2013-03-07 / Top News

The Dolphin Whisperer

Denise Herzing has spent nearly three decades cracking the code.
BY SCOTT SIMMONS

Left: Mother dolphin and calf. Below: Denise Herzing reads research materials onboard Stenella.Left: Mother dolphin and calf. Below: Denise Herzing reads research materials onboard Stenella.

THEY CLICK AND THEY WHISTLE WHEN they speak.

They apparently have names for each other.

Thus is the parlance of Atlantic spotted dolphins.

For nearly 30 years, Denise Herzing has made it her life’s work to translate what they are saying — to crack the code, if you will.

Each summer, she sets sail for waters in the Bahamas to observe the pods of spotted dolphins in a catamaran named for their genus, Stenella.

And each summer, Dr. Herzing, who heads the Wild Dolphin Project, watches the marine mammals as they interact, mate and discipline among their ranks according to the rules of their underwater society.

Along the way, she has come to know generations of dolphins by the names she has given them: Little Gash (her fin has a split), Rosemole, Romeo and Rosebud.

Their undersea world is a place that has fascinated her since she was a girl.

“It’s really simple. I grew up in Minnesota, where we have a lot of lakes, right? And when I was, like, 10, 11 years old — that was the time when Jacques Cousteau was on TV — so all of a sudden ‘Underworld World’ is in the living room. And people like Jane Goodall and Jane Fosse were out studying primates,” she says over lunch near her office in Jupiter.

“So I literally — this is what I remember — I used to page through my Encyclopaedia Brittanica set — in those days, we had books, right? Instead of the Internet. And I always would stop on the whale and dolphin page,” she says.

Dr. Herzing saw a connection between primates and the great marine mammals.

“And I always would go, ‘What in the hell are they doing with those big brains in the water.’ They’re social mammals. They’re like chimps, but they don’t have the things we have,” she says, referring to human physical characteristics. “But what are they doing with those big brains?”

That got her to thinking.

“I wondered if they could do with dolphins what they were doing with primates.”

Dr. Herzing, founder of The Wild Dolphin Project, has made that her life’s work.

Since 1985, she has journeyed to the Bahamas, where she has collected a database of underwater sounds and behaviors from that free-ranging community of dolphins.

So far, she has followed three generations.

She had a college counselor to thank for sending her down that path.

“I had started my first year of college in Minnesota, where I grew up. There was no marine biology there. I was doing biology. And he said, ‘You probably should get in the mud and see if you like it.’”

She went to Oregon, applied to schools that offered marine biology classes, and worked with harbor seals, sea lions and whales. Her Ph.D. followed, and Dr. Herzing found herself in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas.

Then she met the wild dolphins, Stenella frontalis.

“It was kind of like a dream, actually,” she says. “Seriously, crystal-clear water. Two dolphins, a mom and a calf, come up to me. They just kind of look at you. And you go, ‘Oh, this is a wild animal.’ I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know their relationships, or their behavior. It was just like two semi-intelligent creatures kind of looking at each other going, ‘Hmmm. Who are you?’ You just want to know more.”

It did not take long for them to become acquainted.

Twenty-eight years later, Dr. Herzing has tracked three generations of spotted dolphins.

The calves she encountered in the ’80s are now parents and grandparents.

A wild dolphin typically can reproduce until it is in its 40s; a female may give birth to up to 10 calves over the course of two or three decades.

Last year, the researchers tracked 10 new calves.

“I’ve watched them grow up and become grandmothers,” she says. They track paternity by checking the DNA from dolphin fecal matter.

And it is through that she has been able to track relationships.

“What was really funny, after I had been out in our location for 10-plus years, I’d get in the water and I’d see Stubby or Little Gash, I’d look at them and not only know they were adults and about 10 years old, and know their spot pattern or ages. And realize, ‘Oh, you know Knuckles and you had two babies.’”

Developing relationships

That familiarity is instrumental in being able to conduct research on the Stenella.

Part of Dr. Herzing’s mission is to observe.

That is, to allow the dolphins to get used to her presence to the point in which they go about their lives with a minimum of human interference, and she can build trust with the dolphin pod and record information in the most natural setting possible.

Discipline is key, both for dolphins and humans.

Members of a pod will punish errant dolphins by holding them down on the bottom of the sea so they cannot breathe. A mother may hold her calf up out of the water.

The reasoning? Calves who stray from the pod are shark bait.

Her motto: “In their world, on their terms.”

“It’s a challenge. It’s how do you maintain the integrity of the animals and still share the information,” she says. “It’s one reason we try not to give our location away specifically.”

The area is shallow enough that there is no cruise-ship traffic, but it’s open ocean and far enough out that small craft do not typically venture that far from shore.

You cannot just jump in the water with these creatures; it’s illegal unless you have a permit.

“Not every dolphin wants to interact with a human. That’s an image you get from SeaWorld. That’s not what happens,” she says.

It’s easy to forget something: “They have interesting lives without us in the wild.”

What about SeaWorld and other parks?

“I think they’re a reality right now, that they exist, but they are in sore need of improving their practices and their images of the animals. I don’t condone the entertainment part. I think jumping through hoops and having a man riding the back of an orca and pulling people through the water, I think is really ridiculous. I don’t think it does anything to further our understanding as who they are,” she says.

The education component of theme parks is minimal, Dr. Herzing says.

“You can create awareness in a lot of different ways and you don’t have to have an animal jumping through a hoop,” she says.

And particularly most alarming: In many countries throughout the Caribbean, it is not illegal to round up wild dolphins for use in theme parks, or in mall aquariums. Some hunters will kill the animals they do not use.

“The past is the past. The question is what do you do now?” she says.

On the sea

What do you do now?

That is the question Dr. Herzing often ponders during her 16-hour workdays on the sea.

“It’s long days looking for animals or being in the water, getting earaches, trying to stuff a sandwich in your mouth. We’re in the water until 9 o’clock at night sometimes, when there’s good weather and good light. But you’ve got to get it when it’s good,” she says.

The 62-foot Stenella typically is out to sea from May through August.

Inside, the catamaran offers a comfortable space, with a central salon and kitchen and dormitory-type cabins with bunks for the five or six paying guests who help Dr. Herzing with her research — maybe 20 to 30 over the course of a summer.

It costs $2,895 to join one of the 10-day voyages, and the trips typically are sold out months in advance. It is very much a working trip for guests, who are expected to assist in research.

That includes participating in daily dolphin watches and assisting in the identification of dolphins from photographs and video, both in the water and during the reviews of the day’s video.

It is an exhausting process.

“I sleep when I come home,” she says.

The eight months or so she is not on the water, Dr. Herzing calls Juno Beach home.

The Stenella undergoes maintenance in its home at Riviera Beach Marina.

Computers get overhauled, too. Saltwater and electronics are not a good mix.

In 2011, she wrote a book, “Dolphin Diaries: My 25 Years with Spotted Dolphins in the Bahamas.”

From her office in Jupiter, Dr. Herzing analyzes data, works on video, writes grants, works with her interns and performs lectures — “everything it takes to get out there.”

That includes dispelling some myths.

Remember how Flipper always chirped on his 1960s television series?

“It’s complete fiction.

Come up, get a fish? They don’t do that at all in the wild,” she says. That chirping sound actually was created by Mel Blanc, famous for the voices of Bugs

Bunny and other cartoon characters.

She also makes time for fund-raising: The public can meet Dr. Herzing and artists during “Wild Dolphins: An Underwater Portrait” art showing March

8-22 at Blue Water Editions, south of Stuart. Artwork will be for sale.

Money raised can help bring Dr. Herzing and her team closer to her dream: cracking the code and to holding conversations with dolphins.

Technology may help.

The computers’ job is to help make sense of those sounds and those patterns of sounds.

And they have had some success in getting the mammals to respond to calls and to play a specially built keyboard.

“It’s hard to decode another species. I was a little naïve when I began,” she says, laughing.

Still, Dr. Herzing tries to be realistic in her expectations.

“I’d be happy if I showed some more detailed complexity,” she says. “Maybe cracking the code is the wrong word. … I just would like to know what goes on their minds.”

That is the age-old question between humans and other species.

“We understand their signals and they understand ours to some extent. But how do you bridge that gap?”

Humans constantly try to bridge that gap between other cultures and languages, she reasons, so why not animals?

“Wouldn’t be cool to decode it? You know they’re saying a lot of stuff to each other. What does that mean? That’s where the real mystery is.” ¦

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