Researcher seeks communication with dolphins

About a decade ago, Denise Herzing sailed her catamaran into the secretive, protected Bahamian waters where she has spent most of her summers, studying dolphins in the wild.

Within minutes of crossing into the clear, twinkling seas, one Atlantic spotted dolphin leaped alongside her 62-foot research vessel, the Stenella – named for the dolphins’ scientific name. And then another jumped. And then five others. Soon, they were leaping over the bow, swimming in between the pontoons, chirping and calling to Herzing.

Minutes after getting in the water, a pair of these wild, untrained dolphins were swimming completely out of the water, balancing on their tails, a sight most only see in shows at Sea World. And then, a mother dolphin with a weeks-old calf swam up to Herzing, nudging her young forward proudly for Herzing to see.

For the past 27 years, Herzing, who resides in Juno Beach, has been sailing out to the same area of the Atlantic, tracking an unprecedented three generations of the same dolphin family, or pod, all of which she can identify by sight. The research, studying everything from their social structures to their communication, has made her quite possibly the most knowledgeable researcher in her field.

It’s not a stretch to say Herzing, 54, is doing what Jane Goodall did for our understanding of chimpanzees, what Dian Fossey did for gorillas. She is the face of her field.

“I always wondered what they were thinking and wondering what they thought of us, how they communicated with each other,” she said of the dolphins.

Herzing’s longtime friend, Ruth Petzold, a diver, underwater photographer and president of the board of Herzing’s ground-breaking Wild Dolphin Project, was on the boat that day with Herzing.

“In most cases, you would see a mother protecting her baby from humans,” Petzold recalled, still stunned by what she saw. “The mother with her baby swam up to her as if saying, ‘Look what I did while you were gone ‘ I was absolutely blown away.”

Like Goodall and Fossey, Herzing studies the dolphins in their habitat, intruding as little as possible into their environment, to truly gain an understanding of the lives and potential of these undersea mammals.

“In their world, on their terms,” is the motto for her Wild Dolphin Project, based in Jupiter, and the crux of her recent book, Dolphin Diaries, in which she details the findings of her scholarly work in layman’s terms.

And she stands on the verge of a science fiction-like achievement next summer, when she expects to implement a new technology she hopes will allow the dolphins to communicate with humans, using their own particular clicks and whistles.

” ‘Mind-blowing’ doesn’t do justice to the possibilities out there,” Adam Pack, a researcher at the University of Hawaii, told The New York Times about Herzing’s project, which has drawn interest from scientific journals to TV networks.

The champion for these warm-water, ocean creatures comes from the unlikeliest of places ­- the frigid American north.

Herzing was born and raised in St. Cloud, Minn., mostly by her father, Jerry, after her mother died of breast cancer when Herzing was 12.

She never saw the ocean in person until she was an adult. But as a child, she watched Jacques Cousteau brave the deep blue oceans on TV and began to wonder about the lives of sea mammals.

“I really wanted to know what was going on in the minds of those animals,” she said.

She was certified to scuba dive not in the warm waters of the Caribbean, but breaking the ice on an abandoned granite quarry in the frozen north. Not until she went to vacation in the Florida Keys when she was 18, and dove the reefs in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park did she realize the life Cousteau had been living.

She studied marine zoology at Oregon State, and did master’s degree research in San Francisco. It was while observing whales and dolphins out in the dark, icy Pacific that Herzing decided she wanted to study them in their own environment.

She came across a site in 1985, in the Bahamas, that underwater treasure hunters had stumbled across while searching for sunken Spanish galleons .

In this area, wild Atlantic spotted dolphins were in just 20 to 40 feet of water. The food supply was plentiful, predators were few, because of the shallow depth, so these particular dolphins were free to spend more time socializing than making a living – a sort of Bahamian Club Med for dolphins.

Here, she would find her ocean family.

“It was clear to me, from both Jane Goodall’s and Dian Fossey’s primate work in the wild, that if you spent enough time in a peaceful, benign relationship with an intelligent animal group, you would come to learn from them, and, perhaps, eventually be incorporated into their society,” she wrote in her book, Dolphin Diaries.

She committed to following this group for a minimum of 20 years. She has come to see three generations of dolphins born and continue to live and interact with each other. And Herzing expects a fourth generation will come to fruition this summer, the first great-grandparent of the pod.

Meanwhile, among other firsts, she has catalogued the spectrum of their language, the organized audible and inaudible clicks and pops with which the dolphins communicate. And the Wild Dolphin Project is taking it a step further.

She has commissioned Georgia Tech to build underwater devices so that she and her diver researchers can repeat certain dolphin sounds while the humans interact with each other underwater – say, playing a particular sound when they hand each other a ball. Her hope, in short, is to teach the dolphins new words in their own language and encourage them to use this new vocabulary to communicate with humans.

To pay for the project, she has received grants and fellowships, such as the Guggenheim fellowship, but also relies heavily on private donors to pay the enormous cost of maintaining a boat, fuel and docking fees. Their research vessel is aging and they may need a new one soon, said Petzold, the project’s president of the board. And although “every little bit helps” from $35 annual membership fees at, these are lean times.

Her genius, say her peers, was in taking anyone who could pay to support the project – philanthropists, movie stars, students and documentary filmmakers – to swim near the dolphins, abiding by the rules of the Wild Dolphin Project.

“We really have to let dolphins be dolphins,” she said. “Some people think dolphins are out there just waiting to swim with people.”

She hopes her research will coax others to respect wildlife in general, and dolphins in specific, as important parts of our world.

“We, as humans, need to figure them into our ‘big plans.’ It has to be in the formula,” she said. “That’s our challenge – and our salvation.”

Source: Palm Beach Post

By Carlos Frias

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