Myth-Making Dolphins

[9 July 2008]

By Chris Justice

OK, quick: do a free association with the word “dolphin”…what swims into your head? The wind chimes shaped like dolphins on your back porch, perhaps.  Or their visage on your shower curtain?  Now, when thinking of dolphins, what doesn’t come to mind? Strangely, for this column, what doesn’t is fishing! As majestic, intelligent, and mythological dolphins are, sport fishing for them, fortunately, has never materialized.  For complex reasons, dolphins have transcended the sport.

Nevertheless, dolphins have a unique relationship to the angling world. The word ‘dolphin’ refers to two different species of fish: the marine mammals related to porpoises and whales, and dolphin-fish, also known as mahi-mahi or dorado, which are prized saltwater game fish and table fare. While on the open-ocean, anglers may marvel at the torpedo-like stealth of the former while casting top water lures feverishly toward the iridescent chartreuse of the latter.

Sharks, often the “white whale” for many ocean anglers, also share a unique relationship to dolphins. Contrary to popular myths, which often link sharks and dolphins as lethal adversaries, neither species preys on the other, and marine biologists agree that the two ocean dwellers generally tolerate each other. A hungry bull, mako, or great white shark may feed on a wounded or vulnerable dolphin, but in general, they leave each other alone. Consequently, tuna, a primary staple for many shark species, often swim alongside dolphins because, for many reasons, dolphins and tuna pursue similar prey and joining forces reduces the likelihood of a shark attack. Most sharks will ignore dolphins or large schools of fish and focus on smaller, more solitary prey.

Unfortunately for dolphins, their relationship to tuna has not been as advantageous. Since the two schools often intermingle, commercial fishing has caused many problems for dolphins because the industry’s sprawling nets often snag them, a tragedy that has caused many animal activists to protest this traumatizing practice. Subsequently, in the 1980s, commercial tuna fishermen were forced to deliberately avoid casting nets upon dolphins, which they did previously without recourse. Average citizens encountered the byproduct of this environmental controversy in their local grocery stores when ”dolphin-safe” labels were placed on tuna fish cans.



Arguably the most popular dolphin, Flipper, made his debut on American television sets in the mid-1960s. Flipper was an intelligent dolphin and the unusual pet of a park warden living on a Florida marine reserve. Flipper helped the warden manage the park, enforce its rules, and occasionally dolphin-sat his two sons, Sandy and Bud. The lyrics to the show’s theme song reveal the reverence dolphins earned early in popular culture.

The NFL’s Miami Dolphins have trademarked one of the most indelible dolphin images in American culture; the football helmet-adorned dolphin muscularly leaping in the air.  In addition to their popularity in television and Miami football paraphernalia, dolphins also are featured in dolphinariums, a popular attraction in many major tourist destinations.

In literature dolphins have received much attention. In science fiction, dolphins figure prominently in Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern series; the Known Space fiction of Larry Niven; Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series; and David Brin’s Uplift series. In the fantasy genre, you’ll find them in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy; Karen Hesse’s The Music of the Dolphins; and Ken Grimwood’s Into the Deep. And in children’s literature, they’ll be swimming along in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Mary Pope Osborne’s Dolphins at Daybreak, to name but a few.

Superstitiously, dolphins swimming alongside a ship represent good luck. For fishermen, this luck usually equates to bountiful catches, probably because the presence of dolphins often means they’re herding and feeding on baitfish such as mackerel, herring, mullet, cod, or squid; most likely, sport fish such as dolphin, tuna, sailfish, or shark may be nearby. Dolphins are also believed to transport the souls of the dead, and the great Italian poet, Dante, cast them poetically in the underworld by comparing suffering souls floundering in hell to dolphins rolling playfully on the ocean’s waves. He writes in Canto XXII:

With the ten Demons on our way we went;
Ah, fearful company! but in the church
With saints, with gluttons at the tavern’s mess. 
Still earnest on the pitch I gazed, to mark
All things whate’er the chasm contain’d, and those
Who burn’d within. As dolphins that, in sign  
To mariners, heave high their arched backs,
That thence forewarn’d they may advise to save
Their threaten’d vessel; so, at intervals,
To ease the pain, his back some sinner show’d,
Then hid more nimbly than the lightning-glance.

