I saw the Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary of 2009, THE COVE, on September 17 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It is a cross between a holocaust film and a Plowshares action. It is not for the queasy, as you see Japanese killers slaughtering these beautiful and intelligent creatures. If you can handle it, see it and get outraged.
THE COVE, directed by Louie Psihoyos, follows an elite team of activists, filmmakers and freedivers as they embark on a covert mission to penetrate a remote and hidden cove in
How Far Will Dolphins Go to Relate to Humans?
By ERIK OLSEN
Dr. Herzing is no tourist cavorting with marine mammals. As the world’s leading authority on the species, she has been studying the dolphins for 25 years as part of the Wild Dolphin Project, the longest-running underwater study of its kind.
“I’m kind of an old-school naturalist,” she said. “I really believe in immersing yourself in the environment of the animal.”
Immerse herself she has. Based in Jupiter,
And next year Dr. Herzing plans to begin a new phase of her research, something she says has been a lifetime goal: real-time two-way communication, in which dolphins take the initiative to interact with humans.
Up to now, dolphins have shown themselves to be adept at responding to human prompts, with food as a reward for performing a task. “It’s rare that we ask dolphins to seek something from us,” Dr. Herzing said.
But if she is right, the dolphins will seek to communicate with humans, and the reward will be social interaction itself, with dolphins and humans perhaps developing a crude vocabulary for objects and actions.
Other scientists are excited by the project. “ ‘Mind-blowing’ doesn’t do justice to the possibilities out there,” said Adam Pack, a cetacean researcher at the
How far will dolphins go to engage?
“The key is going to be coming up with a system in which the dolphins want to communicate,” said Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at the
Dr. Kuczaj developed an early two-way communication system while working at a captive lab in
But he says that the effort gave him confidence that such a system could work and that Dr. Herzing is “definitely the closest to getting there.”
“If it works,” he said, “it’ll be a huge step forward.”
Dr. Herzing’s work has been compared to that of Jane Goodall, whose studies of chimpanzees also entailed decades of observational fieldwork.
Born in 1957 in
After graduating from
In 1985, as a researcher with the Oceanic Society, she found this spot in the
“In the early days, it was hard to get the animals comfortable with us,” she said. “I often worked in the water by myself. As my eye developed, I was able to say, ‘O.K., here’s a good sequence.’ And I became able to shoot and keep an eye on what else is going on around.”
The project is largely financed by foundations, including the Annenberg Foundation. In 2008, Dr. Herzing was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Back on her research vessel, a 62-foot catamaran called the Stenella (the Atlantic spotted dolphin is Stenella frontalis), Dr. Herzing reviews video from the day and logs moments of foraging, courtship and play into a growing database. With a few keystrokes she (and other researchers) can summon 25 years of video on a specific behavior — say, a mother foraging with a calf, which can lend great insight to how dolphins teach their children to find food.
“It’s incredibly valuable,” said Laela Sayigh, a research specialist in dolphin communication at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
Dolphins are known to make three types of sounds: whistles, clicks and burst pulses. Whistles are thought to be identification sounds, like names, while clicks are used to navigate and to find prey with echolocation.
Burst pulses, which can sound like quarreling cartoon chipmunks, are a muddy mixture of the two, and Dr. Herzing believes that much information may be encoded in these sounds, as well as in dolphins’ ultra-high frequencies, which humans cannot hear.
The two-way system she will test next year is being developed with artificial intelligence scientists at Georgia Tech. It consists of a wearable underwater computer that can make dolphin sounds, but also record and differentiate them in real time. It must also distinguish which dolphin is making the sound, a common challenge since dolphins rarely open their mouths.
In the new system, two human divers interact in front of dolphins: First they play a synthesized whistle sound, then one hands the other a scarf or a piece of seaweed. The idea is to establish an association between sound and object. Dolphins are excellent mimics, and the hope is that they will imitate the whistle to request an object or initiate play.
“I think if they pick up on it,” Dr. Herzing said, “they’re going to be excited and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, now I have the power to get what I want in real time.’ ”
Still, she is quick to play down expectations, noting that the system is still in development.
“We’re not talking to dolphins,” she said, adding, “We’ll keep it simple and then we can potentially expand it.”
And while other researchers praise her work, they point out that of dolphin-human communication has often fallen short of expectations.
“It depends on what you mean by communicate,” Dr. Kuczaj said. “I can communicate with my dog, too. But do I have conversations with my dog? Well, if I do they’re very one-sided.”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs