new dolphin exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

“What mystery is the sea,” exclaimed Herman Melville, “whose stirrings speak of a hidden soul beneath!”1 I only understood what the great American meant for the first time two years ago, while visiting the Roatán Institute for Marine Sciences in Honduras. It was located at an otherwise uninhabited islet just off the mainland, where a shallow barrier corralled more than thirty dolphins within some six square acres. The top of the fence stood so low above the water, all but the most arthritic dolphin could easily hop over it. In fact, several have made good their escape in this manner, I was told, only to jump back inside a few days later.

As part of their daily routine, all the resident dolphins are herded together and taken out to sea, where they often frolic with their friends and relations in the wild for an hour or so – much like walking one’s pet dogs – before returning to the fenced-in islet. Perhaps they regard it as a sanctuary from sharks, enjoy its largesse of flattering attention from scientists and tourists, are bribed by free squid and herring – among their favourite delicacies – or all these amenities and more no human can guess.

Together with fellow tourists guided by a local handler, we waded into shallow depths and were immediately met by a female dolphin, which allowed us to come quite close, even touch her. Expecting to feel a hard or at least tough, scaly exterior, I was surprised by her supple, smooth, warm skin, so human-like.

“No one who has ever touched the skin of a dolphin,” wrote famed oceanographer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, “is likely to forget the silken, elastic, soft feel of it.” But a deeper impression was made by her light brown eyes.

Behind the anticipated high intelligence and complex awareness, there was something even more compelling lurking deeper inside. If, as the old French saying has it, “the eyes are the mirror of the soul,” then her gaze betrayed a core mystery comparable only to a kindred connection.

The feeling is not uncommon. Cetacean researcher Ann Spurgeon spoke for many, when she observed, “We looked often into the dolphins’ eyes, and the quality of the look they returned was unlike that of any animal we have known.”

According to no less an authority on the sea than Cousteau himself:

“it is obvious that dolphins are often motivated by curiosity, and especially by curiosity about man. One literally can see it in their eyes. This is a fact that can be doubted only by someone who has never really looked a dolphin in the eye. The brilliance of that organ, the spark that is so evident there, seems to come from another world. The look which the dolphin gives – a keen look, slightly melancholy and mischievous, but less insolent, conniving and cynical than that of monkeys – seems full of indulgence for the uncertainties of the human condition.”

Belgium’s pioneering underwater archaeologist and the world’s first aquanaut went further: “The glimmer of interest which sparkled in their eyes seemed to be a human glimmer.”

Robert Sténuit’s radical suggestion articulated my, as yet, unformulated suspicion – a wordless knowing beyond understanding, much less expression, as though my own mind had been somehow confronted with or partially overtaken by a significant truth too grand or potent for me to really comprehend or to put into words.

Richard Wagner’s Hans Sachs articulated my perplexity in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg: “I feel it, but cannot understand it; cannot completely recall it, but can never forget it. I can grasp it entirely, ’though cannot measure it. But how can I grasp that which seems immeasurable? … It seemed so old, and yet was so new.”

Cousteau was no less taken by his first, personal contact with a wild dolphin. “It was an extraordinary situation,” he confessed, “as though the barrier between man and animal no longer existed. There was some sort of strange understanding between us. It would be very difficult for me to say exactly what our feelings were for one another, but there was undoubtedly something.”

Such an inexpressibly profound impression is not unknown to other persons touched by the creature’s singular energy field. “Those who have come very close to dolphins feel it inside themselves,” stated Dr. Horace Dobbs, a leading delphinologist, “yet cannot explain it. Exactly what it is remains a mystery. For want of a better word, let us call it spirit of the dolphin.”

Dolphin Meets Humans

From the moment the Roatán dolphin first approached our gaggle of tourists, I could not escape the strong impression – realisation, perhaps – that it was very rapidly probing us with the powerful energy of some unseen and inconceivable instrument; scanning each one of us individually; psychically scoping us out down to the absolute bottom of our souls; reading everything in our conscious and subconscious minds; assessing the totality of our identity; determining our threat or friendly potential; yes, judging us – completely and thoroughly within the matter of a few seconds.

Being in the ocean with a living, breathing dolphin close enough to touch it was nothing like seeing one perform at Sea World, watching it on television, or reading about cetaceans in a library. No “virtual reality” approximates sharing the same water with such a singular creature. Although common enough these days, and similarly enjoyed by many thousands of tourists around the world, my dolphin encounter near Roatán was nevertheless a memorable, if ineffably real occurrence.

I approached it with no expectations, no preconceived ideas, but left myself open to whatever might or might not happen. I did not endeavour to “mind meld” with the creature, nor force any such boorish impertinence upon it, and instead hoped to learn something not otherwise available in less personal circumstances.

To be honest, the experience was somewhat tinged with fear, not for what the dolphin would do, but what it could do. However amiable it outwardly appeared, being at the mercy of a nine-foot-long, three-hundred-ten-pound, mentally sharp beast moving through the water seven times faster than the best human swimmer and with the agility of a bull-whip in an environment where bodily inferior men are sluggish and clumsy, gave me pause.

Aristotle and his 4th century BCE colleagues believed the dolphin was the fastest creature in the sea, and they may have been right.

In 1975, Jacques Cousteau wrote of his personal experience aboard a French Navy cruiser “in the waters of the Far East … I realised that the school of dolphins, in catching up to and then passing the Primauguet, as it moved at full power, must have been swimming at a speed of no less than fifty miles per hour!” Later, he calculated that a dolphin needed to beat its tail one hundred twenty times per minute, or two strokes every second, to reach a speed of just ten knots, or 11.5 miles per hour.

Professor Paul Budker, director of the National Museum of Natural History and the Laboratory of Colonial Fisheries in Paris, found that dolphins “move as though by magic, and are capable of producing more power per pound of muscle than any other animal.”

Cambridge University’s Sir James Gray observed that “the form given by Nature to the dolphin is more effective than that of any submarine or torpedo conceived by man.”

Dolphin Aggression Rare

While friendly toward humans, dolphins do have a temper and occasionally show aggressive behaviour, not always for obvious reasons. “A dolphin could kill a man with a blow of its snout,” writes Sténuit. “It could dismember him with a snap of its jaws, because it possesses a double row of strong, conical teeth, eighty-eight in all, which sink in with precision. But never, absolutely never, has a dolphin or a porpoise attacked a man, even in legitimate defence, with a harpoon in its side, or when, with electrodes in its skull, it has been massacred in the name of science.”

Aggressive confrontations between dolphins and ourselves take place mostly under captive environments. Free dolphins in the wild are not known to have ever deliberately killed or injured anyone.

Guilt for negative encounters with dolphins, however, has been and continues to be virtually entirely on the human side. They are, after all, our fellow mammals, still imperfect, for all their admirable qualities, and far more typically dedicated to refraining from killing us, for which, in view of our past and present atrocities committed against all cetaceans, they have abundant justification.

“When we work to save them,” stated Frank Robson, New Zealand’s leading cetologist of the last century, “we are, in a sense, acting to save ourselves.” In spite of the horrific abuses we continue to heap upon them, wild dolphins continue, as they always have, to seek out and enjoy our company, even volunteering to rescue unknown numbers of us from otherwise certain death at sea. In this, they are either abysmally naive or angelically high-minded.

Such behaviour may contrast with but cannot detract from the dolphins’ over-riding amiability toward fellow mammals, us included. Even the dolphin I met off the coast of Honduras, while certainly congenial, pointedly refused to obey some of its human handler’s instructions. As Robson discovered, “there is absolutely no way a wild dolphin can be forced to comply with the wishes of a human. If it suits him, he’ll comply. If he doesn’t feel like it, he won’t.”

Dolphin Conference

Of all the enigmas Jacques Cousteau observed during almost seven decades of underwater exploration, perhaps his most bizarre encounter took place sixty years ago, off a reef in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In the process of gathering material for his now-classic film, The Silent World, he “saw a dolphin rise to the surface to breathe, and then let himself sink down into the water again, without swimming.” This sighting followed several days of other, unusual delphine behaviour, when, “every morning at about ten o’clock,” a small pod of dolphins swam by his anchored research vessel. Intrigued, Cousteau and a fellow diver slipped into the sea.

“To this day, I have not forgiven myself for not taking a camera,” he recalled. “The sight that greeted us was one that we have never seen again. There were about fifteen dolphins – probably the school that we had seen going past Calypso every morning – in the crystal-clear water, on the side of the reef. They were sitting on the bottom, in a group, as though they were holding a conference. I say ‘sitting;’ I mean that they were literally poised on their tails.

“They remained where they were, stirring a bit and looking at one another. Then they continued with their meeting. But when we tried to move in closer to them, they swam away immediately. It was a unique and extraordinarily impressive sight. The truth is that I still have no idea what they were doing.” Telepathically communicating with each other, most likely. Cousteau himself wrote that their “meeting” suggested “an underwater congress.”

More intriguing still, about what did they confer? Given their proximity to Calypso, they were probably discussing the untypical presence of anthropomorphic divers in an otherwise unvisited area of the vast Indian Ocean; what could have brought the strangers here, how should the pod regard them, and related issues of the moment. The dolphins sat together, as humans do, yet another comparison between both species – like eye similarity, the soft spot at the top of our head corresponding to the dolphin’s blow hole, human-like fingers, hands, thighs, knees, feet and toes in the dolphin embryo, etc., etc. – indicating a shared evolution of some kind.

Can all this mean that we were once dolphins before our ancestors returned to dry land, where primate attributes are more useful? If so, do the dolphins still preserve a cultural or collective memory of our aquatic past, and regard us on account of it as their mammalian relatives? Is that the real basis for their demonstrable love of humankind? Given their immense intellect, they may know much more; everything, in fact, there is to understand concerning the illimitable bounty of the sea. What they might teach us about it could mean the difference between our annihilation or survival in an age of extinction.

Poisoning of the Oceans

The animals’ wholesale slaughter by Japan has assumed international notoriety, but even more devastating is progressive poisoning of the planet’s water resources. Just how far rising levels of toxicity have already gone to reduce dolphin world population is difficult to determine. But cetologists do know that the first birth given by a dolphin mother dies from all the human toxins it ingests, while a second birth usually survives, because its immediate predecessor absorbed most of the toxins. This process, even if it continues at present levels – which, of course, it won’t – must result in at least cutting dolphin populations in half.

“The growing presence of toxic chemicals in the marine environment presents a crisis unlike any ever faced on this planet,” warns Blue Voice, an ocean conservation organisation founded in 2000. “Vast quantities of toxic chemicals enter the waterways and oceans of the world each day and accumulate, then bio-magnify in the marine food chain. In a time when we have reduced the number of large pelagic fish by ninety percent and the bio-mass of the oceans by seventy percent, we are poisoning much of the living marine resources that remain.

This has staggering global implications for ocean life and human health. A level of one hundred parts per million of mercury has been found in a bottlenose dolphin killed for food in Japan – a level more than one hundred times that accepted by Japanese health authorities … Dolphins, toothed whales, large tuna and swordfish are among the marine creatures with highest levels of contamination, because they feed at the apex of the food chain.”

Whenever greed and self-interest are at issue, Man’s indifference to the suffering and extermination of his fellow creatures – even if their plight endangers himself – is human nature. As such, it cannot be eradicated by education or legislation, but will only disappear with himself. This was what Cousteau and other scientists realised and advocated in the last century.

“Redemption will come only when we return to the water, as sea mammals did in the past,” Cousteau repeatedly declared; “gravity is the original sin… The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope… We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilisation is all about – farming replacing hunting… If we go on the way we have, the fault is our greed, and if we are not willing to change, we will disappear from the face of the globe, to be replaced by the insect. If we were logical, the future would be bleak, indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

That work, as he envisioned it, was gradually returning us to our aquatic origins in the baptism of a new species to wash away the original sin of our human-all-too-human nature. Nor is the prospect as fantastic as it may seem. Some human populations living in an intimate relationship with the sea are already developing marine mammal characteristics.

Projecting what we have learned or suspect about such transformational potentials and our own aquatic origins into some inconceivably distant future, we can imagine an Earth entirely restored to its original, pristine condition. All its creatures roam free – unhunted, unexploited, and unharmed, save by natural predators, as part of the eternal balance of life – through an unpolluted environment of worldwide fresh air and water.

The wheel of organic existence runs on undisturbed, because no trace may be found of the viral species that formerly dominated this exquisitely beautiful planet, save among the last vestiges of its overgrown and crumbling cities. Their former inhabitants are gone, for the good of the world and themselves. Nor can the descendants of this lost race be found among the deserted, disintegrating ruins, because they have – all of them – reunited with their brother and sister dolphins in the sea.