Many classical philosophers and orators including Aristotle, Pliny, and Cicero have studied and alluded to dolphins in their writings and speeches. Plutarch, the Greek biographer and moralist, wrote, “to the dolphin alone, beyond all other, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage.”

In fact, Aristotle may have been the first cetologist (a person who studies cetaceans or marine mammals such as dolphins, porpoises, and whales). According to Dr. Alexandros Frantzis of Greece’s Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (PCRI):

(C)etology…was born in Greece about 2,350 years ago. Aristotle was the first to observe cetaceans in their environment and to…take notes of his observations. He actually scientifically published his results. He not only took notes, and this is amazing, but he took notes about the methods he used…Aristotle was the first to put together the basis of a very modern method used in modern cetology…called ‘photo-identification’. So Aristotle didn’t have a camera during that period, but what he did in collaboration with fishermen, when there was a dolphin captured and entangled in the nets but still alive, before releasing it, they created an artificial notch on the dorsal fin of the dolphin. So in this way, dolphins that were resident in an area could be re-sighted for many years.

Dolphins were arguably the most popular animals in ancient Greek mythology, art, and iconography, and the mammal appeared on many Greek objects including buildings, frescoes, currency, and jewelry. As Frantzis states, “the image of dolphins then, like nowadays, probably had some relaxing effect toward humans and were probably a symbol of the harmony and the health of the marine environment.” Dolphins were never perceived as quarry for anglers, but rather, as a mysterious symbol of some larger, complex marine ecosystem. In essence, because of their intelligence and social behaviors, dolphins were perceived as more human-like than fish-like (of course, they’re not technically fish, but mammals), which is why some myths portray them as former humans, and some gods used their imagery or morphed into their form.

Image from

Image of dolphin fish from Land Big

What specific traits do dolphins possess that marks them as such unique ocean creatures, when classified among cetaceans?  They’re obviously much smaller than whales, but among all cetaceans, they are the most visible and easily researched. Perhaps their accessibility and interactivity has had some part in our categorization of “advanced” species. 

Dolphins’ intelligence begins most conversations about their uniqueness. Bottlenose dolphins’ brain mass is larger than humans’ and chimpanzees’. Although this doesn’t automatically equate to sophisticated intelligence, it does mean more neural matter exists to “think”. Although the neural area devoted to how dolphins process visual stimuli is smaller than humans’, the amount devoted to hearing is much greater, which means their ability to process sound is exponentially faster than humans’. This reality explains their reliance on echolocation as a primary method of navigating their underwater worlds. Their intelligence is also evident in their problem-solving skills, ability to process new information, complex play behaviors, socialization behaviors, creativity, communication skills, and overall adaptability and trainability.

Here are a few specific examples of how we quantify their intelligence: dolphins can distinguish different numbers. While playing, dolphins will create sophisticated “bubble rings” by puffing air into the water or swimming in circles to create a vortex. In one experiment, they repeated certain behaviors for rewards, but when the rewards stopped, they generated new behaviors to earn more rewards. When this experiment was done with humans, the dolphins and humans required approximately the same amount of time to make this adjustment.

Bottlenose dolphins have been observed using tools while foraging for food: seen ripping sponges off the ocean floor, they wrap the sponges around their noses to prevent cuts. Like other cetaceans, dolphins have sophisticated communication methods that can be emitted over long distances with their “language” usually falling into two categories: “whistles” and “clicks”. Dolphins have also been found to utilize comparative skills, and when placed next to a mirror, display evidence of basic self-awareness.

Dolphins have been used in therapeutic contexts, helping children with Down’s syndrome and autism. Although researchers are still studying precisely how dolphin therapy works, some believe the playful, novel experience of interacting with dolphins in the water triggers intense emotional reactions from the children, which help them respond more positively to the treatment because it is fun, motivational, relaxing, and interactive. Other researchers believe the dolphins’ sounds create rhythms and vibrations that affect the children’s brainwave activity, and therefore, their moods. 

Their echolocation instigates a process called “cavitation”, which rips apart molecules similar to how lithotripsy machines use sound waves to destroy kidney or gall stones – an impressive healing potential.  Combine these with their hydrodynamic diving skills, universality, social nature and diverse habitats (freshwater dolphins also exist, most notably in the Amazon River), and their profound specialness to humans is indisputable.

