Getting a sense of porpoise

One of the discussions that occurred while socializing at ScienceOnline’09 regarded my personal feelings towards dolphins. Not surprisingly, whenever non-marine people find out I’m a marine biologist, the conversation always turns to dolphins, after which the person is surprised (shocked, appalled) by my lack on fondness for the sea beasties. The excessive hearting of charismatic megafauna is a pet peeve of mine, with a particular focus on the ocean’s most fawned over denizens.

This article got me thinking about why I hold such apparent animosity towards marine mammals.

Now, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t hate marine mammals. I don’t get particularly excited over marine mammals, but then again, most people don’t get particularly excited over chytrids so it doesn’t bother me that different people love different things. What does bother me is the cult of dolphin worship that has sprung up around them. Ask most people if the bottlenose dolphin is endangered, and they’ll probably say yes. It isn’t. In fact, at this point it would probably make more sense to be eating tuna safe dolphin. And, while many marine mammals are threatened, endangered, and critically endangered, there is a widely held belief that marine mammals deserve more protection that other organisms.

But all of that is neither here nor there. The fact is, we protect what we love, and if dolphin worship is bringing people closer to the ocean, that’s great. But if we’re drawing people closer to the ocean, should we not be educating them about it as well? That’s why I always get whipped into a frenzy when people start asking me about marine mammals. It’s fine to start with marine mammals, it really is, but more often than not, the conversation never goes beyond them. It’s as if they were the only creatures in the sea.

So this article gets me worked up. Because the cult of the dolphin is so strong that people refuse to accept that sometimes nature isn’t really that pleasant. That it isn’t all like a Disney Movie. That we don’t always know what’s best and we can’t always intervene. Yes, some dolphins might die in a New Jersey river, but they aren’t dying from boat strikes or gillnets or pollution. They’ve wandered into a sub-optimal environment and are being selected against.

The quotes from the dolphin worshipers are revealing. “They’re like children… They’re frightened.” Dolphins are not like children. Dolphins are nothing like children and they’re not human beings and we have no idea what they’re thinking or feeling. These are sleek, deadly, organic machines engineered by millions of years of natural selection to dominate their environment. Instead of making emotional appeals, we need take the time to understand our world.

It is necessary to love the things we need to protect. But I think it is naïve and patronizing to think that people will only love something if we reduce it to a cartoonish caricature of itself. Emotional appeals take advantage of ignorance to force a point. It’s the reason why Americans get disgusted when other cultures eat dog or horse or guinea pig, while we see no problem eating beef. They preclude thoughtful introspection and investigation.

This is not a rant against people who study marine mammals, people who work with marine mammals, or even people who just plain love marine mammals. This is a rant against the end result of dogmatic dolphin worship. People like Joan Ocean* who takes thousands of dollars from innocent dolphin lovers to give them deep, spiritual, telepathic experiences with spinner dolphins in Hawaii, while basically harassing the dolphins and disrupting their natural behavior. A professor of mine and great marine mammal biologist once described these trips as “having 30 strangers surround you while you’re sleeping and whisper ‘I love you, you’re beautiful’ all night.”

This is about people who demand we save dolphins from that New Jersey river while NOAA is trying to tell them “that actually trying to move them can cause fatalities rather than improving their prospects for survival.”

This is really about resisting dogma, forcing people to confront information that challenges their beliefs, to question ideas and explore the possibility that we are wrong. And that while stopping at the water’s edge may provide a nice comfortable view, the deeper you dive, the more glorious the ocean becomes.

So when people ask me at a bar how I feel about dolphins, I try to bring them a little further into my world.

Shifting Baselines has a good post on why some marine mammals need more protection than the science indicates.

~Southern Fried Scientist

*for more on the wonder that is Joan Ocean, check out her experience forging a telepathic connection with a tribe of bigfoots.