Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas

Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas

4.5 11
by Denise L. Herzing

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Dr. Denise Herzing began her research with a pod of spotted dolphins in the 1980s. Now, almost three decades later, she has forged strong ties with many of these individuals, has witnessed and recorded them feeding, playing, fighting, mating, giving birth and communicating. Dolphin Diaries is an account of Herzing's research and her surprising findings on


Dr. Denise Herzing began her research with a pod of spotted dolphins in the 1980s. Now, almost three decades later, she has forged strong ties with many of these individuals, has witnessed and recorded them feeding, playing, fighting, mating, giving birth and communicating. Dolphin Diaries is an account of Herzing's research and her surprising findings on wild dolphin behavior, interaction, and communication. Readers will be drawn into the highs and lows—the births and deaths, the discovery of unique and personalized behaviors, the threats dolphins face from environmental changes, and the many funny and wonderful encounters Denise painstakingly documented over many years. This is the perfect book for anyone who loves these incredibly versatile and intelligent creatures and wants to find out more than the dolphin show at the zoo can offer. Herzing is a true pioneer in her field and deserves a place in the pantheon of naturalists and scientists next to Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Tales of diving with wild dolphins, recalcitrant equipment, living on boats, and hurricanes really bring both the excitement and the drudgery of field research to life.” —Booklist

“Herzing's focused, captivating account concludes with moving animal-rights arguments centered around the injustices foisted upon defenseless cetaceans and the many other species senselessly killed or held in cruel captivity.Solid, fascinating spadework.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Denise Herzing's new book about her unique experiences studying dolphin tribes over two decades in the Bahamas demonstrates the importance of keeping dolphins wild and free. We can learn a lot from dolphins on their own terms in the ocean. This is the beauty of Dolphin Diaries.” —Ric O'Barry, featured in the Academy-Award-winning documentary The Cove, director of the Dolphin Project at Earth Island Institute, and author of Behind the Dolphin Smile

“Only somebody who has studied dolphins as closely and for as long as Dr. Herzing can bring us dispatches from an alien world that can touch us as deeply as the dolphin tales she tells in this remarkable book. Reading Dolphin Diaries made me realize how much effort, how much thought, how much respect has to go into any true attempt to get close to another animal. Dr. Herzing has done it. She has put in the time and the intelligence, and therefore her views about dolphins should have enormous impact. Her message, in the end, is one that applies to so many other animals with whom we share this fragile planet, but is so rarely heard that it behooves us to listen to it again and again: ‘Every dolphin is someone's mother, brother, or friend. I wish them to be always in their world, on their terms, where they belong, in the wild.'” —Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Ph.D, author of When Elephants Weep, Dogs Never Lie About Love, and The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats

Dolphin Diaries is a must read for anyone who wants to know what it is like to be a free-living dolphin. Denise Herzing calls on her extensive experience to tell us about their highly evolved communication skills, their rich and deep emotional lives, the complexity of their social relationships, and the ups and downs they face among themselves and in their interactions with humans. Dolphins don't belong in captivity and if you wonder whether these amazing beings should be confined in aquariums, these uncertainties will evaporate as you read this groundbreaking book.” —Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado; author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, Wild Justice, and The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint

“On certain moonlit nights along the Bahamas coral reefs, you may see Denise gracefully swimming in the calm waters on her way out to sea. If you look closely, you might also see a dolphin tail slap. What a remarkable and dedicated woman. Dolphin Dairies is an extraordinary account of dolphin behavior written with emotional flair. This is a must-read for those who venture into the deep.” —Ralph Helfer, author of Modoc, Zamba and The Beauty of the Beasts

Dolphin Diaries carries its readers into the world of one of the planet's most intelligent, curious and perhaps misunderstood creatures -- dolphins. At the same time the book is a personal account of Herzing's own journey through more than 25 years of research. She shares the stories of her dolphin acquaintances, her insights into their lives, and the thought processes that have directed her research over the years. She conveys a sense of how alien and yet also familiar the dolphins are in this compelling account. Herzing's journey is one-of-a-kind. Luckily for the rest of us, she writes beautifully -- this book is not to be missed.” —Bernd Heinrich, author of The Nesting Season and Mind of the Raven

“No one has spent as much time with wild dolphins as Denise Herzing, and this is the best way to understand their mind and their culture. It is the most intimate and heartfelt account ever written of the human-cetacean bond.” —David Rothenberg, author of Thousand Mile Song and Survival of the Beautiful

Kirkus Reviews

A cetologist chronicles her 25 field-season summers studying generations of Atlantic spotted dolphins.

Beginning in 1985, Herzing, then in her early 30s, traveled to an area in the Bahamas, a known home to families of friendly dolphins, and began tracking them, analyzing behavioral traits and the courting and mating habits of what she believes to be "one of the most advanced nonhuman intelligence on the planet." Initially taking an anthropological approach, she quickly realized that an interactive, participatory methodology would play a more critical role in her research. So she dove in, equipped with scuba gear, cameras and a "hydrophone" for video-recording the dolphins' highly expressive underwater vocalizations and behavior. Herzing passionately writes of her first summer cautiously immersed in the marine mammal's world of clicks and whistles, their playtime and foreplay and in naming the dolphins and ultimately reconstructing elaborate family trees. Though it would take her five years to establish some semblance of shared trust and solace with the apprehensive dolphin pods, the many summers that followed only served to reinforce the author's enthusiasm and perseverance for the wide-eyed observation of mothers and calves, their babysitting mystique, intricate interspecies relations (humans included) and elaborate communication coding. The author's liberal use of "anthropomorphizing" (ascribing emotions to the dolphins) only adds to the exploration's allure, especially when threatening elements like storms, dangerous water currents and hungry sharks enter the picture. Herzing's fervent work became disrupted, however, by three hurricanes the 2004-5 seasons, which displaced many of the dolphins she'd been meticulously documenting. Inspired by the pioneering work of Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Herzing's focused, captivating account concludes with moving animal-rights arguments centered around the injustices foisted upon defenseless cetaceans and the many other species senselessly killed or held in cruel captivity.

Solid, fascinating spadework.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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5.58(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.92(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dolphin Diaries

My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas

By Denise L. Herzing

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2011 Denise L. Herzing
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8744-8


First Contact with Dolphins:

Establishing the Relationship

If you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore.

— Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey In The World

Pre-1985 — Beginnings

If you could ask a dolphin one question, what would it be? And what do you think a dolphin might ask you? These questions occurred to me when I first met a spotted dolphin in the wild early one humid summer morning in 1985. I swam slowly away from the boat that was anchored in the gin-clear waters of a shallow sandbank in the Bahamas. It was calm and peaceful out in the middle of the warm amniotic salt water with no land in sight. Two dolphins approached and swam around me, looking directly into my eyes. There is nothing comparable to making eye contact with a wild creature; it is like a sharp splash of ice-cold water on the face. I sensed a keen and mutually exploratory awareness; I sensed another "being" behind those eyes. Ten years later, after experiencing strong currents and large sharks, I would have a different type of respect for the ocean, one that probably wouldn't allow me to swim out so far alone in these waters with such a calmness. But this experience was different; it was my first encounter with a wild dolphin.

In all my years of work with marine mammals, nothing had prepared me for this. I found myself deeply regretting never taking an anthropology class. What is it like to meet and experience a new culture for the first time, a nonhuman culture? What do you do if they are curious and want to observe you? I was a biologist, a cetologist, who studied whales and dolphins. What brought me to the Bahamas was curiosity about the lives of wild dolphins, but the experiential part was not something I was trained for as a scientist. But this experience seemed perfectly natural. My ancestors evolved with plants, animals, and the Earth itself. Well before that, dolphins, as early mammals, returned to the ocean from their land ancestors twenty-five million years ago. This world of a highly evolved mammal was a window into the dolphins' unique aquatic world, not separate and estranged as the land and sea seem in the open ocean, but intertwined like a shoreline: mutually curious species carefully considering each other.

In the field of animal behavior the philosophy of "to know a goose, become a goose" was first formulated by Konrad Lorenz, considered the father of modern animal behavior. This level of participation has been productive for the study of many social species, including chimpanzees by Jane Goodall, mountain gorillas by Dian Fossey, and African elephants by Cynthia Moss. These pioneering women researchers provided solid examples of a productive way of illuminating the lives of wild animal societies. That is the approach and methodology I decided to use for studying free-ranging dolphins.

For years scientists had attempted to teach nonhuman animal species, including dolphins, the English language, without first learning about the dolphins' natural communication system. I was always fascinated by the idea that dolphin minds evolved in the aquatic environment, parallel, but potentially dissimilar to our own. What would that mind be like and how would it express itself? Could we understand their type of consciousness by studying their communication system and cross over that interspecies boundary? Could we really build a bridge? I decided to focus my work first on understanding how dolphins communicated with each other, using sound, vision, touch, and second to use those same natural channels of communication to explore the possibility of interspecies communication between humans and dolphins.

* * *

I grew up in the Midwest far away from any ocean, with the exception of the world of Jacques Cousteau that flowed from our living-room TV. I became both fascinated with and committed to the exploration of dolphins, potentially one of the most advanced nonhuman intelligence on the planet. My passion for this work began when I was twelve years old. I entered an essay contest for a scholarship in my hometown in Minnesota. One of the questions was, "What would you do for the world if you could do one thing?" My answer? "I would develop a human-animal translator so that we could understand other minds on the planet." As I continued to grow up and observe the natural world around me I became more and more fascinated by the idea of complex minds like ours evolving in the water. What could dolphins possibly be doing with all that brainpower if they didn't have hands? I knew then my lifework had been chosen. Simple questions often have the most important repercussions. Where did I see myself in five years, what kind of environment did I want to be in, what kind of people did I want to be around? I wanted to work at sea, in the environment where the animals lived. I wanted to be doing research — to be observing and documenting the lives of wild dolphins. And I wanted to be around stimulating people who could use a variety of talents to explore this unknown territory. These simple answers guided my decisions for the next ten years through graduate school and during the formation of my own research project and nonprofit organization, the Wild Dolphin Project, which became the support structure for my research with the Atlantic spotted dolphins.

So by the age of twelve I knew I wanted to study dolphin communication. After taking the advice of a wise college counselor, I left my hometown to venture forth into the world of marine biology, to get into the mud and see if I liked the field. I applied and was accepted to both the University of Washington, which had an undergraduate program in marine biology, and the University of Miami, renowned for its oceanographic work. But I decided to go to Oregon State University for two reasons. First, I thought Oregon would be a beautiful place to live with its green landscape and healthy lifestyle. Second, Oregon State had a marine mammalogist, Dr. Bruce Mate, and I wanted to study marine mammals. I jumped on boats whenever I could for oceanographic cruises off the Oregon coast or on salmon fishing boats with friends. I loved the smell of the ocean, the smell of seaweed, the roar of the waves. I discovered that I did, indeed, like the mud.

After completing four undergraduate years at the inland campus I spent my last year at the Marine Biological Station in Newport, Oregon. I observed harbor seals and sea lions at salmon hatcheries. I joined Bruce down in Baja for two winters studying gray whales; the first year with Jim Sumich, a Ph.D. student at Bruce's lab doing work on the metabolic rates of gray whales. San Ignacio Lagoon and other lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, are home to friendly gray whales that gave researchers close access and unique opportunities for studying the species. My second winter I helped with radio-tagging and monitoring from land with receivers for previously tagged whales. One day the field team came back to shore and I excitedly told them I had heard Blanco's radio signal, the first whale tagged. After the winter tagging season we quickly placed one of the radio receivers in a lighthouse on Yaquina Head, the Oregon headland where I had previously spent three years counting migrating whales. One night, back in Oregon, I heard Blanco's signal — he had gone by the lighthouse! We hopped in our cars and drove, while Bruce, a skilled pilot, flew, and followed Blanco up the coast. Blanco was eventually tracked all the way up to Unimak Pass, Alaska. All of these studies were of great value to me and provided opportunities and insight, and Bruce was an invaluable mentor and teacher.

Around that time I got wind of a beautiful 134-foot wooden barquentine (a form of square-rigged sailing vessel) named the Regina Maris and her six-week student program at sea. Taking advantage of her time in the Pacific, I jumped onboard Regina Maris for a six-week adventure. We spent most of our time in Magdalena Bay, another of the gray whale breeding lagoons in Baja. I met Dr. Kenneth Norris (the father of dolphin studies and a future mentor), Kenneth Balcomb (a renowned killer whale field scientist), and other well-known marine mammal scientists. Our chores were typical of being on a vessel at sea. As students we attended classes during the daytime and did watches four hours on, four hours off, to help run the ship. We took classes in celestial navigation and basic seamanship — we handled the wheel on deck, we hoisted sails, and of course we tied knots. Bolen knots, sheepshank knots, square knots — any kind of knot. We felt nautical! The training of young marine scientists should always involve extensive fieldwork because such experiences are critical for understanding the sea itself. I was developing a deep love for the sea, for boats, and my life was now set on a course through the waves. I loved studying the ocean from the small microscopic creatures to the large marine mammals off the Oregon coast.

Then in 1981, shortly after I had finished my last year of undergraduate research on migrating gray whales, I had a nearly fatal accident. While out in the woods alone I fell off a deck of a house and down a ravine, and was subsequently smashed by the falling lumber and deck, breaking my ribs and severing the hepatic artery in my liver and nearly bleeding to death. After barely making it to my twenty-fifth birthday I realized there is nothing like a near-death experience to make you reprioritize your life. So once again I decided to join the Regina Maris, now in the Atlantic. With barely healed broken ribs, but my doctor's approval, I boarded Regina Maris in Gloucester, Massachusetts, this time not as a student, but as the " lowly student lab slave" — a dollar a day with room and board for six months. Our trip took us directly to Bermuda and down through the Caribbean for our final destination off the Dominican Republic to study humpback whales on Silver Banks, the remote offshore area dotted with undersurface reefs and rocks where humpback whale mothers spend three months birthing their calves or mating.

There's nothing like being in a large sailboat, hearing the wind and feeling the pounding waves. But it was October and hurricanes were brewing in the tropics to the south of us. As the days progressed I noticed the crew getting nervous as they watched the winds picking up. Sails were lowered and hatches battened down, closing off the incoming water. By the end of that day it was clear we were in the tail end of a hurricane. To make matters worse the bilge pumps, the usually automated pumps that keep water to a minimum in the hulls, stopped working. For twenty-four hours straight, rotating shifts, we hand-pumped from the deck, through rain and thirty-foot waves we pumped and pumped. The crew tried to heave to, setting the sails to hold the boat in place and to keep the boat steady in the wind. As the boat rolled on thirty-foot seas I was one of the few students on deck with my trusty Nikonos waterproof camera. I attached myself to the lifeline on deck and took pictures. It was both majestic and humbling. I felt like a cork, going up and down as the seas swelled and our vessel rose and fell again. After two days hove to we limped into Bermuda. But we had been lucky. Small sailboats were towed in from offshore, gutted, broken, and lifeless. This was life at sea, or death at sea, depending on your luck. I guess it was something I would have to get used to.

When it was finally time to leave Bermuda we headed south through the islands of the Caribbean and stopped at a small uninhabited island called Hogsty Reef. Our task here was to measure and count the amount of tar washed up on this remote island. There was tar on the beach, there was tar in the seaweed — there was tar everywhere. It was 1981 and already pollution was present, even on this remote island. We filled our days documenting and cleaning up the tar. Then one day, as I maneuvered the small inflatable boat toward the island, I saw the students waving frantically. I was heading right for a breaking reef invisible to me with the glaring sun. Although I did little damage to the reef itself, I broke the pin of the outboard engine and felt humiliated, unworthy of my position as a lab slave. That night after crying on cook Erma Colvin's shoulder, Perrin Ross, my understanding and skilled mentor, pulled from under his vest a small can of beer to share. Beer onboard the Regina Maris was a treat only dispersed on Saturday night, when the crew made trades and swaps, desperate to secure an extra beer. It was a gesture of understanding I would never forget.

It has taken me quite a while to learn to have patience and be sensitive to mistakes that young students will make on board my own research boat in the Bahamas. They forget to charge a battery, drop a piece of equipment, or leave the camera lens on. I also tell my students to expect problems in fieldwork. There will be weather days, your equipment will fail, you won't have enough funding for certain pieces of equipment, and you will just have bad hair days (usually involving salt). You need to expect it, need to be ready for it, and need to always be as prepared as possible because field time is valuable and expensive.

I'm always reiterating the need for redundancy on my boat. I have two cameras, two underwater housings. Film is cheap, videotapes are cheap, but field time is expensive. Use the time and use it well because it may not be there the next day. In twenty-five years of fieldwork I've only flooded one video housing, which is still a good record. Only once have I managed to copy over a piece of video footage. Sadly the footage was quite critical and when we had reviewed it the previous night I had not forwarded the tape for the next day. Again, after twenty-five years, that's not so bad, but we scientists value our data and our experiences in the field tremendously and any loss of data is a potential issue, such as the photograph of a long-lost animal or an unseen behavior lost to a mistake on the video. But at the end of every field trip, in every field season, if we get back alive and the boat is intact, it's been a good summer.

After working with gray whales both off the Oregon coast and in Baja California, and finishing my degree, I was ready to move on to my graduate work. But there was one thing I wanted to do first; I wanted to travel to gain some experience in a country that didn't speak English and wasn't Western. I knew I wanted to study communication. I knew I needed skill sets perhaps beyond scientific training. Luckily at that time my sister decided to buy my half of our family house. It was a small and modest amount, but the money she sent as a deposit allowed me to stash away half for graduate school and half for a three-month trip to Asia. I departed with a backpack, no credit cards, and an awful lot of luck. I traveled to China, Nepal, and India, learning much about nonverbal communication and the universals of cross-cultural experiences. On the way I stopped in Japan to visit my colleague Masahara Nishiwaki, whom I had met in my sailing days onboard Regina Maris. The insight gained from these non-Western human cultural interactions, their similarities and differences, was invaluable. We really need so little when we travel (beyond clothes and shampoo) and we can communicate through body language and laughter quite often when language fails. I arrived safely back in the United States, now ready to give my life to my future graduate work and what I hoped to be my future career studying dolphin communication.

At this point in my life I was familiar with the work of three researchers studying dolphin communication. Louis Herman in Hawaii was famous for his cognitive and experimental work. Diana Reiss at San Francisco State University was studying dolphin communication in captivity. And John Lilly, a controversial scientist (but likely a visionary before his time), was exploring two-way communication. So I struck out to the San Francisco Bay Area. I had eliminated the idea of studying in Hawaii since Herman's work was experimental and not really focused on the communication aspects I was interested in. I arrived in the Bay Area and immediately went down to MarineWorld Africa USA where both John Lilly and Diana Reiss had their labs.


Excerpted from Dolphin Diaries by Denise L. Herzing. Copyright © 2011 Denise L. Herzing. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DR. DENISE L. HERZING is the founder and director of The Wild Dolphin Project, a fellow with the Explorer's Club, a founding member of the Marine Mammal Society, and a professor in biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University. She is the recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship in Science Writing, and was nominated for a Wings World Quest award. She lives in Palm Beach County, Florida.

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Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Thomas_White More than 1 year ago
This book is important in three distinct ways. It first shows that in order to do the kind of solid science that lets us understand dolphins, one has to commit to years of difficult, careful, patient research in the wild. Herzing's accomplishment on this score alone elevates her to the same tier as such scientists as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Cynthia Moss. Second, the book provides an impressive amount of evidence for the richness and complexity of dolphin social life and social intelligence. Herzing has been privileged to be allowed by this cetacean community to learn more about who they are and how they live, and the importance of the information that she conveys to the rest of us cannot be overstated. Third, and most important, the ethical implications of Herzing's work are clear, profound and troubling. Her research provides important support for those who argue that dolphins are "nonhuman persons" whose "rights" should be recognized. Any reader who reaches the end of the book and is not convinced that the willful slaughter of dolphins, their preventable deaths in connection with human fishing and the captivity of dolphins for any purpose are ethically indefensible simply wasn't paying attention to Herzing's masterful exposition. Thomas White, Fellow, Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and author of IN DEFENSE OF DOLPHINS
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dolphins are my fave animal so if you like dolphins i would recomend this book for you.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is sssoo much better man then you said.. you guys aare showoffs!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First of all i only rated it a 5 star becuase i like dolphins anf the cover. Dolphins are my fav. anamals and i do not know if to buy or not buy. I need your help so baaaaaaaaaad. Hhhhhhhhheeeeeeeellllllllllllllllllpppppppppppppp!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a dolphin mainaice
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
#%$@%& s
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am sorry dolphins are cool and all but who writes about there adventure with them i mean seriously keep it to yourself i wasted so much money on this and it was so not worth it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I realy like dolphins there my favrite animal!