Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Going on a dolphin watch tour can be the experience of a lifetime!

Dolphins show curiosity when they rise above the water surface to look people straight in the eye, in a behavior called glancing.

Elation welled up at John's Pass. "DOLPHINS!," people on a passing boat shrieked at dolphins swimming by. Their captivated cry had the characteristic two-tone inflection. Curiously, most English speakers use the same call to triumphantly announce the presence of dolphins. What class did all of us take that taught us the same gleeful call?

The striking similarity of calls across excited human on-lookers reflects the excitement these sleek gray mammals engender in many people. Dolphins at sea almost invariably generate great human excitement, warm affection, or at least curiosity, often all three.Should we be surprised? After all, humans love animals in general. We're the great nurturing species. Millions of us call pets beloved family members. We cater to pet beauty salons, hotels, training camps and cemeteries. We devote countless hours to observe, conserve and rehabilitate wild animals. Animal TV programs run 24 hours a day. But dolphins?

We seem to hold them in special esteem, especially children. We've mentioned dolphins with admiration as long as we've been writing down human history. I've always wondered if our attraction to dolphins is unique.Maybe people like dolphins because dolphins like people. Actually, I don't know if they like us. But they're clearly curious about us. Maybe this is why we like them. How many free-ranging animals (whom you don't feed) seem curious about you?

Dolphins show curiosity about people when they swim alongside boats at sea, like the many delightful strolls we've been granted with wild dolphins . True, sometimes they only come to surf our bows. But they often swim quietly alongside us as we crane for a closer look . They don't have to do this. Fish certainly don't.Dolphins show further curiosity when they rise above the water surface to look us straight in the eye, behavior called glancing.

Despite their adaptation to the sea, dolphins can see several feet into the air . As we immediately bond to puppies that lick us, we bond to glancing dolphins after just one of these wondrous encounters. No one knows what they actually see when they glance up at us. Dolphins lack the optical pigments for seeing the color blue. Maybe they're just trying to resolve this strange species with the large dark eyes. After all, there are few natural counterparts to sunglasses.

Maybe they're curious about our resounding footsteps as we pound across the boat to get a better look at them. How flattering that they're looking back.Even more intriguing, dolphins leap next to your boat . When they jump repeatedly, are they just trying to get a better look at you? It doesn't happen often and your camera is rarely ready. But isn't it a cherished memory? Then there're those times when they do something unexpected, like the time P suddenly breached twice off our bow before resuming her nearby search for breakfast for the next 15 minutes.

If her gesture meant threat or anger, wouldn't she have swum away?In the few places in the world (NOT the USA) where, with the right permit, you can swim with wild habituated dolphins (dolphins who are used to people), you experience their curiosity directly, like when a dolphin comes over to inspect you.Can you imagine a dolphin approaching directly and stopping three feet away? You hover, waiting. They become very still.

They look deep into your eyes. Their head nods up and down almost imperceptibly. They're echolocating on you, beaming sound through your body. Your heart is pounding. They know it. You don't feel as much as you sense their revealing shower of sound. When they stare deeply and frankly into your eyes, it's like meeting a person in a dolphin costume. As they hold your gaze, you think, "How do you do?" as your hand moves to shake hands.

Talk about an amazing moment with a wild animal.Dolphins' depth of gaze is remarkable considering the blank gaze of many fish and sharks.Finally, free-ranging dolphins show their awareness when they appear to interpret your intentions, like when they wait for you. I'll never forget that first time. I was swimming strong to catch up to a pair of distant dolphins. One glanced back.

Then they did the unforgettable: They stopped and waited. Breathless from swimming and the idea that they might've recognized my intentions, I pulled up next to them. We three fell into step.What class did the dolphins take to learn about humans?

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"