Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dolphins Guide Scientists to Rescue Suicidal Girl

One day, my research team and I were following a school of bottlenose dolphins near shore as we do on a regular basis in the waters off Los Angeles, California. We just wrapped up our photo-identification work and were moving on to take video of dolphin social interactions and enter data on behavior.

The dolphins were still feeding in circle near shore, when suddenly, one individual changed direction heading out toward deeper water. A minute later, the rest of the school turned to follow. We were so accustomed to tracking these coastal metropolitan dolphins back and forth within a few hundred meters of the beach, that seeing them abruptly leave a foraging ground and change direction came as a surprise to the research team. I decided to follow them.

The dolphins increased their speed, still heading offshore as I pushed the throttle ahead to keep pace while one of my researchers recorded this hasty change in behavior on the sighting form. Somewhere near three miles offshore the dolphin group stopped, forming a sort of ring around a dark object in the water.

“Someone’s in the water!” yelled my assistant, standing up and pointing at the seemingly lifeless body of a girl. For a moment, we were silent. Then, slowly, I maneuvered the boat closer. The girl was pallid and blonde and appeared to be fully clothed. As the boat neared, she feebly turned her head toward us, half-raising her hand as a weak sign for help.

I cut the engine and called the lifeguards on the VHF radio. They told us not to do anything until they arrived on site but it was our unanimous feeling that if we didn’t act immediately, the girl would die. We decided to ignore lifeguard’s instructions, instead pulling the frail and hypothermic body on board. I called the lifeguards back and informed them that she was alive and that we had her aboard and we were heading back to Marina del Rey, the closest harbor, as quickly as possible.

“She is cyanotic,” said one of my researchers, also a lifeguard, after a cursory examination. “She has severe hypothermia. We need to get her warm!” We managed to get some of her wet garments off and wrap her in a blanket. We took turns keeping her warm by huddling with her under the blanket.

The girl was around eighteen and probably foreign because we couldn’t seem to communicate. We tried speaking French, Italian, and Spanish to no avail and she was barely able to speak but none of us could understand what she was saying. I couldn’t avoid noticing a plastic bag tied around her neck. It was sealed and seemed to contain her passport and a folded handwritten note. Somewhere near the harbor, we met up with the lifeguard rescue boat. We handed her off to them and followed them back to port.

A couple of hours later, we were all waiting outside the emergency room at the Marina del Rey hospital. The ER doctor came out to talk with us. The girl, it seems, would pull through, and he thanked us for our quick action. He tells us the girl was vacationing in L.A. from Germany and, as the letter found in her plastic bag explained, she was attempting suicide. If we hadn’t found her, if the dolphins hadn’t led us offshore when they did, to that specific place, she would have died.

Busy as we were trying to save the girl, we completely lost track of the dolphins. What might they have done with her if we hadn’t been there? Might they have tried to save her? There are many anecdotal accounts of dolphins saving humans from death and disaster, either by guiding them to shore, fending off sharks or helping them to remain afloat until help arrives.

Many scientists think dolphins do not, in fact, save humans because there is not enough hard scientific evidence to support these stories. But that day I witnessed coastal bottlenose dolphins suddenly leave their feeding activities and head offshore. And in doing so, they led us to save a dying girl, some three miles offshore. Coincidence?

This article has been adapted from the book Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. She is President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008; paperback 2010). She also works as a photo-journalist and blogger for several publications. Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

Friday, May 30, 2014

Andromeda and the Milky Way: A Merger of Galactic Proportions

The Andromeda nebula, which rarely feels the pull of the social media orbit, had a moment in the spotlight on Wednesday. Astronomers operating NASA’s Swift satellite spied what looked like a giant burst of radiation from Andromeda, the nearest big galaxy to our own Milky Way, about 2.5 million light-years from here. They tentatively diagnosed it as the collision of two neutron stars, the dense remnants of dead stars. Such collisions are among the most violent known conflagrations in the universe, but they rarely occur so close to our own neck of the cosmic woods.

It turned out to be a false alarm, but for a few hours the Twitterverse was riveted on Andromeda. Which is not a bad thing. The Andromeda galaxy, known in astronomical parlance as M31, holds a special place in our own future.

The Milky Way and Andromeda are the dominant members of a small family of galaxies known as the Local Group. Whereas the universe is expanding and galaxies are generally getting farther and farther away from one another with time, the galaxies in the Local Group are bound together by family ties in the form of their mutual gravity. Our relatives aren’t going anywhere.

And there is the problem. Andromeda and the Milky Way are actually heading toward each other in the do-si-do that constitutes life in a galaxy cluster. Recent measurements with the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed that they will hit head on in about two billion years. Since galaxies, like atoms, are mostly empty space, they will pass through each other like ghosts, but gravity will disrupt the stars and strew them across space in gigantic spectacular streamers. Eventually they will merge into a single giant galaxy.

