Denise Herzing and the Wild Dolphin Project breaking new ground in human-dolphin communication

Since 1985 Denise Herzing and the Wild Dolphin Project have been breaking new ground by studying a group of approximately 100 dolphins in the Bahamas in their natural habitat — tracking their lives, relationships, offspring, and studying their communication and socialization. Think of her as the Jane Goodall of dolphins and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what she does, and how she works. Herzing and WDP  have been making news lately due to a plan to undertake human-dolphin communication using body-worn computers and working with wild, not captive, dolphins.

Herzing has had adhered to a philsophy of “in their world…on their terms”, and “mutual curiousity” in her studies – a philosophy that differentiates her work from much of the prior work that has been done on human-dolphin communications. Those efforts have yielded some success, but have generally failed to live up to expectations fueled by the size and complexity of dolphin brains, and the intricacies of their social behavior — both of which suggest a potentially high level of communication skills.

While captive dolphins have learned to be responsive to human commands — Herzing’s approach is built around the wild dolphin’s curiousity and motivation, and uses the desire of the dolphin to communicate with humans as the starting point for the process. She cites as an example that the wild dolphins with whom she works will sometimes engage in “keep-away” type play using a piece of sargasso seaweed as a desired toy. Once this desire is established, under the new system, two computer equipped human divers will interact in front of the dolphin, first using the computer to play a synthesized whistle sound, and then having one of the divers give the seaweed to the other. The idea is to build on the dolphin’s desire for the seaweed toy — and then offer up a sound-image association that the dolphin, motivated to obtain the seaweed or other object, will use.

The approach is a new one, and having computers that cannot only generate sounds, but recognize and decode dolphin sounds in real time, is something new. How far will it go? Once can only wonder.

The Wild Dolphin Project is supported by donations — please visit their site and see what they do, and how you can help:  http://wilddolphinproject.org)

Personal Footnote — Eye of the Dolphin and Beneath the Blue
In our movie Beneath the Blue, we depicted something very similar. In the movie, the dolphin interacting with the diver was a fomer captive dolphin, now free-ranging (able to move freely from the wild to the science facility, located in an inlet with access to the sea). It’s nice to sea that our movie depiction, while speculative, tracks closely with this cutting edge work by the Wild Dolphin Project: