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between dolphins and humans.
NEW! Listen To Dolphins
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The SpeakDolphin.com Project is
spearheaded by Global Heart, Inc.,
a 501(c)3 non-profit organization
based in Miami, Florida,
founded by Donna & Jack Kassewitz.
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Research Projects > Cooperative Games
Hang out with dolphins for a little while, and you'll soon observe that games play an important part in their social interaction. People have observed dolphins playing with leaves, seaweed, and even plastic trash bags, draping them across their rostrums (beaks), dorsal fins, pectoral fins and tail flukes. By engaging in games with dolphins we are able to gain valuable insights into their behavior and communication - both verbal and non-verbal. Video taping these underwater play sessions has proven indispensable, because we frequently observe details of the play interaction that we completely overlooked while the game was in progress. Often, in our games with dolphins, there is so much activity going on all at once, that we only notice what is right in front of our dive mask. It is only later when reviewing the video that we fully grasp the depth of the dolphins' willingness to engage us. As it turns out, the camera itself may be construed as part of the game, which I will explain further on in this article.
LADY ONE STEP AHEAD
My first experience in engaging in dolphin games was in 1992 while swimming with a dolphin named Lady at the Dolphin Discovery facility in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico. On this particular day, I had taken my underwater camera into the water with me. After a short while, I noticed that Lady was swimming alongside me with a long, slender piece of seagrass draped across her rostrum. I worked with Lady on a daily basis but I had never seen her do this before, so I guessed that she was doing it to amuse me. In turn, I thought I might amuse her by mimicking her leaf trick. Hoping to surprise her with my own antics, I searched for a suitable piece of seagrass and started draping it across the nose piece of my dive mask. As I did this, I quite surprised to discover that the long thin strap to my camera had become caught on my mask and was already draped across the nose piece just below my line of sight. Shocked, I realized that Lady had already been copying me! I had to laugh in my snorkel as I realized that she had been one step ahead of me. Over the years, I have come to learn that the dolphins very often are "one step ahead" of me; it takes significant skill, creativity and luck to "get one over" on the dolphins.
Years after that experience with Lady, I was able to surprise a lovely dolphin named Regina with a game of mimicry. Regina had a favorite toy - a yellow snorkel. Out of a pod of 20 dolphins living at Dolphin Discovery in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, Regina was the only one with an interest in the snorkel, and she was quite fond of swimming around with the snorkel hanging from her pectoral fin. When I saw her doing this I took another yellow snorkel from the dock and hooked it onto my bathing suit shoulder strap; this was the closest I could get to making it hang from my arm in a similar way to Regina's snorkel hanging from her pectoral fin. I swam around waiting for Regina to notice me. Soon she swam by and I rolled over slightly so that she could clearly see the snorkel. What a delight it was to see her do a double-take! At first she had seemed not to notice, but then suddenly she jerked her head back in my direction, staring at the snorkel hanging from my suit and I was laughing in my snorkel once again.
Eventually it was time to get out of the water. As I had climbed out onto the dock, it occurred to me that perhaps Regina would like two snorkels - one for each pectoral fin. She didn't seem to be around at the moment, so I just threw the snorkel out into the water figuring that she would find it eventually. Moments later, a friend who had been swimming with us climbed up onto the dock beside me and told me that as he was swimming toward the dock he had seen a snorkel sinking toward the bottom. He dove down to retrieve it and was just inches from reaching it when suddenly a dolphin zoomed past and grabbed the snorkel. We knew it had to be Regina and I marveled that she had found the new snorkel already! Had she known that I was the one who had thrown it out there for her? Ten minutes later, I was trekking all my gear down the long dock back to shore when Regina surfaced in the water beside me. She had both yellow snorkels! She spent several minutes showing them off to me - balancing them on her rostrum and pectoral fins as I talked to her, laughing and marveling in this interspecies communication. It was clear to me that Regina knew that I had gifted her the second snorkel. I was quite impressed and deeply grateful that she had found a way to demonstrate this.
THE RIBBON GAME
This event inspired me to further develop games with Regina and other dolphins. Months later, we created the Ribbon Game. We cut and sewed colorful strips of nylon fabric, 1 foot wide by 9 feet long. These large ribbons were designed to be used on a short piece of PVC pipe which made a nice handle, or when slipped off the pipe, the fabric could be draped across the body more easily. My hope was that Regina's fondness of wearing objects on her body would make her willing to play with these ribbons. Also, the considerable length of the ribbons would enable our daughter Noel and me to create wonderful, undulating shapes while swimming - a kind of underwater ballet with colorful streamers. Considering the dolphins' creativity and gracefulness with leaves in their games, I could hardly wait to see what the dolphins would do with our long ribbons.
