The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives

The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives

by Diana Reiss


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A memoir by the world’s leading dolphin and whale expert, revealing the extraordinary richness of these animals’ intelligence and exposing our terrible mistreatment of the smartest creatures in the sea.

For centuries, humans and dolphins have enjoyed a special relationship, evident not just in mythology and folklore but in many documented encounters. Some past cultures even worshipped dolphins and condemned anyone who killed or wounded of them. Yet in recent decades, a paradox: on the one hand, we have discovered extraordinary depths of dolphin intelligence and their emotional lives, to the point of glimpsing their self-consciousness—on the other hand, in Japan, dolphins are slaughtered indiscriminately, and several nations keep them in cruel conditions.

Diana Reiss is one of the world’s leading experts on dolphin intelligence who has helped lead the revolution in dolphin understanding for three decades. In addition, as an activist, she is a leading rescuer who helped inspire and served as an adviser for The Cove, and who continues to campaign against the annual Japanese slaughters. Here, she combines her science and activism to show us just how smart dolphins really are, and why we must stop mistreating them. Readers will be astonished at dolphins’ sonar capabilities; at their sophisticated, lifelong playfulness; at their emotional intelligence; and at their ability to bond with other species, including humans and even dogs! Her beloved companion dolphins, each with distinct personalities, create their own toys, type commands on a keyboard, tease and scold her playfully, and express their affection and delight. In Reiss’s most famous experiments, she used a mirror to prove that dolphins are self-aware, and even self-conscious. The Dolphin in the Mirror is both a scientific revelation and a emotional eye-opener, revealing one of the greatest intelligences on Earth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547844619
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/11/2012
Pages: 276
Sales rank: 451,240
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dr. Diana Reiss is Professor in the Psychology Department at Hunter College and in the Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Program of The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She directs the Dolphin Research Program at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. She is also adjunct faculty in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, and she served as a member of the Animal Welfare Committee of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Her research focuses on dolphin cognition and communication, comparative animal cognition, and the evolution of intelligence. She has authored papers published in numerous international scientific journals and book chapters and her work has been featured in many television science programs. She has authored papers published in numerous international scientific journals and book chapters and her work has been featured in many television science programs.

Read an Excerpt


IN OCTOBER 1985, millions of people the world over followed the plight of Humphrey the humpback whale, a lost, stray, forty-ton leviathan who accidentally wandered into San Francisco Bay and swam far inland. Humpbacks were migrating south along the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to the warmer waters of Baja, Mexico, Hawaii, and beyond, but Humphrey was in danger of beaching and never making it back to the open ocean. At first, few paid attention. But as the days went by and Humphrey remained trapped, the headlines began to appear.
  One chilly afternoon, I was sitting on the edge of the dolphin pool at my research facility at Marine World Africa U.S.A. in Valejo, California, feeding two young bottlenose dolphins, Pan and Delphi, when my assistant got a call. The director of the California Marine Mammal Center (CMMC), the regional marine mammal rescue center, explained to my research assistant that it was urgent that she reach me. My assistant took over the feeding of the dolphins, and with my wet hands covered in fish scales I answered the phone. Peigin Barrett, the center director and a dear friend, was speaking quickly about the forty-five-foot-long humpback whale that had swum under the Golden Gate Bridge nearly two weeks before.
  Humpback whales are best known for their hauntingly beautiful songs that can travel great distances in the seas. Although the purpose of the songs remains unclear, researchers believe they have something to do with mating behavior, male-male competition, and perhaps social contact and individual identification. Imagine a population of whales spread out over hundreds of miles of ocean, their identity and relative location broadcast through song; effectively, they form an acoustic network. Humphrey had probably become separated from other humpback whales traveling south, and I wanted to help save him.
  I was a science adviser for the Marine Mammal Center. I also helped rescue marine mammals. Injured and stranded dolphins and small whales were brought to our facilities, and my research assistants and I worked with a veterinarian, trainers, and other volunteers in efforts to save them. Now we faced a new challenge: an on-site rescue. Whales had been observed in San Francisco Bay waters before, but they generally made brief, albeit well-publicized, tours and then exited uneventfully. Humphrey had turned unexpectedly and wandered inland, swimming through a series of connected bays and waterways, each one smaller than the last, until he was eighty miles from the open ocean! When Peigin called me, Humphrey was swimming back and forth in the Sacramento River and into ominously small, fingerlike sloughs near the small sleepy town of Rio Vista.

