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30 august 2014

When I was a kid in the 1960s in Chicago, a major treat was going to see the dolphins at Brookfield Zoo. What I didn't realize at the age of six was that the dolphins had only been there a few years; the dolphin exhibit at Brookfield is a little younger than I am. What I certainly didn't realize is that there had been no dolphin exhibits anywhere till a scant 20 years before I was born. Dolphin shows are one of those things that were brand-new just in time to seem to me like they'd been around forever.

In Dolphin for the Reaktion Animal series, Alan Rauch notes in that people have had a long-standing affinity with dolphins. Dolphins have been known to humanity since prehistory, and feature in many a myth of interspecies cooperation. Their worldwide distribution puts them close to people wherever shallow waters and shorelines meet. Nearly every maritime culture seems to have a legend of a man overboard succored by a dolphin – perhaps a woman overboard, mating with a dolphin, and giving birth to hybrid offspring with superpowers.

As Stephen Martin shows in Penguin, it didn't take humans long to anthropomorphize a weird bird they'd just encountered. It's not surprising, then, that people have ascribed all sorts of sympathetic intentions to a familiar small whale. And it's a whale that smiles, Rauch emphasizes. How cute can you get?

The Mona Lisa has nothing on dolphins when it comes to inscrutably smiling, though. We are often dead sure we know what a dolphin is thinking, and then when we think about it we realize we're probably dead wrong. Everybody knows that dolphins are smart. They have big brains; more to the point, their brains are big relative to their bodies. They communicate in ways that we don't understand well, even when we've adjusted for the basic difficulty of capturing sounds that we can't even perceive, expressed in a watery medium and heard by dolphins through their lower jaws. Rauch cites several appearances by dolphins in science fiction and New Agey sort-of-science, all premised on the notion that dolphins are perhaps better than us at thinking and philosophizing. And of course he cites Douglas Adams, who may well have had it right in suggesting that dolphins' final message to humanity could be "So long, and thanks for all the fish."

Orcas, the once-maligned "killer whales," are closely related to dolphins in evolutionary terms – basically are dolphins, just large ones – and Rauch documents some interesting cultural twists in their reputation. Herman Melville said of the orca:

He is very savage—a sort of Feegee fish. He sometimes takes the great Folio whales by the lip, and hangs there like a leech, till the mighty brute is worried to death. … Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included. (Moby-Dick, chapter 32)
As frequently in Melville, even this lurid description grants the orca some respect for inhabiting his ecological niche. But later representations of the orca could be more malign. Sea Hunt, a TV series I liked even better than Flipper when I was young, was apparently fanatical about the savagery of the killer whale. Rauch points to a softening of cultural attitudes toward the orca in the following decades, with the turning point being the film Namu, the Killer Whale in 1966. Ivan Tors, who produced both Sea Hunt and Flipper, evidently felt sorry for the bad rap he'd given killer whales, and set about rehabilitating them in the Western imagination. From there to Free Willy was only a matter of degree.

Dolphins, even orcas, are not imminently threatened with overall extinction. But many species are on the brink, and some, like the baiji, have disappeared very recently. One hopes that cultural work like Alan Rauch's will contribute to saving those that remain.

Rauch, Alan. Dolphin. London: Reaktion, 2014.