That’s why since the 1960s the US military has successfully used them for various purposes. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, located in San Diego, California, trains dolphins, sea lions, and other cetaceans and pinnipeds through operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to perform a variety of complex tasks including transporting tools, gear, or messages from the surface to deep-ocean worksites; finding and bringing lost divers to safety; detecting ocean mines; securing harbors by identifying unauthorized swimmers; and retrieving lost objects on the ocean floor.

Navy officials deny using the animals for attack or other dangerous missions, and they consistently confirm that they’re in compliance with federal laws regulating the care of mammals. Nevertheless, animal rights activists routinely target the program for these reasons: its secrecy; its occasional use of muzzles; the way it confines and transports the animals; and the generally dangerous working conditions it creates for the animals.

Mike Nichol’s 1973 Oscar-nominated The Day of the Dolphin, starring George C. Scott, explores these topics. Originally scheduled for direction by Roman Polanski, the film opens with Professor Jake Terrell’s (Scott) lecture commending dolphins’ numerous merits. Terrell, his wife, and his associates are passionate dolphin advocates conducting research for the Franklin Institute on a remote island. The island becomes Terrell’s kingdom, and the isolation and power it affords him blinds him to the larger ecological matrix of his research, especially as it pertains to the relationship between humans and dolphins.

Terrell’s major goal is to teach dolphins human language skills, and his success warrants attention. Eventually, he discovers that one of his associates has colluded with the financial, military, and political supporters of the institute, and they stage a dolphin kidnapping to orchestrate an assassination. The conspirators train the dolphins to plant bombs under the targeted politician’s boat, but their plans take a surprising turn, and Terrell’s research ends abruptly.

At the film’s center is this provocative question: Who and what does animal research help? Humans or the animals? Once his dolphins disappear, Terrell experiences an epiphany about animal research, and he is torn while answering this question. Terrell is afraid that if his research falls into the wrong hands, the forces of capitalism will overwhelm dolphins. They will become theme park logos, cartoon characters, and anthropomorphosized toys designed solely for human pleasure and consumption. Ultimately, he realizes that his research is also designed to help humanity and not the dolphins, but he never foresees the military’s destructive use of dolphins, which is Terrell’s final straw.

When dolphins become agents of warfare, and when their presence implicates his and his wife’s safety, he decides to set them free. During his transformation, Terrell states, “We should be more like them: instinct and energy.” The film ends tragically with this dark message: humans and wild animals should not coexist, and as seductive and egotistical the trainability of dolphins can be, they should not be domesticated. Man should not interfere with Nature.

The Johnny Mnemonic dolphin.

The Johnny Mnemonic dolphin.

Cyberpunk master William Gibson’s famous short story “Johnny Mnemonic”, which was adapted for the screen in 1995 and starred Keannu Reeves, also offers a unique glimpse into the military’s use of dolphins. A cyborg dolphin named Jones helps Johnny, a data trafficker, survive in the neon-laced, black market, futuristic universe of Gibson’s dazzling prose. Jones is addicted to smack and once detected mines for the Navy. More importantly, Jones is the only living entity that can decipher the code to Johnny’s implanted cerebral information bank, which is programmed with top-secret data too sensitive for computer storage. In his sleek, digital prose, Gibson describes Jones like this:

He rose out of the water, showing us the crusted plates along his sides, a kind of visual pun, his grace nearly lost under articulated armor, clumsy and prehistoric. Twin deformities on either side of his skull had been engineered to house sensor units. Silver lesions gleamed on exposed sections of his gray-white hide.

Gibson, too, is aware of the unique bond between dolphins and humans. His story concludes with these prophetic lines: “With Jones to help me figure things out, I’m getting to be the most technical boy in town.”

What is a myth? According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, it’s “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon; a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society; a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.” Usually, myths feature people or animals that are heroic, abnormal, superhuman, legendary, partially based on truth, and partially based on exaggerations that seek to clarify or celebrate the thing’s dualities and complexities. Since this essay only skims the surfaces of what we know of their potential, I can think of few other ocean species that exemplify that definition better than dolphins.

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