A Glimpse into Dolphin Intelligence or A Siamese Connexion with a Plurality of Other Mortals

 From Scott McVay’s, A Siamese Connexion with a Plurality of Other Mortals, prelude to Stephen Kellert’s The Biophilia Hypothesis.

The rich phrase (in italics above) comes to us from Ishmael and his precarious connection to Queequeg during the processing of a harpooned whale aboard ship in Melville’s Moby Dick. 

McVay shares several brief case studies where rare individuals have come to know certain animals or groups of species quite intimately. More recent examples of this include Joe Hutto (My Life as a Turkey). McVay spent several years researching marine mammal intelligence in New York and the Virgin Islands. The following is one extraordinary encounter he was fortunate enough to witness.

It was April of 1964. I was working for a laboratory with research sites in Coconut Grove and St. Thomas. We were studying the brain, behavior, and communication of the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). What I am about to describe occurred outside the protocol of our regular work at the St. Thomas laboratory. 

A bright, educated woman lived a few miles away. A connoisseur of art, she was an accomplished athlete who would sometimes spend hours swimming in the waters below her home. She puzzled at how a porpoise could purportedly save a struggling non-swimmer at sea (even though three cases were known from the literature and we had two further accounts in letters to the laboratory). First, one assumes that the drowning person would be thrashing and disoriented. Second, if he saw a fin, he might think it a shark. Third, even if this panicked person had the self-possession to grasp the dorsal fin, exhaustion would soon slacken his grip. She persistently queried the director of the institute, “How could a drowning person be rescued by a porpoise?”

One Sunday she was invited to the lab with its tide pool and a female porpoise perhaps three or four years old. What follows was recorded in air and underwater and it was filmed. 

The woman entered the water with this conundrum crowding out any other thought. She happened to lie face down in the water assuming “the dead man’s float.” From behind, the porpoise swam onto the woman’s back and clasped its flippers firmly under her arms and began to propel her around the pool with powerful tail flukes. At first she resisted. She was unused to letting go or losing control. She noticed, however, that she could see and breathe. The weight and vertical stroking of the flukes lifted her head clear of the water as the two – joined by a belly-to-back Siamese connexion – made a circuit of the pool to the gasps of onlookers. She “let go.” She told me she relaxed as deeply and fully as she ever had. The porpoise made two complete circuits of the pool and then shot straight up in the air, releasing the woman gently and precisely  on her knees on the cement lip of the pool. She said softly, “I understand.”