Friday, August 11, 2006

Experts ask people to report dolphins sightings

What if I told you wild dolphins play with toys? If you believe me, you'd have to believe they make their own toys. That takes brains.October 2004, we were cruising the backwaters unprepared for an experience of a lifetime - but we were at the right place at the right time.Unbelievably, a young dolphin found a stick on the sea floor, surfaced with it in its mouth, tossed it and lunged to retrieve it. It was playing a game of Catch.Close to our boat, it seemed to toss the stick at us.

Did it want us to play with it? Legally, we could only watch. It was the most enthralling 20 minutes of my life at sea.In itself, dolphin play is not unusual. Dolphins are playful. In captivity, lucky dolphins who have toys carry them around, release them at the bottom and chase them to the top. Captive dolphins also play with people.Once I met with dolphin trainers at Brookfield Zoo. My friend Mary came along for the ride. As we were meeting, Mary stood near the pool with a dolphin in it.

After eyeing Mary, the dolphin tossed a Frisbee out of the pool. With a hesitant glance at us, Mary picked up the Frisbee and carefully put it back in the pool. The dolphin tossed it out again. She replaced it again. This went on until Mary realized the dolphin wanted to play with her. So they played Frisbee. She exploded with excitement on the way home. Suburbanites just don't expect an exotic animal to invite them to play.Captive dolphins also make their own toys, an intelligent act.

At San Diego's Sea World, I watched a captive dolphin playing with a string of glistening pearls. Again and again, it sucked the pearls into its mouth, shot them out, grabbed them and whirled them. It even made perfect shimmering smoke rings. Just as you wouldn't give a baby a string of beads, I couldn't believe a dolphin had a string of pearls. It could easily choke. I looked closer. The 'string of pearls' was a string of air bubbles that the dolphin had made itself. It was amazing how the bubbles stuck together. It was incredible to think the dolphin had made its own toy.

Playing with toys is one thing. Making your own is quite another. It implies brains: tool making.What happens at sea? Some wild dolphins carry things around. Australian bottlenose dolphins forage with sponges in their mouths to avoid sharp fish spines. This is not a game. It helps them feed. It is also tool manufacture. We used to think that only humans made tools. We know now that many animals make tools. Dolphins also play with seaweed, carrying in their mouths or draping it off their bodies like beautiful scarves as they swim. It doesn't seem to serve any obvious purpose.

Purposeless behavior is usually interpreted as play.Why does 'purposeless' play imply intelligence? True, it exercises the body and reflexes. It isn't wholly without benefit. But it implies that the player is in a 'frivolous' state of mind, creating sensations just for the sake of experiencing them! Humans do this all the time. Yet we seldom give other animals such credit.What made the dolphin's game of Catch so incredible is that there are many floating objects that dolphins could play with. Yet we rarely see such games at sea.

What kind of mind does it take to recognize something as a toy? Naturally, we named the little dolphin Stick. Stick has a wonderfully playful and social disposition. This awesome peek into Stick's mind invites us all to enjoy the sea whenever we can to ensure that all human behavior shows respect for her intelligent children.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"