Friday, December 17
Bailey’s Key, Roatan Institute for Marine Science
It was a bright sunny day with a gentle breeze, and the turquoise water around the small palm-tree-lined island sparkled. The ferry boat Protección approached, loaded with a boisterous group of schoolchildren, and the dolphins squeaked and whistled in anticipation of the entertainment the children brought.
As Eva watched all this from the dock at Bailey’s Key, a young dolphin popped her head out of the water, whistled her signature whistle for Eva, submerged and sent out an echolocation click train at the boat, then bobbed her head up and down in excitement. The dolphin darted around the water in large circles as if building up speed to leap the walkway around her enclosure.
Eva gave the eager dolphin the hand signal for wait. “Cleo, stay! They’re coming to you, girl.”
The dolphin swam back over to her and nodded her head with a grin. Cleo always grinned. She had been born with a malformed bite such that her teeth were always visible, even when she closed her mouth. And the smile suited her—thedolphin was as sweet as she was quirky. She was also now the star in Eva's research, now that Eva's lead dolphin, Taffy, had given birth to her calf, Chico. The calf's father, Finn, a rare wholphin hybrid, sometimes participated in the research as well, but seemed to prefer playing—with Chico, or with Finn's best friend, Rascal, a mangy-looking white cattle dog mix.
Eva’s research assistant, Jose, already had all the equipment set up, and her intern, Axel, ran a sound test. Eva stepped over to her computer stand, opened her laptop, and pulled up her Delphi Imago software. Thanks to her research—and thanks to dolphins like Taffy—she and her team had developed a rudimentary method for bidirectional communication with dolphins. Now they were expanding their communication abilities by continually uploading new signature whistles and Cymaglyph images into the program—essentially improving their vocabulary.
Of course, they wouldn't be doing any of that right now. With the arrival of the ferry, the children’s laughter and shrieks, combined with the dolphin squeaks and whistles, made the dock pure chaos. Jose covered his ears, and Axel put on his headphones. But Eva smiled. She relished these visits.
We protect what we love.
Gilberto, the head dolphin trainer and Eva’s mentor ever since she firstinterned at RIMS almost fourteen years ago, herded the children onto the dock and gave an introduction. “May I introduce the most famous marine biologist in the world. The scientist who learned how to speak with dolphins: Dr. Eva Paz.”
The children jumped up and down on the dock clapping.
Eva cringed at the notoriety. “Thank you, Gilberto. I’m so glad, kids, that you're here. Yes, I learned to speak with dolphins. But only because long before that, dolphins had already learned to speak with us. They comprehended our words, signs, and hand gestures decades ago. They've just been waiting for us to catch up.”
To show this, Eva commanded Cleo to jump in three ways, using a hand-painted sign with the symbol for jump, the hand signal jump, and the verbal command “jump.” Although this was no dolphin show for human entertainment, jump was Cleo’s favorite command, and it helped to get rid of the young dolphin’s hyper energy so she could focus.
Eva threw Cleo a mackerel. “Cleo has just shown you how well she understands our communication. It’s particularly amazing what she can dobecause dolphins can neither see nor hear well.”
This always led to questions. Most people believed the myth that cetaceans could hear better than canines. That simply wasn’t true. They could smell better than canines, but their hearing wasn't strong. After fielding the expected questions, Eva continued.
“The most exciting part of my research is that we now understand how dolphins communicate. Their whistles are like human words, but that’s just the start. As I’m sure you know, dolphins use a form of echolocation that is superior to humans’ sonar technology—essentially, dolphins see with sound. And since soundsform images in dolphins’ brains, they communicate back and forth to each other with clicks that mimic these sonar images. My research captures these images, and I’m working on a way to translate them back to sounds so that I can play them back to the dolphins. Let me show you. But I’m going to need a volunteer.”
Every hand went up. Eva pointed to a girl in the back and invited her to step forward. Meanwhile Axel set up a blind so that Cleo couldn’t see the humans, in case someone were to give something away.
Jose had placed three objects into Cleo’s open view-box: a pink watering can, a white cross, and a yellow rubber ducky. On Eva’s computer touchscreen were image buttons for the same three objects: a watering can, a cross, and a duck. Evaturned to the girl.
“Choose one, but don’t tell us which one. Remember, Cleo understands our spoken words.”
The girl smiled and touched the image of the cross.
The group waited in silence for two seconds.
Then Cleo popped her head around the other side of the screen with a chuff. The young dolphin held the white cross between her teeth.
The children gasped, and the girl grinned from ear to ear.
After a few more questions, Gilberto escorted the children to the pavilion, where he would lead an educational talk about dolphin biology, behavior, and habitat. There had been a time when the schoolchildren would enter the water with the dolphins, but that was long ago. Although Eva trusted her dolphins, and they enjoyed the interactions, her boss, Señor Pineda, had liability concerns. Concerns that Eva understood. She’d seen what her dolphins were capable of.
But she also hoped that the students would understand that this was more than a game. Dolphins were wonderful, brilliant creatures—and loyal friends. But this interface between intelligent species was far more than just a way to chat. If Eva was right, it could one day soon have far-reaching implications for keeping not only their reef healthy, but perhaps even the whole planet.