The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Dolphin Sexuality

Why shrink from sharks: Is it love, infatuation, or cheating?

Dolphins, with their bright eyes and ever-present smiles, never cease to charm.

In fact, dolphins appear to embody the kind of personality we humans find most attractive. They seem to us friendly, outgoing, and adventurous - the supreme flirts of the animal kingdom.

We are more like them than we sometimes know, especially - and sometimes a bit uncomfortably - when it comes to sexuality and the notion of cheating.

To more fully appreciate the minor sexual scandal I'll politely refer to as the Whitewater Incident, you should know up front that dolphins in the wild spend about 30 percent of their time in sexual play.

That's not bad for a carnivorous species that relies on the time-consuming vocation of hunting in order to survive. As anyone who has ever gone after a paycheck knows, we are a hunting species too and, yet, our bedroom antics don't generally tally to anywhere near the 30 percent mark.

Just think of it.

If we were to even come close to matching the dolphin libido, we would be spending nearly four months a year in Dionysian revelry. On a two-week vacation, we'd be holed up in our hotel rooms for more than four entire days. During seven-day weeks, our weekends - all of them - would be devoted to sensual pleasure. And during a standard work week, we'd be calling in love sick for a day and a half out of every five.

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In contrast to dolphins, and depending upon which of the many surveys you happen to be consulting, we humans enjoy sexual intimacy somewhere on the order of one to four times per week (at the higher end of the scale) or per month (at the lower end). Hardly Herculean in the realm of sexual achievement - and fascinatingly so for a species like ours that devotes so much mental, emotional, and cultural stock-in-trade to sex and sexuality.

Are we repressed because we're obsessed - or is it, perhaps, the other way around?

Enter Dolphin X, a former co-worker of mine whose name I am withholding out of consideration for his privacy. One never knows who reads these things, after all.

At the time I knew him, Dolphin X was working for the U.S. Navy. He was a full-fledged adult not requiring parental consent for any of his extracurricular activities, and he had regular on- and off-duty contact with others of his species. That didn't stop him, however, from indulging in a sexual dalliance of a . . . well . . . unusual nature.

One day, several trainers were standing on the floating dolphin enclosures of San Diego Bay when their attention was pulled from their duties by a sloshing disturbance of whitewater in a nearby enclosure.

Upon investigating, they found a small shark compromisingly positioned in the pectoral fin embrace of Dolphin X. Apparently, the shark had found its way into the enclosure through a gate to the open water of the bay where Dolphin X routinely trained and worked. Since the pair seemed to be getting along rather well at the moment, the trainers let them be - and later saw to it that the shark was removed to a more appropriate location.

The Whitewater Incident proved somewhat scandalous to Dolphin X's human trainers, as no one had ever before seen or heard of a dolphin coupling with a shark, and some proclivities - at least in human eyes - should simply not be indulged.

Interestingly, Dolphin X's activities did not seem to draw any unusual attention from his dolphin companions. Maybe that's because dolphin sexual mores are somewhat more tolerant than our own. Both in the wild and in captivity, dolphins are not only polygamous, but also sexually gregarious without regard for gender.

Still, one has to wonder: Did Dolphin X cross a cultural line and "cheat" by virtue of his liaison with a shark? Dolphin X's human trainers seemed to think so.

 Humans, of course, live by rules, rules, and more rules when it comes to sexual expression. In the underwater realm, on the other hand, where there seems to be an absence of obvious rules, it's difficult to say whether dolphins cheat or not - but of the two species, theirs is the one wearing the permanent grin.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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