Jane Goodall and chimpanzees; Dian Fossey and gorillas; Denise Herzing and dolphins.
While that final name may not be as well known as those of the famed primate observers, Dr. Denise Herzing certainly deserves her place in that respected triumvirate of behavioral biologists. Now in her fourth decade of studying wild cetacean behavior–specifically spotted dolphins in the Bahamas–Herzing’s work went viral after a 2013 TED Talk she gave on her efforts to communicate with them via an underwater computer. Herzing will discuss her latest research Friday, Feb. 24 at Whale Trust Maui’s 11th annual Whale Tales event at the Ritz Carlton in Kapalua.
“Denise Herzing’s study of wild dolphins is inspirational,” says longtime friend Flip Nicklin, Whale Trust co-founder and National Geographic photographer. “To study wild cetaceans, face-to-face, in the wild, in the water and to continue the work for decades is the stuff of dreams for future marine biologists, conservationists and even photographers. This woman’s story is as good as it gets.”
Since 1985, Herzing has spent four months each summer and thousands of hours in the water studying dolphin culture and behavior in the research-friendly crystalline waters near the Bahamas. She has now collected data on three generations of the same pods and has offered up groundbreaking observations on their behavior. A dolphin’s brain-to-body weight is second only to humans and Herzing has catalogued their various communication methods: body language, touch and–most significantly–sound. She learned how dolphins identified themselves and each other using signature “whistles” and how they use echolocation, “buzzes” and “pulse bursts” to engage in a number of social activities.
As she wrote in her 2011 book, Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas, “An average spotted dolphin travels around 10 to 20 miles a day, has a large network of friends and family and invests years in teaching young dolphins how to survive. Dolphins teach their young complex skills ranging from feeding, babysitting and negotiating the fine lines of dolphin behavior.”
That research has left her deeply invested in the species and its survival–and beyond. “What hits home is that dolphins are a community and culture unto themselves,” Herzing told MauiTime. “It makes me perceive many animals as unique and possessing precious cultures, but [humans] still monitor them as stocks or numbers. They are individual beings with unique cultures. To lose them would be species genocide.”
After years spent identifying various family groups and individuals through her nonprofit Wild Dolphin Project, Herzing watched dolphins mimic researchers’ vocal sounds and play dolphin games with them–such as “keep away” with pieces of seaweed. She decided to move to the next phase of her research: taking what she had learned about the language of dolphins and trying to bridge the communication gap with the community of dolphins she had been studying.
In her TED Talk she posited, “Imagine what it would be like to really understand the mind of another intelligent species on the planet,” as she highlighted her research team’s early attempts at two-way communication using an underwater keyboard. With it, her team played back acoustic signals: the whistles that dolphins use to identify themselves as well as the ones researchers invented for themselves. The team also developed dolphin-friendly sounds corresponding to toys that dolphins liked to play with, such as pieces of rope, scarves and seaweed. The results were rudimentary, but promising. “We had opened a window at least,” she wrote in her book.
Herzing laughed ruefully about the repercussions of her TED talk, which was translated by a lot of non-scientifically focused media into “there’s a woman out there talking to dolphins.”
“Unfortunately a lot of it has been really miscommunicated and that’s so frustrating,” she said. “It’s such a sensitive area of work because of the potential for exaggeration.”
Herzing said that the past few years have been spent refining her team’s technology which has resulted in a new underwater computer she described as “bigger, better, faster and smarter.” She’ll present an update in her talk at 2:15pm Friday. Herzing also will be aboard one of the whale watches donated by local companies to benefit whale research in Hawaii. For more information, go to Whaletales.org.