Dolphins in the Wild


Georgia’s coastal waters provide a haven for dolphins, creatures that have charmed mankind since the days of Aristotle.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson


High intelligence, an extremely social nature and a fascinating propensity for play have attracted people to dolphins for centuries. Books, movies and television shows have showcased what has always seemed to be an intrinsic connection to the species, from the brave and friendly companion in “Flipper” and hyper-intelligent animals in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” to the real-life, wild pods in the recent documentary “The Cove.” The link between human beings and these smart cetaceans may be stronger than we think, however, and researchers are working to find out just how inextricably connected we are.

“Right now at the National Aquarium, researchers are studying dolphin vocal communication and pro-social behavior,” explains John Racanelli, chief executive officer of the National Aquarium. The Baltimore-based institution not only hosts significant research, but is also home to a Dolphin Discovery exhibit. “Dolphins are aquatic treasures, and we want to share their beauty, grace and intelligence with our guests.”

Additionally, the aquarium plays a role in preserving the ecosystems on which dolphins rely, such as the Chesapeake Bay and Georgia’s Golden Isles. Dolphin research and conservation, Racanelli adds, have important implications for humans: “Our philosophy is this: With knowing comes caring. The more people learn about dolphins, the more they will want to protect them and their habitats.”

Diana Reiss, who has utilized the National Aquarium as a research facility, is one example of that philosophy at work. Her interest in sea creatures was sparked when she read an article about whale slaughter. Now a marine mammal scientist and a cognitive psychologist and professor at Hunter College in New York, Reiss is recognized as a world authority on dolphins. “My background was in theater,” she says. “But I always had one foot edging toward science and animal behavior—but not specifically dolphins. I joke that I watched ‘Lassie’ much more than ‘Flipper.’ ”

Diana Reiss researches the minds and habits of dolphins to facilitate global protection for the animals. | Courtesy of Diana Reiss, Ph.D
Diana Reiss researches the minds and habits of dolphins to facilitate global protection for the animals. | Courtesy of Diana Reiss, Ph.D

Recently, she was a consultant and instrumental in the making of the award-winning 2009 documentary “The Cove,” about the annual dolphin

drive hunts in Japan. She also co-authored a significant study that demonstrated dolphins’ ability to identify themselves in mirrors—intelligence that has only been demonstrated elsewhere by humans, great apes, elephants and magpies.

Beyond protecting an intelligent, sensitive animal, learning more about dolphins results in another important benefit. Much like the canary in the coal mine, the species can be an early indicator for many environmental changes and dangers that will ultimately affect humans.

“As goes their health, so goes the health of the ecosystem they rely on,” Racanelli explains. “It’s been said that we are all downstream from someone else. Because they live their lives at sea level, dolphins are downstream from all of us, which means whatever we send them from our terrestrial world … has nowhere else to go.” Fortunately, researchers like Reiss are keeping a close eye on these crucial cetaceans.


Aquatic Neighbors

Due to its islands, marshes, estuaries, rivers and creeks, Georgia boasts 3,400 miles of tidal shoreline. Such an abundance provides the perfect setting for the bottlenose dolphin.

Georgia’s coastline is the perfect playground for different types of dolphins.
Georgia’s coastline is the perfect playground for different types of dolphins.

Reiss studies dolphins that live in aquariums for their accessibility and the opportunity to perform longitudinal experiments, but she notes that the waters off of Georgia are of particular interest because of the mix of resident and migratory dolphins. “I’m a research scientist but I’ve also been involved in rescue, so I’m really enchanted with Sea Island and the whole environment,” she explains. “I’d love to get some research going there.”

In addition to these ideal conditions, Gray’s Reef, about 20 miles east of Georgia’s coast, is a marine protected area—one of 14 in the National Marine Sanctuary System. “My friend, noted marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle, calls marine protected areas ‘hope spots,’ places where there’s great potential to maintain healthy, thriving ecosystems,” Racanelli explains, adding that Gray’s Reef is an incredibly important habitat that houses hundreds of species of fish, invertebrates and mammals like dolphins and manatees. “We need these special places on Earth as much as we need cathedrals and national monuments. They give us hope for the future.”

Dolphins in their natural habitat are often spotted by those along Georgia’s coast, including Sea Island’s residents and visitors who are out on the water or even taking a stroll on the beach. The dolphins that can be seen in shallower waters, including closer to the coast and in estuaries, are identified as inshore dolphins. Inshore or estuarine dolphins have larger flippers, are 6 to 8 feet long and are pale gray. Offshore dolphins can grow up to 12 feet long and have small flippers. They’re dark, almost black, and migrate from New Jersey down the entire Eastern Seaboard, spending cool-weather months in warmer Caribbean waters. Although dolphins can swim 100 miles a day, estuarine or resident dolphins have a home range in which they tend to stay.

