Exploring Dolphin IntelligenceOn 1997, I suffered a day long flight to get to Honolulu, Hawaii. On the beach front there, about a mile along from Waikiki, is the . This is the home of four dolphins, two dogs, several cats, and a few humans.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before being introduced to the lab, the volunteers were to meet at the residential town house where we would be eating and sleeping for the next two weeks. When I arrived, a few people were already there. I was met by Mandy, a very friendly English lady who lives at the house full time and would be giving us our preliminary introductions to the project. She introduced me to the others who had arrived; Saskia from Vancouver, Clare from England and from . Later we were joined by Nancy from South Dakota, from Puerto Rico, and Jake from Sweden. We spent the afternoon getting to know each other, and gleaning information from Mandy about the project.
That evening we were joined by Gwen and . Gwen was the current Earthwatch co-ordinator, but she was leaving the project the following week, and handing the responsibility over to . Gwen and briefed us on the lab procedures, and some of our responsibilities, while Mandy cooked us dinner (a treat for the first night!).
The next morning, Mandy showed us the way to the bus stop, and then to the lab. On arrival at the lab, all new visitors must be met by Mocha, the guard dog. Mocha responds to a bell at the door, strolls out, gives the new visitors a quick sniff, and wanders off again. From then on Mocha knows you're a welcome visitor, not an intruder.
We were told not to go near the dolphins until we had been given the correct procedures. Mandy gave us a tour of the lab, and introduced us to the puppy, and the several cats. We all then gathered on the front lanai ('lanai' is a hawaiian word for a deck) for the morning briefing.
The lab is extremely well organised, and this organisation centres around the morning and lunchtime briefings. During the briefings, every member of staff and every volunteer is assigned duties for the two sessions in that period. There are several duties, including:
- Local - a free session with one of the dolphins
- Object monitoring - looking after objects used in research sessions
- Recording - taking notes during research sessions
- Blind Observing - verifying results without seeing the initial signals
- Dog walking
- Education - lectures or sign language training
- Matching flukes - matching fluke photos for humpback whales
The sign language used with the dolphins is very extensive. The dolphins recognise many signs, and are capable of understanding combinations of multiple signs (i.e. sentences). We had to learn all the signs to make full use of our locals with the dolphins.
There are four dolphins at the lab, Elle, Phoenix, and Hiapo. You can find out about them at the laboratory website. They are all fabulous animals, who are extremely well looked after. They are checked before every session for scratches or any other injuries, and some sessions are set aside for more thorough health checks. All of the dolphins have specialist skills, as well as all round communication skills.