Following the Bubble Stream…

On this Valentine’s day (and the Lunar New Year), I’m excited to share an example of my very favorite human-dance ‘move,’ which I call ‘the swirl’. This ‘performance’ was documented on the first day of filming by our underwater cinematographer Bryce Groark.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also see it and a breakdown of the interaction in our new gallery.)

What an ecstatic moment! As I spiraled along the bottom with one dolphin, two others raced in to join, so that the four of us could ‘swirl’ up together to the surface. So magical!

In moments like this, when the wild dolphins allow me to join their beautiful underwater dance, I feel loved. I feel accepted. I feel joy. And watching this clip, the memory of that is what rushes back first.

Then, watching again, I marvel at how much of a ‘dance’ this moment is….undulating in time together we adjust our bodies and trajectories, all the while ‘listening’ to each other’s movements.  The first dolphin catches up to me, then crosses in front of me right to left, gracefully curving his/her body to look back at me…then two other dolphins join on either side of me…what a lovely spatial configuration we make as we rise up all together (click here to see still images from this sequence)! Like so many beautiful moments that unfold with any improvised dancing, no one could have choreographed it better. And to think…it was some tacit understanding between the dolphins and me that created this moment…amazing!

Caught up in the ‘dance’ with wild dolphins, I often wonder what the dolphins are ‘up to’? I wonder whether the dolphins are intentionally and knowingly making something ‘beautiful’ with me. I wonder whether the qualities that make these moments ‘beautiful’ to me are also ‘meaningful’ to them.

I have experienced ‘the swirl’ many times, and seen other humans caught up in it, too. I’ve experienced and seen it with Atlantic Spotted dolphins as well as these Pacific Spinner dolphins – so this is not a species-specific behavior. Yet I have not observed dolphins swirling in this way when they come up to the surface in the absence of a human. There must be some significance that is specific for the human-wild dolphin relationship in ‘the swirl’.

Recently, I met Diana Reiss, PhD, a professor at Hunter College and the head of Marine Mammal Research at the National Aquarium. Dr. Reiss conducted the seminal experiments with dolphins and mirrors, demonstrating that dolphins express self-awareness. In the future, I’ll be writing more about Dr. Reiss’s fascinating research and working with her and other dolphin experts who can provide a scientific perspective on the functions and meanings of interactions like ‘the swirl’.  One of the fundamental goals of the Dolphin Dance Project is not only to share the beauty of these human-dolphin ‘dances,’ but to provide the most complete understanding of what transpires – based on the latest research into dolphin behavior and non-verbal communication.

To my knowledge, there isn’t any scientific literature about ‘the swirl,’ but another behavior that is seen in this clip – the bubble stream – has been well-described and analyzed by several researchers.

bubble stream in swirl

Did you see the dolphin on the left hand side making a small stream of bubbles as he/she races in to join us? In ‘the swirl’ it is a bit hard to discern…but here is a clip – also shot by Bryce – that shows the bubble stream well.

(if you enjoy this clip, please rate it on youtube; you can also watch it in our gallery.)

Scientists who have studied Spinner and other dolphin species have observed that dolphins often make a unique (or at least distinct) whistle while emitting the bubble stream, and that they sometimes display this behavior (sound and bubbles) when entering social situations. A study in Bottlenose dolphins showed that they can identify other dolphins through these whistles strengthening the possibility that these whistles function as names. Based on research like this, the bubble stream is believed to be something of a dolphin salutation – like a dolphin saying, ‘hi…i’m [whistle]…nice to see you.’ The bubbles are thought to provide emphasis, as the whistle can be made without the bubbles.

Does this mean that the dolphin in this clip was ‘talking’ to Bryce…saying, ‘hello’ and telling Bryce his/her name as Bryce was filming? Was the dolphin who joined ‘the swirl’ coming up to say ‘hello’ to me or maybe the other dolphins? Whether this behavior has the same function in dolphin-human communication as in dolphin-dolphin communication isn’t known. But it is certainly tempting to think of a dolphin offering me a polite hello!

In ‘the swirl’ you might have noticed that I make bubbles, too. It’s been very interesting watching myself on video these past few weeks and noticing how often I (inadvertently) made a bubble stream out of my snorkel. I wonder if the dolphins are amused at my clumsy ‘hello’?  They must think it a strange attempt with no whistle!  Do they ask themselves whether I do it ‘intentionally’? Or maybe they are too smart for that…maybe they know I’m just making bubbles…

One thing I always try to keep in mind, when I am musing about what the dolphins ‘think’…

Dolphins are large-brained social mammals like ourselves, but they live in a radically different environment from us and experience it through an anatomy and physiology that have significant differences from our own. Their brains and ‘thought patterns’ might actually be so different from ours that we can never truly understand what they think or feel. That might seem a little disappointing…but I believe it is absolutely critical to maintain that doubt. In part, it is because I believe this doubt allows us to be respectful – it keeps us from imposing too much of our own human feelings, expectations and thought patterns on the dolphins. Maintaining this respectful point of view, our scientific observations can be more objective. More important, we allow the mystery to be ever present. We make room in our imaginations for a sense of awe.

For me – as for many improvisors – this is the place where the dance takes place…between what is familiar – like body postures and spatial organizations …and what is mysterious – like the soul of my dancing partner(s), be they human or dolphin.

Even as the dancing and science raise questions, one thing is for sure. When we encounter wild dolphins, we humans feel immense joy, acceptance and even love; and this human reaction is a fact.It is certainly true for me, when wild dolphins surround me and allow me to join in their beautiful underwater dance. I am sure that those of you who have swum with wild dolphins feel the same way.

So I am eager for us to reflect to the dolphins what we feel so strongly in their presence. I want to encourage us, as a human species, to act in a way that is consistent with giving to the dolphins the same loving and accepting feelings they inspire in us. That might mean leaving them alone when they need to rest or feed. Or raising money or awareness about dolphins to protect them and their habitats. (For example, you might spread the word about ‘The Cove,’ which is making a big difference in Japan) It will mean different things for each of us, but for each of us, the action will likely make us feel even better…as loving actions always do.

May there be much love in our hearts on this Valentine’s day and every day!

Bubble Stream

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