Whale watching is common off the coast of Southern California, but recently a tour group encountered something that few people ever see: the touching, almost tear-jerking sight of a female bottlenose dolphin carrying the body of her dead infant upon her back.
The boat’s captain, Dave Anderson of DolphinSafari.com, spotted the dolphin, who was apparently reluctant to separate herself from the deceased calf. “This video sends a powerful message about how much a dolphin can care, it is a window into a dolphin’s heart,” Anderson said in a statement. “We can only imagine what happened; over half of all bottlenose calves die from disease and predators before their second birthday, and since we know that the family unit in dolphin pods is the mother and calf, this is almost certainly a mother and calf pair.”
The video has been widely reported, especially online. But TakePart wanted to dig a little deeper into the poignant vignette, so we turned to Barbara J. King, author of the book How Animals Grieve and a self-proclaimed “wife, mom, animal lover, cat rescuer, ape-watcher, anthropologist, avid reader of novels and nonfiction, and of course writer.”
What was the first thing that came to your mind when you saw this footage?
It was more of a feeling that came into my heart: Here is a mother dolphin who has lost a baby, she won’t separate herself from that baby, and I feel for her. That little curved body, a weight on the mom’s back—wow. Everything I know suggests to me she’s a grieving mother.
Have you ever seen this type of behavior in dolphins before and can you describe it? What about other cetaceans?
I’ve not seen it personally—my up-close observing experiences are with other mammals. I’ve researched clear scientific accounts of cetacean grief, however, and it’s within that framework that I experienced my emotional response.
These accounts include rough-toothed as well as bottlenose dolphins. Sometimes the mother, instead of carrying the baby in the way we see in the video, pushes the baby along in the water, making sure it doesn’t sink. This takes an enormous toll on the mother. In one case, according to an article in Marine Mammal Science, a mother rough-toothed dolphin did this for five days.
The question of whale strandings is related as well. There are certainly many different reasons why whales may beach themselves; this isn’t a phenomenon well understood by science. But some scientists, including Dr. Ingrid Visser, a seasoned expert with New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust, think that stranding behaviors in pilot whales may be grief related at least sometimes—if one whale beaches because of injury or illness, others may fight vigorously to stay with the body.
How do other members of her family behave when a mother does this with a dead calf? Do they leave her alone, or try to comfort her? Do they ever carry the calf themselves for a while?
I’ll return here to the rough-toothed dolphin example I mentioned above. In that case, scientist Fabian Ritter reported the mother had escorts with her at times. Other dolphins swam with her in an atypical, closely coordinated way. When on day five, the mother, who must have been exhausted, left her baby for certain periods, other dolphins took over by supporting the corpse with their bodies.
One thing I’m not sure about is the comforting of a survivor by other dolphins. Could the social behavior I’ve just described be felt as comfort by a grieving mother? I think that’s an open question—and a hard one to figure out how to answer.
Do you think all bottlenose dolphin mothers do this when a calf dies, or only certain individuals?
Right now, our understanding of cetacean grief is at a young stage. In my work on animal cognition and emotion, I’m very struck by the degree of individual variation within a species. Dolphins are individuals, and their behaviors are affected by their personalities, the social context around them, maybe even by their group’s cultural traditions. I’d expect this to be true with dolphin response to death.
What exactly do you believe is going on here? Is the mother just reluctant to let go, or do you think this might be a mourning ritual, the equivalent of a burial or memorial for humans?
While I do see this behavior in the video as highly suggestive of maternal grief, I’m reluctant to describe it in human terms. Or to put this another way, to describe something as a ritual, I’d want to see the same animal performing repeated actions over time in a similar way, or a number of different animals performing similar actions.
The field of study about cetaceans’ response to death is wide open for more observation and filming, which we badly need. Bottom line? I think we’re seeing a mother whose refusal to let go of her baby physically may mirror a reluctance to let go emotionally.
In either case, what does this action tell us about the intelligence and compassion of dolphins?
Dolphins are incredibly smart and socially attuned animals: We have such great scientific reports of their complex social dynamics, their learning behaviors and their tool-using behaviors. Further, stories of dolphins acting compassionately even across species lines are fairly frequent and famous. These aspects of cetacean lives are already a known quantity—and this video clip fits comfortably into that framework.
We think videos like this help people understand how much we share with this amazing species. Do you agree? Do you think images like this can be used as a tool for educating the public on protecting dolphins and other marine mammals?
Absolutely yes, I agree. The single most powerful tool that we “animal people” have when we communicate with the public, I believe, is video evidence. Animal video clips—not silly ones, but good ones showing animal emotion or cognition—have transformed the way I teach and even the way I write (linking to them), because of their immediacy and power.
When we all see with our own eyes that dolphins care so deeply for others of their own kind, we also see in a new way how much their lives matter—in their own right. The result is, I hope and trust, a renewed energy and commitment for marine mammal protection.
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David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, “Death at SeaWorld,” was published by St. Martin’s Press. He is also an experienced writing coach and media trainer: For more info visit www.davidkirbycoaches.com