On the first day of the experiment, the dolphins were quite interested, but not willing to touch the ribbons. After all, dolphins do have to be careful about anything that could result in entanglement, and for this reason we do not recommend using long strips of fabric with wild dolphins. Even when using long ribbons with dolphins living in facilities, the dolphins must always be monitored while the ribbons are present to avoid any risk of entanglement. On the second day of the experiment, the dolphins became brave enough to touch the ribbons, tentatively at first, and then they started draping the ribbons on their tails and pectoral fins. Regina especially seemed to like wearing a snorkel and a ribbon - one on each pectoral fin. What a fashion statement! I was very happy that the ribbons had met Regina's approval.
The dolphins were clearly fascinated with this upgrade on an old game. At one point, Noel even witnessed the dolphins form a circle from a ribbon and then jump through it! That was amazing! In the three years since we began playing the Ribbon Game at Dolphin Discovery facilities in Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, the dolphins always seem to enjoy the game. Often we see the dolphins watching us closely and buzzing us (echolocating on us) loudly and continuously; then take a ribbon and copy a maneuver we had just performed. In our underwater videos of these events, dolphins can be seen in various poses of observation. Sometimes four or more dolphins will form a stationary line to watch us. Other times they are swimming all around us while constantly buzzing us and the ribbons.
One segment of film shows a dolphin with a white ribbon floating close by. The dolphin is watching Noel performing with a ribbon, then the dolphin looks at it own ribbon still floating, then looks back to Noel, and finally decides to pick up its own ribbon and join in the fun. The videos also show the incredible gracefulness of a dolphin transferring a ribbon from its pectoral fin to tail flukes, as well as a dolphin stopping to reposition a ribbon with its rostrum so that the ribbon can be carried differently.
THE CAMERAMAN'S SURPRISING ROLE
It was only after reviewing 3 years worth of these games and watching dolphins purposefully swimming back and forth in front of the camera - resulting in excellent shots - did we realize that the dolphins may consider the act of swimming in front of the camera as part of the game. In most ribbon games that we have played, there was a video camera present. In an effort to document dolphin interaction during the game, Noel and I try to stay within good visual range of the camera. We now wonder - did the dolphins interpret our proximity to the camera as part of the game itself? Perhaps they consider the cameraman as one of the players or as a sort of "goal post".
Another possibility is that the dolphins are interested in their reflection which is sometimes visible on the dome-shaped lens of the underwater camera housing. If the dolphins are viewing their reflection, perhaps they are intrigued by the addition of the long ribbon draped from their body. Dolphins are self-aware and do recognize themselves in the mirror as has been shown in previous studies.
Or perhaps there is a bit of both motives involved. The dolphins may consider trying to view themselves with a ribbon in front of the camera as a component of the game. Regardless, the fact that the dolphins voluntarily play the ribbon game with us (no food reinforcements are used) demonstrates their interest in creative, spontaneous interaction with humans. The fact that the dolphins are aware that the cameraman is somehow part of this interaction shows a surprising level of observation on their part.
I love to introduce new things to the dolphins. I think the dolphins appreciate it and it is fascinating to observe their level of interest in each new item. Plus, there is a definite sense of accomplishment when I can successfully entertain dolphins!
In July of 2007, we included some larger pieces of fabric in the game. These wider sections of fabric, one orange and two purple, sparkled similar to fish scales reflecting sunlight. These sparkling pieces of fabric opened up new possibilities for our underwater "performance" and the dolphins were quite attentive. At one point, Regina was swimming with the older yellow ribbon but dropped it when she saw Noel swim by with a new sparkling purple one! Regina seemed to be very
impressed with the "new fashion" and we offered it to her for play. Regina swam very close to the fabric and seemed to be examining it closely, but was not willing to touch it on that day. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the only day we were able to spend with her in Cozumel during that expedition. Judging from our previous experiences with Regina, I trust that next time she'll give it a try!
