Don’t diss the dolphins

Parsons Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in research projects in every continent except Antarctica. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) (the world’s  largest academic marine conservation conference) and is currently the Conference Chair and a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.

At a recent conference of marine scientists I attended, one of the speakers announced, albeit tongue in cheek, that they “hated dolphins”. This prompted a round of applause and cheers from the largely marine biologist audience, much to the chagrin of the marine mammal researchers in the audience (there were several, and almost all of these were involved in marine mammal conservation).That sort of attitude unfortunately is common in the marine biology community. There seems to be a misapprehension that dolphin researchers get all the glamour, glory and funding, and to paraphrase Yoda, this leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

I’ve been studying dolphins (mostly in conservation-focused research) for over 20 years, and admittedly it has led to some rather nice trips on boats, sometimes in warm tropical locations. But it has also been 20 years with marine biologist colleagues constantly commenting that dolphin research is not “real marine biology” – even to the extent of having a reviewer say that, in response to a manuscript. Within the marine mammal science professional societies this has led to the rather unfortunate situation where: (a) marine mammalogists keep themselves to themselves with their own journals and conferences and not mixing with many other streams of marine biology; (b) there is such a fear of being seen as “not a real scientist” that within the marine mammal science community there is frequently a stigma against doing any applied, or interdisciplinary, or non-pure science research, including research that is conservation-oriented. This is at a time when such research is drastically needed, with so many cetacean species being endangered. In fact, a study on cetacean science literature  determined that about half of the studies could be important to conservation, but unfortunately much of the information lies locked within the ivory tower, and the relatively few ivory towers of marine mammalogists at that.

But marine conservation needs dolphins. Like it or not, there is a reason why NGOs use charismatic species like dolphins to help get sponsorship, public interest or media attention – it works ! Just look at the social media response to the film Blackfish – how often does a documentary trend on Twitter, and multiple times at that? Or why companies such as Pacific Life use whales in their logos. The operational term of charismatic megafauna like cetaceans is “charismatic”. No matter how interesting you try to make a lobster or a sea urchin, it isn’t going to evoke the same positive response from the public, or concern and prioritization from policy makers. Arguably, the two pillars that conservation are built on are scientific facts and human values. Sometimes the science in the world can’t change public values. For example, even if deep sea hagfish were to become endangered, and you had all the data in the world, would the public care, value them and call for their protection? But if you said their deep sea canyon habitat was important for diving sperm whales …

Cetaceans, especially dolphins, often have a high trophic level and are ideal umbrella species; by protecting the cetaceans, you protect the underlying ecosystems. NGOs and agencies will gladly utilize cetaceans as the poster child for a Marine Protected Area (MPA), as it makes their jobs easier. Despite the economic benefits of protecting a fish nursery area, the public is typically lukewarm about protecting important habitats such as mangroves, but if those mangroves are an important nursery area for dolphins, that’s another matter. Marine mammalogists would be more than happy to help you find a cetacean species to serve as the flagship for the MPA you’re desperately trying to get protected.

It’s been suggested to me that some of the marine mammal hate from the marine biology community may be resentment that the marine mammalogists get it easy, or they have all the funding. Trust me, we don’t have either. Marine mammal science is hard, time-consuming and expensive – lots of permits are required, for species that are hard to find (for example the detection rate for a beaked whale, in good weather, is about 1-2%), and exceedingly mobile (killer whales can travel over a hundred miles in a day). Many marine biologists can study their species in aquariums, but despite what the likes of SeaWorld might say, captive cetacean research is limited and can often give skewed and even misleading results, as the captive environment is very different from the wild environment for these animals, and their social structures and behaviors can be dissimilar to those exhibited by wild populations.

Marine mammal science is also very costly. Most marine biologists are aware of the phenomenal expense of boat time, but despite what many may think, there is actually not much money out there for the majority of marine mammal researchers. For example, the largest funder of marine mammal research is the Office of Naval Research, but this funding is tied up with its “missions.” This is mostly due to naval sonar’s propensity for negative impacts on cetaceans, including forcing them to strand, and courts ruling that they must fund research related to reducing these impacts. People often have the mistaken assumption that SeaWorld funds large amounts of marine mammal research, but the corporation only forks over about $300k a year to cetacean research and education projects, which as a proportion of their income is equivalent to giving a 1 cent tip on a $50 meal. In fact places like SeaWorld get government grants for some of the work they do, and so may be a competitor of marine mammal researchers for scientific funding. Many funding agencies, foundations and NGOs as a matter of course will gladly fund field research, even that done by graduate students, EXCEPT marine mammal studies, specifically excluding this branch of marine biology.

The life of a marine mammalogist often involves long periods of debt and unemployment, scrabbling for tiny grants, applying for jobs with ten times the number of applicants that normal marine biology posts have, and even if applying for internships, we often have to pay the employers, instead of them paying us.

As I said above, dolphins do get a lot of attention, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Shark researchers get the occasional whack-a-doodle constituent, but in the marine mammal field you are snowed under with them. From people who believe that mermaids and dolphins live together under the sea in harmony, in the ruins of Atlantis; to dolphin “psychics” who will happily tell you what their dolphin friends are saying to them; to people who think dolphins are from alien worlds; or who think that they are reincarnated dolphins and that’s why they have a special bond with them – a sector of the public that marine biologists don’t usually have to deal with. For many marine researchers, they often associate dolphin enthusiasts with the wackadoodle fringe. Although, truth be told, some historical dolphin researchers have not helped with that – for example John Lilly, who infamously experimented with LSD on both himself and his dolphin research subjects and was the inspiration for “out there” scientist Walter Bishop on the TV show “Fringe”. The likes of John Lilly and certain other “researchers” into dolphin telepathy, dolphin assisted therapy and other pseudo-science have given dolphin behavior researchers a long lasting stigma, that they have been trying to lose for decades.

Then there are also many, many well-meaning, but misguided enthusiasts projecting their wishes and beliefs onto animals despite what science might show, or what might actually help conservation. Some of the charismatic megafauna researchers encounter this, but not quite to the extent that marine mammalogists do. Having said that, there are also other dolphin enthusiasts who do a fantastic job in trying to raise awareness about dolphin conservation issues, engaging in citizen science projects to record dolphin distribution and behavior and who work closely and successfully with whale and dolphin scientists, for whom I am very grateful.

On a final note, no matter how many times marine biologists bemoan the fact that dolphins get attention but other species don’t, let’s face it, this will not change, so just embrace it. Dolphins and dolphin researchers have a big and useful role in marine conservation. So marine science community, give marine mammal researchers a break, and don’t diss the dolphins!


  1. Alistair Dove · March 6, 2014

    I love dolphins, they taste just like chicken! (I KEEED!)

  2. Malcolm J. Brenner · March 7, 2014

    The ghost of John C. Lilly stalks the halls of Marine Mammalogy, occasionally emitting – dare I say it? – a deeply amused chuckle.

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