My latest Outside story is now online. It’s about the extraordinary work marine biologist Denise Herzing has been doing with a group of dolphins on the Little Bahama Bank, the study of dolphin cognition and intelligence, and Herzing’s attempt to bridge the communication gap using an underwater computer that can emit and dis-aggregate dolphin whistles.
It’s far-out stuff, sort of a terrestrial version of SETI, the search for alien intelligence. I spent 10 days in June with Herzing, observing her interacting with the dolphins in the water (here’s a video of what that’s like). They are curious, often friendly, and demonstrate a sophisticated intelligence and a tight social cohesion that is both deeply moving and thought-provoking. I came away thinking that if Herzing can use technology to establish and develop two-way communication with this group of dolphins they will have plenty to teach us.
Here’s the beginning of the story, and you can read the whole thing here:
Stretching north and east from Grand Bahama Island, the Little Bahama Bank is a vast, crescent-shaped undersea plateau of sugar-white sand, patchy sea grass, and isolated coral reefs, layered under a shallow veneer of translucent water. It sits just 60 miles east of West Palm Beach, across the Gulf Stream. Yet, despite its proximity to the condo sprawl of Florida, it is another world, a wild seascape of endlessly changing water and light, fast-moving thunderstorms, and teeming bird and sea life.
My first contact with its alien underwater culture involved a snorkel, a mask, and fins. I dropped into the 83-degree sea, and on the periphery of my vision six sleek shapes wheeled and turned, gliding with perfect ease. Three were larger and mottled with spots. The others were colored a smooth, gunmetal gray. One broke formation and arrowed my way, scanning me with a sophisticated sensor system. I heard a high-pitched buzz that sounded like a zipper being ripped open and could feel a light vibration in my chest. As the creature shot past, it rolled slightly to make direct and steady eye contact.