Another innovative game...would you have imagined a dolphin with a propeller? We introduced this new game to the dolphins in Cozumel and Isla Mujeres in July 2007.The small wooden propeller was loaned to us by friends who use it with the dolphins they work with at Dolphins Plus in Key Largo, Florida. The propeller has
an indentation in the center hub so that a dolphin can balance it on its rostrum while swimming. The shape of the propeller causes it to naturally spin when moving through the water. It is tricky to keep it balanced and takes some practice. Noel and I, along with my son Parker, demonstrated it for the dolphins by pushing the propeller through the water with our fingertips. One male dolphin in Isla Mujeres was visibly interested in the way the propeller spun through the water and he showed real promise in learning this new skill.
EARTH FLAG CEREMONY WITH DOLPHINS
Another rewarding interactive experience with the dolphins is our Earth Flag ceremony. We had already created a vinyl double-sided flag with a large image of the Earth and the message "May Peace Prevail on Earth" which we had used for participation in the Grand
Opening Procession of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in September of 2004. This eventually prompted us into wondering how the dolphins would react to an image of the Earth from space. This was in 2005 when we were trying out the ribbon game for the first time, so we really weren't sure if the dolphins would be frightened by the large flag. To our surprise, the dolphins were not at all frightened and very quickly became interested in the flag. In fact, within moments we were surrounded by dolphins excitedly swimming and buzzing the flag loudly. It soon became difficult for us to swim forward because we were engulfed in dolphins! They swam around us, under us, over us.
As we persisted in swimming through the pod of dolphins, it felt like a parade! Dolphins escorted us throughout their large lagoon, surrounding us on all sides. Noel and I continuously chanted prayers for the Earth in our snorkels while the dolphins were filling the water with echolocation; joy overflowed in our hearts. Now, I must admit that joy is quite prevalent whenever we swim with dolphins, but creating a Peace on Earth ceremony with dolphins - that's just over the top! I strongly believe in the power of prayerful ceremony with clear intent. The level of exaltation and joy we felt with the dolphins that day undoubtedly sent out powerful waves of change into the world. The memory of that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Each year since, we have continued with the Earth Flag ceremony. The dolphins continue to be fascinated with it and escort us around their lagoon. I have wondered if the dolphins know that the image they are looking at is of the planet they are living on. If somehow the dolphins already know what the Earth looks like from space, then perhaps they are thinking "Hey, the humans have discovered space travel - finally!"
For me, games with dolphins are incredibly valuable in multiple ways. Human/dolphin games result in a great deal of interspecies communication - verbal and non-verbal. We are of course, still deciphering the dolphins' communication to us, however, it is clear that at times, the dolphins understand our intentions and we understand theirs. Since games are an integral part of dolphin life, it is certainly helpful to engage in games with them in order to gain insights that would otherwise be overlooked.
Games with dolphins have brought enormous joy into my life. Just thinking about these special interactions causes a huge smile to spread across my face and warmth to flood my heart. I see these games as a building block toward our future relationship with dolphins. I look forward to a time
when humans and cetaceans are working and playing together - cleaning up the oceans and restoring balance to the environment - all the while learning from each other. Finally, games with dolphins require us to be quite creative and that is a necessary ingredient to understanding dolphin language.
Interspecies communication with dolphins is a lifetime dream of my parents, Jack and Donna Kassewitz. Being part of this family regularly presents adventures and challenges most students my age haven't even heard of. For a couple of years now I've watched from the sidelines as my parents have conducted research into the language of Tursiops truncatus: the bottlenose dolphin.
Much of this research is conducted in Mexico's Yucatan. In June 2005, I was offered a chance to contribute some of my artistic talents to the project. Using AquaSketch, a unique underwater drawing tablet, I was able to sketch the very animals we were researching. AquaSketch has scrolls of Velum that allow an artist to draw with water-resistant tools such as color crayons and pencils. My assignment was to draw the dolphins while snorkeling or scuba diving with them, and then show the dolphins the images I had drawn to see if they showed signs of interest in their portraits. Would they recognize themselves in my drawings?
Although I had drawn dolphins many times before, from memory and from photographs, I found it quite challenging to draw them from the ocean floor while they were swimming around and above me. If only they would stay in one place for a moment! Back and forth they'd swim-never in the same position twice. Trying to draw a dolphin on the move is like trying to catch a beam of sunshine! Ultimately, I settled on capturing brief glimpses of many different dolphins-an eye, a dorsal fin, a certain position of the head or tail flukes. Trying to capture their spirit in my drawings was tough, but I grew to appreciate their beauty and grace even more!
