A remarkable video of a scuba diver coming to the aid of a bottlenose dolphin in Hawaii has recently surfaced, touching the hearts of many with its depiction of cooperation and trust between species. And though utterly engrossing and ultimately joyous, the video does leave a lingering question behind: Are whales and dolphins too trusting of people?
The video was taken during a commercial nighttime dive off Kona, at a spot where giant manta rays are known to gather. During the dive, a spectacular experience in itself, the professional guides noticed a sole dolphin approaching their lights. On closer inspection, they realized the animal had a hook in its pectoral fin, which was entangled in fishing line, preventing the dolphin from swimming properly.
In the video, the dolphin clearly seems to be soliciting help from the human, and one of them, diver Keller Laros, obliged.
It took more than eight minutes to disentangle the animal, including a brief interlude where the dolphin rose to the surface to breathe, then returned immediately to the helping hands of Laros.
Finally, the beautiful, eminently serene dolphin swims calmly away. (Despite what has been reported, Laros was able to remove the hook as well as the filament, according to Dr. Ingrid Visser of New Zealand’s Orca Research Trust.)
“I think it was very, very interesting,” Dr. Lori Marino, executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and Emory University neuroscientist, told TakePart. “It’s obvious that this dolphin was lining up so the diver could look at his fins. He turned upside down to show him the hook, and kept his pec fin in line with the person.”
The wild animal stayed extremely close to Laros, and remained in a friendly, relaxed, even slightly vulnerable position, apparently engulfed in trust. “Clearly, this dolphin has been habituated to people,” Marino said.
What we don’t know is whether he or she just stumbled on the divers, or visited the spot knowing that humans often go there. “This dolphin may have intentionally gone there to get some help, it’s certainly not outside the range of possibility, knowing how intelligent they are,” Marino said. “Besides, other divers have been solicited by dolphins. They seem to know we can help them.”
The dolphin may have seen people doing things with their hands, like tying and untying lines underwater. “He may have seen another dolphin being helped by people, or it could just be a general sense of intelligence. The dolphin knows that we have a similar level of intelligence, and maybe we could help. There is a recognition.”
In other words, this video is remarkable not only because it allows us to recognize the intelligence of dolphins, but because it demonstrates dolphin recognition of the intelligence of humans, “such as it is,” Marino said, only partly in jest.
The neuroscientist, who helped prove that dolphins can recognize themselves in the mirror—a remarkable feat of self-awareness that nearly all animal species, and human children under two, cannot do—recalled a few other cases of dolphins soliciting the help of people.
“One adult female came up to diver and brought her baby with her, who was entangled in fishing line,” she said. “You don’t know what is going on in their minds, but they do seem to understand there is something about humans that might be helpful.”
In other cases involving entangled whales who are helped by humans, “they come up to people and nudge them and thank them,” Marino added.
Courtney Vail, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, agreed. “We are essentially looking at a kindred spirit when we look at these long-lived animals that share our human reliance on social support networks and cultural transmission of knowledge,” she said. “However, we have to be wary of encouraging self-interested interactions with dolphins in the wild, where the public often actively seek out a close encounter with these animals that can be detrimental to them.”
And, Vail added, the automatic trust that this wild dolphin put in human hands should give us all pause.
“Anyone who is witness to such trust, self-awareness, and intelligence should be brought to their knees in thinking about the suffering that is endured by these animals at the hands of humankind, such as the dolphin drive hunts in Japan, where family groups must experience sheer terror as they are chased and herded by boats, and then forced to hear the cries of their podmates as they are slaughtered or carried away into captivity,” Vail said. “These animals don’t resist or retaliate. This video is a powerful reminder of the individuality and intelligence of these animals.”
Marino concurred. Such guileless expression of interspecies trust tells us “something spectacularly tragic about the Taiji slaughter,” she said. “These are beings that tend to trust us, and maybe their default is to trust us. And that is taken advantage by us in Taiji. It’s not part of their nature to fight back—they seem totally victimized because, maybe, they are taken by surprise.”
“Why wouldn’t they try to fight back more, or try to injure the fisherman more?” Marino asked. “Because it’s not part of their nature to respond that way to people. We are taking advantage of their nature. We always have.”
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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.