The previous week, a rescue attempt using underwater whale calls had failed. Some of my colleagues, local marine mammal scientists, had conducted a playback experiment; that is, they’d played recordings of the calls of killer whales, a natural predator of humpback whales, hypothesizing that upon hearing such sounds, Humphrey would quickly depart. But it was no surprise when this approach failed. Previous playback attempts over the years using predator calls had failed to deter dolphins and whales from dangerous areas laced with fishing nets. These animals are pretty smart; apparently, they check out their environment, realize there is no true threat, and ignore the acoustic “scarecrows.”
  By now, Humphrey had been in both brackish and fresh river water for a week and a half, with little or nothing to eat. The water changed the appearance of his skin. Buoyancy is quite different in fresh water than in salt water, and Humphrey had been forced to expend more energy with less food consumption. The clock was ticking. We had to get him back out to sea.
  A military helicopter picked up Peigin and me at San Francisco International airport at five that evening and took us to the Operation Humphrey headquarters, a makeshift control center at a U.S. Coast Guard station near Rio Vista.
  We landed in the darkness on the bank of the Sacramento River, and Peigin and I were immediately ushered into the bright fluorescent lights of Operation Humphrey headquarters. A meeting room there was already filled with federal staff from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as CMMC staff and some local officials and townspeople.
  A rather stiff-necked NMFS agent whom I will call Dave took charge at the front of the room and began the meeting. He reviewed the past week and a half and Humphrey’s travels farther and farther from salt water and food. But Dave stunned us when he expressed his overarching concern: If the whale died in the Sacramento River, his rotting carcass could present a health issue. Saving the whale was, it seemed, a secondary issue.
  Dave then brought forth and uncovered what looked like a medieval torture device: a barbed round object on a stick. It was a radio tag that he wanted to use to track Humphrey’s location. Radio tracking was an excellent idea, but unfortunately the only tag available had to be attached to the whale by embedding the barbs into its blubber and muscle. The CMMC veterinarians and our rescue staff strongly opposed this idea. The whale was already compromised and stressed, and the barbs would only add to his problems. Dave dropped the idea—at least for the time being.
  By the end of the meeting we’d arrived at a plan. The next day, with a flotilla of Coast Guard boats, a few riverboats used in the Vietnam War, and a myriad of small private boats owned and manned by local residents of Rio Vista, we would try to find the whale and form a boat barrier to herd Humphrey back to sea.
  We arrived at the dock the next morning and Peigin and I were assigned to the lead boat, the Bootlegger, used by some of the CMMC staff. It was a small fishing boat owned and operated by a local fisherman, Captain Jack Finneran, who’d kindly donated his time and vessel to help in the rescue. On the boat with us was another researcher who worked with the CMMC, Debbie Glockner-Ferrari, and her husband, Mark, a wildlife photographer. Debbie had been studying humpbacks in Hawaii and could determine the sex of these enormous animals while swimming with them. We set off upriver in search of Humphrey. En route I used a hydrophone (an underwater microphone) to obtain some recordings of normal noise levels in the river. As we moved northward under the Rio Vista Bridge, I noticed that the noise level was much greater in the waters on the north side of the bridge than on the south side. This finding would play an important role later in the rescue, though I had no inkling of it at the time. Then the boat’s radio crackled: Humphrey had been spotted in a small slough near Sacramento. We raced off in the direction of the whale.
  I was absolutely stunned to see this huge whale in such a small body of water, flanked on both sides by grassy fields with grazing cows.
  Humphrey was an amazingly large yet graceful whale, a lost alien in this bizarre landscape. I could barely see him below the water line until he raised his blowhole out of the water for an explosive breath. We observed him slowly moving through the sloughs; to our surprise and continual frustration, Humphrey demonstrated an uncanny ability to disappear into these very small bodies of water. We tracked him by following his “footprints,” smooth, round circles on the water’s surface created by his tail movements. Yet at frequent intervals, the footprints would suddenly cease. It was weird; for hours, even aerial surveys couldn’t spot him. Our small boats seemed ineffective at guiding him in any direction, no matter how coordinated we tried to be.
  At midday I called my colleague Dr. Kenneth Norris; considered by many to be the father of modern marine mammal research, he was the scientist who discovered echolocation in dolphins. A professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Ken was not too far away. He joined us for our next meeting at the Operation Humphrey headquarters. Ken urged us to employ a method called oikomi, in which a flotilla of small boats is positioned in an arc behind the whale, and then a person on each boat bangs with a hammer on a metal pipe that’s partially submerged in the water. This creates a cacophony of syncopated sounds that the whale avoids. The sonic wall moves toward the whale, and the whale is herded forward. Ken provided clear instructions, and we called for small boats, pipes, hammers, and volunteers. Ironically, the oikomi technique is used by small groups of fishermen in Japan to herd dolphins to their deaths. For us, it was essential in saving one whale.

Table of Contents

Prologue: saving Humphrey 1

1 Minds in the Water 23

2 First Insights 43

3 In Search of the Dolphin Rosetta Stone 78

4 Nonterrestrial Thinkers 109

5 The Face in the Mirror 133

6 Through the Looking Glass 148

7 Cognitive Cousins 168

8 Reflections on Dolphin Minds 190

9 Into the Cove 213

10 Ending the Long Loneliness 236

Consortium of Marine Scientists and Zoo and Aquarium Professionals Call for an End to the Inhumane Dolphin Drives in Japan 258

Notes 261

Acknowledgments 266

Index 268

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The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives' 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is AMAZING!! As Diana Reiss takes you throuh a dolphin's mind. A great read for ages 12 plus. KK
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is truly amazing. I bought the book because I was interested in dolphins but it is great for any reader. The book is filled with amazing stories that Reiss has gone through with dolphins and with each story I was captivated to continue reading. Reiss does an incredible job opening the window into the fascinating minds of dolphins. While reading I was so absorbed in the book that I annotated the book to keep track of all the interesting things I learned. This isn't any normal book on animal behavior. It is a great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent book for animal lovers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am they bigest animal lover in the world. But if i had to pick id pick a dolphin. I have four turtles and one dog. All rescued animmals.
cleoppa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is what every good book of its type should be--and more. I learned to love animal intelligence/empathy/ethnology books on the likes of When Elephants Weep, which I last read quite a while ago, but combines stories with science.This book is an excellent blend of armchair ethnology, anecdotes, scientific inquiry and a little bit of politicking. I have an incredible respect for dolphins after reading this book. They are amazing animals. Their intelligence, empathy, kindness and uniqueness will leave you stunned. Read this incredible book if you enjoy learning about animals.My only disappointment was that there is no more information about their larger cousins, the whales. While the book opens with a whale anecdote, very little information is mentioned about them following. True, this is a dolphin book. And true, most of the information learned about dolphins in this book was learned from those in captivity, which is harder to do with large whales. Nonetheless, after learning what amazing creatures dolphins are, I wonder how much of it translates to whales (referring, of course, to the larger whales). Of course they must also be intelligent. But they're not as agile. Does this make their intelligence a different kind? You don't hear about whales, or even orcas, saving people like you do dolphins. But are there stories out there like this that aren't as well known? So many questions... Would have been nice to have one chapter at least on the dolphins' cousins.
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