Without a doubt, the dolphins were quite interested in what I was doing. They watched me from all angles - looking over my shoulder, watching me from above, swimming past alone and also in pods. The water was alive with their chirps, squeaks,clicks, and buzzes from their built-in sonar or echolocation as they used sound to examine me and my Aquasketch tablet. Challenging though it was to work on four or five different drawings at the same time, it made me understand just how slow and inferior we humans are underwater.
Dolphins are very funny animals. They know when they've played a joke on you, and seem to glow with pride at having done so. I remember once when I was so intently drawing that I didn't notice anything else. Then I had the strange feeling of being watched and looked up. There, a dolphin was gazing at me, its eye maybe only eight inches from my own! I was so startled that I jumped! The dolphin, seeing my reaction, seemed to grin before racing off! Yes, I know, dolphins have that permanent smile, but you can FEEL it when a dolphin is smiling at YOU!
An additional experiment that we had fun with was our "ribbon game". This was an idea that my mom had in mind and now it was up to me to help carry it out. At home I had cut and sewn twelve large ribbons in six different colors of nylon - red, yellow, green, blue, purple, and white. Each ribbon was one foot wide and nine feet long and was designed to slip over a 15" length of PVC pipe with caps on both ends. We hoped to use these underwater ribbons to engage the dolphins in a game of ribbon dancing. Additionally, we could slip the ribbons off the PVC entirely allowing it to drape across our bodies, from our neck, or arms while we swam. It takes a lot of creativity to come up with a game the dolphins will like!
My mom believed Regina, one of the female dolphins, would be the most bold and daring when it came to playing with the ribbons because Regina is quite curious, and a bit of a fashion diva! Her favorite toy is a yellow snorkel which she likes to wear dangling from her pectoral fin - resembling large plastic jewelry. We really hoped we could get Regina, and then the other dolphins to be creative and have fun with the ribbons. The dolphins could mimic our moves and we could mimic them, which would result in a wonderful, playful exchange of interspecies ideas and energy!
The first day I didn't have much success; the dolphins were certainly interested, but didn't venture too close to the ribbons. The second day started out with the much of the same - they were interested but kept their distance. I began to become discouraged and frustrated! Why wouldn't any of them go within more than a few yards of the floating ribbons? During the next hour, however, my despair turned to excitement as the dolphins grew bolder and darted ever closer. Then suddenly... YES! One dolphin hooked it on their tail fluke for a moment, then shook it off before darting back to the main pod. Finally, contact had been made and before long more dolphins began swimming by to hook the ribbons on their tail and swim away with their prizes.
At one point, Regina swam around the whole lagoon with her prized ribbon. We even saw her dressed up with both a ribbon on one pectoral fin and her yellow snorkel on the other one, copying a spiral twist that I had just performed moments earlier. Perhaps most amazing of all, was when I watched several dolphins take a ribbon floating on the surface, form it into a circle, and then begin jumping through it! Unfortunately, the cameraman was filming on the other side of the lagoon, so we never were able to capture that on film, but obviously the ribbon game was a hit!
The interspecies communication project has been going great! My parents have discovered that just a short dolphin vocalization...like "squeak - squeak - squeakity - squeaker," is comprised of musical notes & chords. When slowed down to speeds our ears can comprehend, these dolphin songs rival the works of Beethoven, Bach, and other great composers! Our human ears are not capable of hearing the full range of the dolphin sounds, so only through computer analysis can we see all the musical information that is "compressed" within dolphin vocalizations and echolocation. My father carefully writes down all the musical information from the computer analysis of these dolphins' sounds, and then has graduate student musicians from the Univ. of Miami, play these songs on human instruments, so that we can better comprehend and appreciate what the dolphins are saying - or singing! The result of this research is astounding! Each dolphin that we have recorded so far, has their own unique song that is quite beautiful.
My parents have produced a CD called "Dolphin Code" with the first of these songs written by dolphins. They hope to raise peoples' awareness of dolphin intelligence and their inherent artistic abilities. The slaughtering of dolphins is a common practice in Japan and in many other places worldwide. In Japan, up to 22,000 dolphins, porpoises, and small whales are brutally killed in massive hunts each year. We hope that by showing just how beautiful and creative dolphins are, whether through my art work or our dolphin communication research, we will help protect dolphins.