But beyond this, dolphin chat is still largely mysterious. “To communicate with dolphins, we need to understand how they communicate with each other in the natural world,” says psychologist Stan Kuczaj at the University of Southern Mississippi. “We still don’t know basic things like what the units of dolphin communication are. Is a whistle the equivalent of a “word” or a “short sentence”? We don’t know.”
We may not be able to understand them yet, but we know that dolphins can learn to understand us. In the 1970s, Louis Herman taught an invented sign language, complete with basic syntax, to a bottlenose dolphin called Akeakamai. For example, if he made the gestures for “person surfboard fetch”, Akeakamai would bring the board to him, while “surfboard person fetch” would prompt her to carry the person to the board. His experiments showed that dolphins could understand hundreds of words, and how those words could be combined using grammatical rules.
What’s my motivation?
Herman’s work was groundbreaking, but this was still one-way communication. It focused on comprehension, not conversation. In the 1980s, Diana Reiss had more luck by showing that dolphins could use underwater keyboards to make basic requests. When they prodded keys with their snouts, a whistle would play and Reiss gave a reward like a ball. Eventually, the dolphins used the artificial whistles to ask for the associated rewards.
But as conversations go, these were shallow ones. “The dolphins were only really interested in communicating about needs that they had, like a tool they needed or a fish they wanted,” says Kuczaj, who was involved in a similar project at DisneyWorld’s EPCOT Center. “We hoped they would also comment on other things going on in the aquarium but they didn’t.”
It is difficult persuading dolphins to learn some arbitrary signals, like a whistle signifying a ball, and then use them in a social context, admits Gregg. “They don’t seem to run with it the same way that chimps or bonobos have. The big stumbling block is motivation. Dolphins don’t seem to care.”
Herzing disagrees. She notes that captive animals, which often lack stimulation, will respond to systems like the underwater keyboards. She thinks that these experiments disappointed because they were cumbersome. “The dolphins swim very fast and went to where they were requested, but humans are very slow in the water. There wasn’t enough real-time interaction.”
Herzing is trying to solve that problem with Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) – a lighter, portable version of the underwater keyboards. It consists of a small phone-sized computer, strapped to a diver’s chest and connected to two underwater recorders, or hydrophones. The computer will detect and differentiate dolphin sounds, including the ultrasonic ones we cannot hear, and use flashing lights to tell the diver which animal made the call.
The CHAT device can also play artificial calls, allowing Herzing to coin dolphin-esque “words” for things that are relevant to them, like “seaweed” or “wave-surfing". She hopes the dolphins will mimic the artificial whistles, and use them voluntarily. By working with wild animals, and focusing on objects in their natural environment, rather than balls or hoops, Herzing hopes to pique their interest.
Herzing emphasises that her device is not a translator. It will not act as a dolphin-human Rosetta stone. Instead, she wants both species create a joint form of communication that they are both invested in. She hopes that CHAT will tap into the “natural propensity” that dolphins have “for creating common information when they have to interact”. For example, in Costa Rica, distantly related bottlenose and Guyana dolphins will adopt a shared collection of sounds when they come together, using sounds that they don’t use when apart.
As with past projects, all of this depends on whether the dolphins play along. Kuczaj says, “It’s a remarkable challenge because she is working with wild dolphins so they’ve got the option to participate or not.” Here, Herzing has an edge, since the animals know her, and vice versa. “We’ve been observing them underwater every summer since 1985,” she says. “I know the individuals personally – their personalities and relationships. We’ve got a pretty good handle on what they’d be interested in.” Perhaps this combination of cutting-edge technology and old-school fieldwork will finally produce the conversations that have eluded scientists for so long.