Photo by John Gibbins
A dolphin never appears in a bad dream.
No other animal has so filled our reverie of being wild, free and yet simpatico to us as the dolphin. An animal strong and fleet and yet not feared. No other animal seems to be laughing at us; we’d like to think it’s with us.
Unless you’re a small fish, the dolphin is a lover and a playmate.
Hal Goforth knows a lot about dolphins, as a scientist and as a man who just likes them. He spent two decades on and off in the Navy working with dolphins and their trainers. Some of the things dolphins do, the Navy considers none of our business. However, we know that dolphins keep busy on coastal defense: primarily detecting bottom mines, even buried ones, and guarding against hostile frogmen.
(Note to frogmen: You can’t swim fast enough.)
Goforth is a Ph.D. scientist and a retired Navy captain. He splits residency between El Cajon and Florida, but a nostalgic home he often visits is coastal San Diego, where work with dolphins is ongoing.
At 70, he’ll be running the Boston Marathon next month for the 38th time. He’s an elite-class distance runner for his age group. Last year, he ran Boston in slightly under four hours. An aortic valve replacement the year before may have cost him a few minutes. Just try to keep up this year, you 30-year-old wannabes.
We often confuse dolphins and porpoises, and that’s easy to do. There are several subtle differences, but for us SeaWorld gawkers, the main distinguisher is that dolphins have a longer nose. Bottlenose dolphins are the ones we see most often because they tend to live closer to shore and are more amenable to humans. For those reasons, they are the main ones the Navy uses.
Here are a few vitals: Dolphins, though mainly surface-depth swimmers, can descend about 1,000 feet. They can live into their 60s, and large bottlenoses in this area might weigh up to 600 pounds. Swimming full out, they can make the needle quiver at 20 mph.
Dolphins are gentle with us, but sharks should head for the kelp bed. A top-speed dolphin can ram a shark in the liver and kill it.
The dolphin qualifies as a mammal because it breathes air, is warm-blooded, feeds milk to its babies and has vestigial hair. Full grown, though, it is as bald as your 60-year-old uncle.
The Navy dolphin, when it’s on the job, is outfitted with a strobe foam-fitted over its nose by which it touches an unwelcomed diver. That act releases a small buoy with the strobe light. The “touch,” however, seems open to interpretation.
Goforth says, “When we have our swimmers here in San Diego practice against them, trying to sneak into the pier, these guys now are wearing rib and kidney protectors, because over the years, the dolphins have started hitting them harder and harder. They’re only supposed to touch the swimmer hard enough to deploy the light.”
They can be impish rascals. Goforth gives an example.
When trainers want dolphins to return to their pen, they sound a “pinger.” When the dolphin responds, they are rewarded with a fish and then enter the pen.
Goforth tells of one animal who gamed the system. When it would respond to the pinger, it would take the fish and then race away. Again the trainer would ping, and the dolphin would come, take the fish and vamoose. Finally, the trainer ran out of fish and just left the gate open. Game over. The dolphin then entered the pen without prompting.
Goforth also tells of a female named Toad, a spinster dolphin, shall we say. Toad became aware of another female that had just given birth but, for some reason, had abandoned the calf, which caused her milk to dry up. Toad moved in and adopted the infant, and actually began lactating herself.
The intelligence of dolphins is a matter of fruitless speculation. We can no more gauge it than we can for a dog. So Goforth, when pressed, thinks the two — and chimps — are somewhat comparable, but with obvious differences in how their intelligence is needed and used.
He says the main indicators of dolphins’ intelligence is that they will play, can mimic behavior and are sociable — with each other and with humans.
Hal, do you think dolphins get together and one says, “That new trainer, I can wrap him around my little fin”?
“No, but it seems like it.”
Do dolphins think they are using us?
“Oh, yes. They are manipulative. Definitely.”
The Navy once had a dolphin named John who, when he was supposed to be on a search, would often refuse to employ his echolocation (which trainers could monitor). Apparently, he wanted a free lunch without working for it.
“John was always trying to get the best of us. He never gave up on that. He didn’t get any fish, either,” Goforth says, adding, “They know they’re going to get fed at some point.”
They are not always cuddly animals, especially when their love life is at stake. Goforth tells of working with a male dolphin named Maui that wanted to get into a pen where a female named Puka was probably teasing him with come-hither splashes.
Goforth denied entry to Maui several times. But when he splashed his hand in the water to summon the dolphin again, the frustrated Maui responded with “jaw pops,” where he clacked his teeth together loudly. That is not meant as a happy sound. Exit one hand quickly from the water.
Do dolphins recognize individual people?
“More likely, I think, they recognize the behavior patterns of the trainer rather than the visual. It’s more of how they’re being treated.”
It’s not like you going down to Coronado and the dolphins are saying, “Hey, Hal’s back!”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Goforth ventures into the roiled waters of captive animals as a humane issue by saying that the dolphins he has observed think they’ve got a pretty good deal. As the saying goes — three hots and a cot. (Of course, prisons offer the same thing.)
Navy dolphins are bred from a sperm bank and readily grow comfortable. It’s the only life they know, Goforth says. He points out that they are released into the open bay or ocean every day, and they could run away, if so inclined, but they always come home.
“Once they’ve been in captivity, they really don’t want to go away. They like to go out and play, and get fish on their own sometimes. They got to where they would bring fish to the trainers.”
The hotter, current captivity issue is over killer whales (orcas), the dolphin’s genetic first cousins, specifically at SeaWorld parks.
Goforth is rather sanguine about killer whales in captivity. He points out that SeaWorld’s holding pens are in the process of being expanded. He also says there is enough of a sperm bank that no orcas need be taken from the wild again.
Well, if you create a killer whale from a sperm bank, it’s still a killer whale in captivity.
“But it’s going to be easier for it to adapt to captivity. They don’t know the wild.”
Regardless of where they live, Goforth is amazed by the intelligence — cunning? — of killer whales.
He talks about hydrophones picking up some killer whales bopping along, chatting each other up, when they spot some seals.
They stop all communication among themselves while they move in silently, because seals have great hearing, too. After accomplishing the kill and their meal, they triple the noise they were putting out. Like alumni celebrating a football victory in a bar.
He says stories of killer whales destroying great white sharks are absolutely true, referring to a famous videotaped encounter near the Farallon Islands off San Francisco (youtube.com/watch? v=Ay4xnI216iY).
“If orcas and great whites were to get in the ring, bet on the orcas every time. They’re smarter. They know when to strike and where.”
Goforth has published a book on his experiences: “Defender Dolphins,” available on Amazon.
We watch the dolphin slice through the water like a silver butter knife. He comes to the pool’s edge and waits for a fish, but he’s not begging because he works there and expects his wage. He enjoys his job because he obviously likes us. Thank you, Flipper.
We know what we see in him: grace, power and a hearty laugh. He’s the only creature a mermaid will trust.
But what in blazes does he see in us?
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org