Category: dolphin intelligence


In any aspect of life, it’s easy to blame and judge someone for something that you view differently. It is easy to sit on this computer and blog to Mr. Fujisaki to make a change. It is easy to show up to a protest on Oct. 14 and shake a finger at the Japanese government for encouraging such a repulsive practice. What’s not easy is to be one of the most famous dolphin trainers in entertainment, essentially promote dolphin captivity, and then flip your views into becoming the most active campaigner against dolphin mistreatment in the world.

Meet Ric O’Barry. O’Barry is best known for shocking thousands of horrified viewers and exposing dolphin slaughter to the world through the documentary, The Cove. However, 38 years ago, he was on “the other side of the dolphin street.” As the lead dolphin instructor on the TV show, Flipper, it was O’Barry’s responsibility to capture, live with, and train the five “Flipper” dolphins throughout the duration of the show. Little did he know that highlighting the personality of dolphins through TV would lead to such ghastly consequences for their species. “I feel somewhat responsible,” he says in the interview below, “because it was the Flipper series that started this multi-billion dollar industry.”

However, it wasn’t until 10 years of dolphin training that this guilt set in. The catalyst was the death of the Flipper dolphin, Cathy, in 1970. According to O’Barry, Cathy’s death was not an accident. “You have to understand,” he says, “dolphins are not automatic air breathers like we are. Every breath for them is a conscious effort. She looked me right in the eye, took a breath, held it — and she didn’t take another one. She just sank to the bottom of the water.”

This event was a wake-up call for O’Barry, who realized that tanks and cages are not an appropriate environment for dolphins. “The next day,” he recalls, “I found myself in a Bimini jail, trying to free a dolphin for the first time.” Since then he has devoted himself to the campaign against dolphin mistreatment, regardless of the dangers he faces in Japan after the release of the Cove. He is involved in many corporations such as the Oceanic Preservation Society and has his own organization you can check out at savejapandolphins.org.

Ric O’Barry is an admirable man, to be sure. But the reason why I devote a blog to him is not necessarily to point out the influence he has on this issue (which is quite a ton, by the way).  The most fascinated thing about O’Barry to me is that he changed. He had one passionate view on the subject and those thoughts shifted dramatically as he learned more about the situation. This gives me hope that people will change in a similar manner. These actions will be stopped.

The question is, how many more dolphins need to lose their lives before it does?

A majority of humans are omnivores, and as such, we include some sort of meat in our diet to provide us with appropriate nutrients. Slaughterhouses around the world are designed to butcher animals in order to supply this need. So what makes The Cove in Taiji, Japan any different?  Why should dolphins deserve to be treated with any more rights than the cows, chickens, or pigs that many of us eat daily?

Much behaviorial and anatomical research has been conducted on the intelligence of the dolphin in comparison to that of our own. The results have proven that dolphins are the world’s second most intelligent creatures after humans, with scientists suggesting “they are so bright that they should be treated as ‘non-human persons'”. Dolphins have a much larger brain than humans, which, although is not necessarily an indicator of higher intelligence, leaves greater surface area for neurons. A more accurate measure of intelligence is the “encephalisation quotient” (EQ)– or ratio of brain size to body size. A bottle-nosed dolphin’s EQ is 5.6, surpassed only by the human’s EQ of 7.4. Dolphins perceive the world through sonar experience to an extent that they are even able to distinguish a heart beating or a pregnant woman!

The social development and interaction of dolphins also parallels that of humans. Most live in groups for life, learning societal conventions from their mothers and the community. The group will even have distinct clicks and whistles that, like a name, identify each individual. A member creates relationships with their fellow dolphins, from casual friendships to romantic partners. Dolphins are the only species besides humans to have sexual intercourse for enjoyment rather than for reproductive purposes. Learn more HERE!

Dolphins are known for their social interaction with humans as well. Everyone has seen the videos of dolphins hugging, playing, and giving rides to thrilled tourists. However, dolphins are also the only known wild animals that will come to the rescue of a human being. There are many stories of dolphins ganging up around a surfer to save them from an oncoming shark. The BBC dedicated a whole episode of the TV show, Natural World, to this phenomenon. Here is the first section:

Click here to view sections 2/5, 3/5, 4/5,and  5/5

The capability to learn, remember, and pass on knowledge is another remarkable characteristic of this species. Dolphins can understand about 90 commands of American Sign Language, as well as words, sentences, and differences in word order. They can recognize their reflection in the mirror and watch TV with comprehension. One dolphin, Kelly, even figured out how to fool her trainers! When told to clean up the pool, she would hide a piece of trash under a rock in her tank. She would tear off a piece and return it to her trainer for a reward. After being given her reward, she would go back to the hiding place, tear off another piece, and start the process over again. She then taught her calves and fellow dolphins until the whole crew was showing similar behavior. Another story depicts a young dolphin seeing a human observer taking a puff of his cigarette. The dolphin sped off to his mother, swam back to the man, and released milk into the water to create the same “smoke” effect of the cigarette. Dolphins also use their intelligence to entertain themselves, as seen in this video of a dolphin blowing bubble rings:

All of this research and evidence points to one conclusion. Dolphins are in a league entirely different from that of cows, pigs, or chickens and therefore should not be treated as such. Dolphins play. They remember. They interact. They show sensitive and  protective instincts. They learn. They can even plan for the future, as seen in Kelly’s trash tactics. Therefore it is possible that they are aware of their fate when caught in The Cove.

They are a species we can relate to and learn from. They are not to be on a menu or your dinner plate.