Additionally, dolphins live in a matriarchal society, in what scientists call a “fission fusion” structure, meaning they come together and then separate, with males coming and going. Calves, however, stay with mothers anywhere from three to six years. “In field studies, you’ll often see the same animals together,” Reiss explains. “They’ll have these tight groups, then they mix with other groups to form larger groups as well.” This occurs throughout dolphins’ lives, which can sometimes last more than 50 years.

Inshore dolphins are smaller, lighter in color and live closer to the coast than offshore species. | Photo by Tory Kallman
Inshore dolphins are smaller, lighter in color and live closer to the coast than offshore species. | Photo by Tory Kallman


Mind of a Dolphin

“Sometimes we think that intelligence is equated with having an opposable thumb,” says Reiss. Her research indicates that dolphins blow that theory out of the water. “One of our earlier papers showed that dolphins can create their own objects of play.” The dolphins she studied blew bubble rings from their blowholes and figured out that if they touched them, the rings dissipated. To prolong the life of their self-made toy, they moved it by blowing air or spitting water at it. Dolphins will also manipulate these rings by biting them to cut them in two, sometimes sending one through the other with an extra push.

“Dolphins are creative, intelligent and very socially aware,” Racanelli adds. At the National Aquarium’s Dolphin Discovery exhibit, visitors can sit

Dolphin Discovery at the National Aquarium | Courtesy of the National Aquarium
Dolphin Discovery at the National Aquarium | Courtesy of the National Aquarium

for hours just to watch the creatures play, an act that Racanelli says helps people connect with them because of dolphins’ similarities with humans. Experts are also on hand at the exhibit to answer questions and discuss what it’s like to care for, teach and build relationships with the animals. “Like us, they use tools, work in teams and mourn the loss of relatives. Their brains are as complex as ours, but they have evolved very differently. In humans, the neocortex is king; it’s the source of our rational, individualistic thinking. In dolphins, however, their limbic system is far more developed. It’s in the limbic brain that we process social, emotional and memory-based thoughts and feelings. When you consider how significant that is to survival, you can’t help but wonder what we could learn from our aquatic cousins.”

More evidence of dolphins’ intelligence can be found in the animals’ interaction with mirrors. In 2001, Reiss published a paper showing that dolphins, like humans and great apes, have the cognitive ability to recognize themselves in reflective surfaces. “It may seem simple to us, but it suggests a very high level of self awareness,” Reiss says.

She and Frans de Waal, a chimpanzee researcher at Emory University, continued the study with three adult female elephants and got the same results.

“Dolphins, humans, chimps and elephants all showed the same stages of behavior at the mirror,” Reiss explains. “First they explore the mirror. Then they try to look behind the mirror … to see if someone is there. Then they show the [next] stage that we call contingency testing, where they become aware of their behavior. They learn there is a one-to-one correspondence between their behavior and what they are seeing in the mirror. And then they go on to this stage we call self-directed behavior and they use the mirror as a tool to look at themselves. And, like us, they are interested in looking at their eyes and the insides of their mouths—parts of their bodies they can’t see without a mirror.”

Dolphins have acute vision above and below water.
Dolphins have acute vision above and below water.

In her book “The Dolphin in the Mirror,” Reiss gives readers a sense of the dolphin’s intelligence and individuality. “They have distinct personalities,” she explains. “They have distinct ways of being and of thinking. They’re cognitive. They feel pain and suffering. These are really advanced, large-brained animals that happen to live in the ocean, and they need protection.”


Swimming to the Future

For Reiss, research holds importance that goes  beyond satisfying curiousity. “Our science doesn’t just stay in one country,” she says. “Our science transcends geographic and cultural boundaries.”

Fortunately, bottlenose dolphins are not an endangered species, but the study and protection of the mammals leads to greater understanding about animal behavior, the environment and ourselves. “Dolphins create bonds that last for lifetimes,” Racanelli adds. “Like us, they’re survivors. Yet, they’ve done all this without the capacity to manipulate and change their environment. … We would do well to keep dolphin populations and their diverse habitats healthy and thriving—because their future is intertwined with our own.”


A Maritime Guide

“Dolphins are very protected in our waters and in the waters of many other countries,” explains dolphin researcher Diana Reiss. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case in other countries, where whaling [exists] and dolphins are slaughtered.”

Threats to dolphin populations do exist in the U.S., however. Much of the damage done domestically is through ignorance or misplaced affection. A large misconception many people have of dolphins is that they are all friendly. The animals may approach boats or swimmers, but oftentimes, the animals are merely curious.

Human and dolphin encounters should follow the Marine Mammal Protection Act regulations. Among these:

  • Use reputable boat operators who maintain a 50-yard distance from dolphins. If narrow waterways prevent that, stop the boat propeller and cautiously float past the dolphins.
  • Never feed wild dolphins. Almost anything fed to a dolphin is not healthy for them. Feeding also trains them to beg boats for food.
  • Touching the animals is illegal.
  • “Respect them as societies in the sea,” says Reiss. “Observe them at a distance.”



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