Michael Jawer

Michael Jawer

Feeling Too Much

Unimagined Sensitivities, Part 3

Dolphins and killer whales possess capacities that truly baffle.

Posted May 29, 2017

In another highly social and perceptive species—dolphins—the recognition of death takes a bizarre turn, as recounted by researcher Denise Herzing. In this instance, Herzing’s vessel approached a familiar group of dolphins her team had been studying. “They greeted us but they acted very unusual,” not coming within 50 feet of the boat. They refused invitations to bow-ride, also at odds with their typical behavior.  Soon, someone discovered that one of the people aboard had died during a nap in his bunk.  As the vessel headed back to port, “the dolphins came to the side of our boat, not riding the bow as usual but instead flanking us…in an aquatic escort.”  After the crew had attended to the sad business at hand and the boat returned to the area, “the dolphins greeted us normally, rode the bow, and frolicked like they normally did.” (Safina, pp. 363-4)

Apart from this incident, Herzing has never noticed such peculiar behavior in her 25 years of studying dolphins.  “Perhaps,” speculates naturalist Carl Safina, “in a way we don’t understand, dolphin sonar lets them scan inside a boat and somehow realize and communicate among one another that a man in a bunk has a heart that is still.  Perhaps they detected that a human had died using another sensory system, one that we humans neither possess nor suspect.” (Safina, p. 364)

Whatever sensory apparatus may be involved, there is ample evidence that dolphins and killer whales possess a capacity impelling them to care for humans and, occasionally, other animals.  Stories of these marine mammals guiding people to safety are legion.  Several are presented in Safina’s best-selling book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. (Safina, pp.352-3)  Killer whales are even known to have saved dogs that have errantly swam out to sea. (Safina, p. 355)

Orca researchers link such behavior to these creatures’ penchant for learning quickly and, some say, telepathically.  Researcher Alexandra Morton, for example, once asked a trainer to show her how one teaches a new behavior to a whale.  They decided to teach a pair of captive killer whales, Orky and Corky, how to slap their dorsal fins on the water—a trick neither whale had ever demonstrated.  They agreed to work on the trick with the whales the following week.  “Then something happened,” Morton wrote, “that has made me careful of my thoughts around whales ever since.”  Corky slapped her dorsal fin on the water’s surface.  She actually did it several times, then charged around the tank, exuberantly smacking the water with her dorsal fin.  “That’s whales for you,” said the trainer, smiling.  “They can read your mind.  We trainers see this kind of stuff all the time.” (Safina, p. 356)

The same is often true of dolphins.  Trainer Karen Pryor discovered that, once she rewarded her charges specifically for doing something new, they would “think of things to do spontaneously that we could never have imagined.”  When two Hawaiian bottlenose dolphins got the signal to do something new, for example, they would swim to the center of the pool, circle underwater for a few seconds, then put on an acrobatic performance in perfect unison that was entirely unrehearsed.  No one knows how they do it. (Safina, p. 363)  


Safina, Carl. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2015.

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