C. Lilly and learned that his foundation was located near where I lived in Los Angeles. I also began to read the works of other researchers, especially Kenneth Norris and Louis Herman. When I wasn't in school, I was volunteering for Lilly's Human-Dolphin Foundation and Marineland of the Pacific, where I worked primarily in rehabilitating stranded marine mammals. I also assisted in a boat-and land-based census of wild bottlenose dolphins along the southern California coast. Lilly's foundation invited me to participate in research on dolphin-human communication with Joe and Rosie, two captive bottlenose dolphins who had just been moved to the Florida Keys. After only a few days of working with them, I changed my plane ticket home to one with no specified return date.

My experiences with Joe and Rosie were fascinating. Also of interest were the other dolphins housed in the facility next to them. Every day, I watched dozens of people pay to get into the water and swim with those dolphins. Little did I know that I was witnessing the first commercialized "swim-with-the-dolphin" program. This also gave me a unique perspective on human impacts on dolphins and led me eventually to conduct the first studies of these swim programs. Toward the end of my stay in Florida, Joe and Rosie were being "untrained" in preparation for their reintroduction to the wild. The research project was ending.

At the conclusion of this life-changing summer, I received an incredible opportunity to live on a boat in The Bahamas for two weeks to interact with and study spotted and bottlenose dolphins in the wild. To see dolphins underwater, interacting not only with people and one another but also with the many natural features of their underwater environment, was an education beyond belief. I felt as though I had come home. Auspiciously, dolphin scientist Denise Herzing was on the boat. She was initiating research that would eventually become the longest underwater study of individual dolphins in the wild.

I began graduate school missing the dolphins and the crystal blue waters. Yet I was charged with renewed enthusiasm and had the good fortune to have respected researchers in the field as my academic advisers. So began my unique specialization in dolphin-human interaction and communication, as well as in behavioral indicators of dolphin stress in both captivity and the wild. I was encouraged, yet cautioned that academia would be critical, even cynical about my study of dolphin-human communication. Pop culture had of course romanticized this subject in earlier decades. But the persistence of this attitude felt stale and charged with anthropocentric assumptions and a lack of scientific objectivity. I wondered if underlying the resistance to this research was the idea that it was sacrilege to study humans in a way that other social mammals are studied and that dolphins, not being human, did not deserve such attention. This did not seem a very objective approach to the study of animal behavior since we are animals, too. With my professors' guidance, I applied ethological techniques to analyze dolphin-human interactions and found the results even more exciting than the glamorized, media-enhanced accounts of these encounters. The study of the dolphin-human bond certainly did not require a lapse of scientific precision. If anything, the interspecies sociality between dolphins and humans was more brightly illuminated by it.

My graduate research consisted of conducting the first studies on dolphin behavior in the context of swimming with humans in captivity and then in the wild. Subsequently, I received numerous solicitations from international government and regulatory agencies, movie production companies, and nonprofit animal welfare, conservation, and environmental groups to evaluate a variety of captive and wild marine mammal behavior in order to provide recommendations regarding their welfare, conservation, and management. I studied dolphins used in swim programs, petting and feeding programs, various species of captive and free-ranging groups of dolphins, as well as solitary sociable bottlenose dolphins, belugas, and orcas. My career has taken me to regions of the world that I never expected to visit, much less work in, and introduced me to a rich diversity of people ranging from animal protectionists, fishers and hunters to celebrities and prime ministers. The creation of a nonprofit organization, TerraMar Research (, gave me an independent yet structured organizational container for this profession.

When people ask me what is unique about my work, I reply that I feel privileged to study the complexities of dolphin communication and the effects of human interaction on so many different species under such varied conditions. I hope that my research helps to validate and encourage the scientific study of interspecies communication and the psychological and emotional lives of other animals. One aspect of my work stands high above all else: to conduct research that makes a positive contribution to the lives of our nonhuman kin. This is not only my scientific responsibility but a great honor. My goal is for people to appreciate dolphins for who they are as individuals, not just what they are to us.

Exactly how we met is hard for us to remember. Our first conversation was probably an excited discussion about dolphin communication, probably punctuated by a mutual dissection of the methodology used or the conclusions reached in some scientific paper we were both reading. In 1990, we were fledgling graduate students at Texas A&M. Under Jane Packard's expert direction, we participated in lively debates about ethology. Though we hailed from opposite coasts — Kathleen from the east, Toni from the west — we shared a mutual obsession for learning the mysteries of dolphin communication as well as a passion for studying dolphins underwater. Kathleen's interest in delving deeper into the study of dolphin-dolphin communication and Toni's curiosity about the scientific analysis of dolphin-human communication eventually evolved into our respective doctoral research projects. In graduate school, we occasionally assisted each other in the fi eld. We have collaborated on many papers. The complementary nature of our differences and our similarities is reflected in our writing, which we hope contributes to the value and enjoyment of this book.

We are thrilled that dolphin communication is swiftly becoming a topic of choice among young scientists. There is much to learn. The cutting-edge research on dolphin communication of such early pioneers as Melba and David Caldwell, William Evans, Louis Herman, John Lilly, Kenneth Norris, Karen Pryor, William Schevill, William Tavolga, and William Watkins has inspired us and informed our collaboration with contemporary cetologists. Although we, too, have pioneered aspects of study into dolphin communication, we do not work in a vacuum. Science is an amazing journey; competing explanations, or alternative hypotheses, are often presented to describe one behavior. Discussion and debate infuse a fi eld already flooded with questions. Readers will encounter examples of competing hypotheses in the following chapters.

To cover all points of view and provide an exhaustive review of dolphin communication would require several volumes of text and many years to write. In fact, we could not help but include some information from such related aspects of dolphins as their anatomy, evolution, conservation, and cognition. Still, we adhere to what we call the "Umi shopping analogy." Umi is Kathleen's "mighty sea beagle," and she loves rawhide treats and squeaky, stuffed animals. Kathleen delights in shopping for new toys for Umi but brings home only one toy at a time and only on special occasions. Umi is not aware of all toys from which Kathleen could select, but she is thrilled with each new arrival. In a similar way, we focus on the explanations and hypotheses we have come to know and trust based on our experiences and data. We do not present a complete catalogue of the varying explanations of each dolphin action, vocalization, or interaction. Curious readers are encouraged to pursue the additional readings we recommend and draw their own conclusions. Similarly, as your guides for this journey, we focus on landmarks we have visited and are most familiar with. In this way, you will become privy to our individual experiences with dolphins.

Referring specifically to the animals of our book, we should clarify what we mean by dolphin because the name alone can be a source of confusion. If you ask a fisherman about the animal that looks like the television star "Flipper" when he is out fishing, he will likely answer "porpoise." In some regions, fishermen use the term porpoise to refer to all dolphins and porpoises in an effort to avoid confusion between the dolphin and the dolphin fish, or mahi-mahi. The interchanging use of dolphin and porpoise occurs when these two words are used more generally in conversation and is not meant to ignore the existence of the Phocoenidae, which includes six species of porpoise—individuals different in several morphological and physiological characters from dolphins. We use the term dolphin to refer to members of the taxonomic family Delphinidae, which consists of thirty-three species of dolphins ranging from coastal to pelagic and tiny to large. For example, killer whales (orcas) and pilot whales are dolphins. Use of the nickname "whale" refers to their length, which is greater than 24 feet (about 8 m).

Although we focus on research from the study of dolphins, beluga whales (also toothed cetaceans and members of the family Monodontidae) make a signifi cant appearance. This is because of Toni's extensive work with these animals and the extraordinary similarities that have been observed in their behavior and communication, particularly in terms of interspecies communication. We also include information on other cetaceans to provide comparative examples or because details are lacking on specific topics in dolphins. For this reason, readers will encounter sperm whales (the largest of the toothed cetaceans), baleen whales, and other marine mammals, such as seals and sea otters. Elephants, parrots, dogs, ravens, lions, human children and adults, and other terrestrial and avian animals also occasionally join us through these pages into the world of dolphins.

From Dolphin Mysteries: Unlocking the Secrets of Communication (C) 2008 Kathleen M. Dudzinski and Toni Frohoff.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Toni Frohoff and Kathleen Dudzinski