The bad news is that we will be dead. Earth will have been boiled and sterilized eons earlier as the sun brightens. The good news is that the collision will be a fiesta of new stars forming as that disruptive gravity collapses and then condenses clouds of gas and dust. New worlds, another chance. Maybe.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Let Slip the Dolphins of War


New York Times

SOUTHAMPTON, England — Fifty years ago, at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, the science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke spoke of things to come. He foresaw a 21st century that would witness “the development of intelligent and useful servants among the other animals on this planet, particularly the great apes and, in the oceans, the dolphins and whales.” Clarke saw this as a way of solving “the servant problem,” although he also imagined that the animals would form labor unions, “and we’d be right back where we started.”

I thought of Clarke when I read recent reports of the military employment of dolphins in a Cold War-style face-off of cetaceans near Crimea. According to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, marine mammals trained by the United States will take part in exercises in the waters of the Black Sea where their counterparts in the Russian Navy already swim.

In fact, the military was already researching dolphins even before Clarke made his prophecies. As D. Graham Burnett, a professor of the history of science at Princeton, points out in “The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the 20th Century,” the United States Navy has run a once-classified marine mammal program since 1960.

Dolphins, orcas and beluga and pilot whales have all been investigated for their military usefulness. According to the Navy’s website, dolphins are trained to locate mines “so they can be removed or avoided.” Dolphins were deployed in both the Persian Gulf wars on such tours of duty, flown in and out on aircraft, like cetacean Marines. They were used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq to locate mines in Umm Qasr’s harbor.

There have been rumors that cetaceans have also been employed as dolphin drones, remote deliverers of death. During the Vietnam War, it was claimed that dolphins were used in lethal “swimmer nullification programs,” their beaks fitted with needles to deliver fatal injections of carbon dioxide gas to Vietcong divers. The Navy denies the stories.

Dr. Burnett notes that the use of cetaceans, imagined and otherwise, in acts of warfare fed the “countercultural tensions” that surrounded cetaceans during the 1960s and ’70s, contributing to the way they became the “totemic organisms of peaceniks, freaks, and ecoterrorists.” He also points out that the most notorious name in dolphin studies — John C. Lilly, who proposed that the marine mammals spoke “dolphinese,” and experimented by dosing them with LSD — drew on research done by the Navy for much of his controversial work.

We humans, it seems, can’t leave the natural world alone. Assuming our biblical rights of dominion, we must reshape the world in our image. So, on one hand, whales and dolphins can be sleek and cute, the stuff of Flipper and Free Willy. On the other, their intelligence can be used to do our dirty work. If man may be venal and warlike, so, too, must be his animal servants.

There’s a delicate moral dilemma here. We know that these are intelligent animals, with advanced social skills. Bottlenose dolphins have signature whistles that act as “names.” Dolphins can use their sonar to read one another’s physical states and, possibly, emotional moods. Some dolphins and larger whales possess spindle neurons, specialized brain cells found elsewhere only in great apes, elephants and humans, creating the capacity for empathy and self-awareness — and, perhaps, the ability to feel love and loss.

Scientists posit that cetaceans exhibit moral behavior and have a collective sense of one another’s individuality. And as the esteemed scientists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell describe in their forthcoming book, “The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins,” they may be said to possess culture as a result of longstanding social skills, passed down through generations. In their apparently carefree lives, cetaceans appeal to us in our less buoyant existence. Their supposed benevolence is part of our culture, in myths from ancient Greece and from the Haida and Maori people, up to present-day stories of dolphins protecting humans from sharks.

Yet dolphins can be as mindlessly violent as humans. In 2011, I attended the dissection of a harbor porpoise at the Zoological Society of London. The four-foot-long animal looked untouched as it lay on the stainless-steel slab. But as the scientist, Rob Deaville, sliced open the carcass with the skill of a sushi chef, he revealed that its body cavity was flooded with blood.

One side of its rib cage had been smashed, the liver torn in two. The event took on the air of a “C.S.I.” episode, as Mr. Deaville announced the cause of death: butting by a bottlenose dolphin.

Cute Flipper? Cute killer, more like. Other dolphins have been known to take part in sex parties. Caught up in a superpod off New Zealand, I’ve seen dusky dolphins (a southern hemisphere species) mating up to three times in five minutes. Bottlenose dolphins have been filmed appearing to get high after sucking on the toxins of puffer fish.

Many ethicists and environmentalists question the morality of keeping cetaceans in captivity. But if we accept cavorting orcas and dolphins at SeaWorld, then why not working dolphins in the Navy?

In his book, “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier,” Thomas I. White, a professor of business ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, writes that “the military use of dolphins is just as ethically questionable as any other captive program.” To Dr. White, as to some other forward-thinking ethicists and scientists, dolphins are sentient beings, due the rights of a “nonhuman person.” We accept the servitude of domesticated animals, from seeing-eye dogs to horses in Central Park, but don’t cetaceans and apes, by their very genetic closeness to us, demand greater respect — as well as freedom from Arthur C. Clarke’s prospective slavery?

Our objections to the use of dolphins in war may be sentimental, because we project idealized notions of placidity on their perennially smiling faces. We are imposing our own values, good and bad, on wild animals. But if we apprehend that dolphins are moral beings, then might they themselves object to being weapons of war? Perhaps we need to work on our dolphinese.

Philip Hoare, a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Southampton in Britain, is the author of “Leviathan or, The Whale” and, most recently, of “The Sea Inside.”