The search for intelligent life

moko1.jpg[Just returned from two weeks in the Land Down Under.  After a workshop in Sydney, we flew to New Zealand and the family spent a week in Gisborne on North Island – Whale Rider country. Very beautiful – dramatic craggy coastlines, gorges through the mountains cloaked in Paleozoic vegetation, tree ferns everywhere, in the dim shade everything covered with mosses, liverworts, brilliant little coral-colored fungi, delicate creepers, ferns of all kinds. Then there is the ocean, which produced something completely unexpected:]

We’d been told by the restaurant owner next door that a dolphin has made its home in a small Bay south of here on the Mahia peninsula and reportedly enjoys, even seeks out, human company. OK. I’m a natural skeptic, and I’ve also been a marine biologist for almost 30 years, which means that the topic of dolphins regularly comes up from civilians at cocktail parties and what not. Everyone loves dolphins, wants to swim with them, share crystals, etc. But in general my sense has been that dolphins do not want to play with us. Why would they? So I nodded politely at all this.  But I was intrigued.  So with a cloudless blue sky and a free day ahead of us, the boy and I headed south to investigate. There are few roads in this neck of the woods so it wasn’t difficult to find our way and after an hour or so of driving we came on a beach – a beautiful strand framed by rocky headlands, which would surely be thronged with people and snarled lines of traffic anywhere in the USA.

But it wasn’t thronged, not in this awe-inspiring country where people are outnumbered by sheep. The water was calm and from the road we spotted a group of maybe ten figures wading in waist-deep water and, sure enough, on closer examination, a dorsal fin was intermittently visible. We hurriedly donned our swimsuits and jogged down the beach and waded into the cool water. There, an adult dolphin, perhaps 8 or 9 feet in length, was slowly cruising the shallows, carrying a diver’s fin on its muzzle, occasionally prodding the wide-eyed onlookers to toss it for him, circling around, enjoying (apparently) a gentle rub under the chin. We stroked his skin, which had the consistency of hard rubber, with a slick surface. We gamely tossed the fin, patted him as he swam by, dodged his misty exhalations, and generally watched in wonder at this strange phenomenon. The locals call him Moko, which I gathered from our Maori guide the next day is a shortened form of an affectionate word for a child that expresses its belonging to the whole community.  Evidently Moko has been a regular at this beach, hanging with the locals, for two years (two years and two days, one woman there told us).

moko2.jpgWe spent nearly an hour in the water with him, far and away the closest contact I’ve ever had with a dolphin, the boy (and I) enraptured and I reflecting on what a once-in-a-lifetime experience this was. It jolted me into pondering afresh what goes through the mind, by all accounts of an intelligence rivaling our own, of a dolphin? What could this being, this mammalian fish at home in its intricate seascape of clicks and whistles and echoes, its unfathomable intuition of the shoals where fish gather, the subtle, shifting, borders of watery currents in the sea, its strong family ties, what could this creature want with us? Is it an explorer as some of us are? The odd one that feels more kinship with other species than with its own kind, as again some people do? A lonely outcast from the conventional society of dolphindom? An eccentric?

And what does it feel as it weaves among the pairs of lumbering legs and through the cacophonous splashing and shouting of these apparently aware but unintelligibly strange creatures at the edge of the dry world? Does it know that these legs belong to the same creatures that are inexorably changing the watery world its ancestors have known intimately for some millions of years? How could it not know? Surely an animal with the intelligence that its brain size and structure and behavior suggest it possesses could not have escaped the realization, the connection, between us and the growing sickness of its underwater home, that the noisy boats and nets and hooks that relentlessly drag away its food and habitat are operated by these same curious bipeds. Surely the dolphin, its kind if not this individual, has made the connection, as its eyes breach the surface along its wide wanderings, between the density of humans and the sediments and trouble washing off the land to murk up the adjacent sea and confound its sonic seascape? Could this individual even be a missionary of sorts, a lone voice in the deteriorating marine wilderness attempting to make contact in the desperate hope that, for lack of a better word, love might turn the tide? Almost certainly we will never know.

And it suddenly strikes me as perverse that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars launching modern-day rosetta stones into space and monitoring the faint trickle of cosmic electronic noise at the far reaches in a grandiose search for “intelligent life” in the distant universe, somehow – astonishingly – missing that the most incredible manifestations of intelligent life are immediately under our noses, and all we can think to do with them is render their carcasses into meat and oil, or wrench off their long tusks to make baubles and leave the rest rotting on the savannah in view of their own children, or confine them behind plate glass with a beach ball.

What exactly do we mean by intelligent life?

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Oceans and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The search for intelligent life

  1. Sounds like a fun trip, Emmet! I loved my time in Australia, and the week trip we took to NZ left me longing for more.

    We’ve been discussing dolphins over at Southern Fried Science quite a bit lately.

    Check this out:

    Welcome back to the states

  2. bill; says:

    What is clear to me, given that the human species pursues every activity other than paying attention to the lessons that our plannet can teach us, is that we are not a form of intellegent life. Humans are very limited in that we seem to be only understanding of what we perceive.

    Perhaps the problem began when someone started the rumor that we were created in God’s image. This is very, very doubtful given our behaviour and poor stewardship towards Earth.

    Thank you for the wonderful glimpse at a world most pay little attention too. It is efforts like yours that might get some to pay attention and make some noise to those who do not.


  3. Beth Gullette says:

    Beautiful…and heartbreaking… description. We certainly behave in ways that defy reason, but I think there is plenty of reason there – we are not unintelligent. Rather, we have very little emotional maturity. We use all the standard ploys of a toddler – denial, egotism, defiance – unfortunately, whereas these are normal and healthy for a toddler, they are neither for the rest of us. It is less scary to explore the far reaches of the galaxy than to look at the destruction you have wrought at your fingertips and in your footprint. Would that more of us could swim with Moko, we might find the strength and hope to face our fears.

  4. Liz Canuel says:

    Beautifully written and thought provoking. Lots of food for thought from you and the comments. I wish that I could have shared this experience with the two of you. I know it had a profound influence and was probably the highlight of the trip.

  5. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks to all for the comments. Very true, Beth, that we have enough intelligence to do amazingly great things, but that we also have some big blind spots on a more holistic level.

  6. GoGreenTips says:

    Hi Emmett,

    It is my first visit to your site and I’m glad I did stop by to read some of your posts. This one particularly has struck a chord with me since I have been lucky enough to swim with wild dolphins on the coast of New Zealand and feed them in Western Australia.

    While the second was more a tourist attraction event, the first was totally unexpected and awesome. These creatures are more intelligent than we seem to think and I often wonder how much they REALLY “know” about energy waves that connect all living beings.


  7. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for visiting Monika!

  8. Alesha says:

    Wow, that is inspiring, sharks and dolphins have always amazed me and their ability to heal people physically and pschologically is intriging.

  9. Lori says:

    beautifully said

  10. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for visiting Lori. Great blog At Heywood’s Meadow!

  11. Very good story and well written
    looking forward to something esle from


  12. Mina says:

    I was lucky enough to dive with dolphins in French Polynesia, Rangiroa Atoll to be precise, and I was left with the impression that they’re, well, intelligent in some way at least.

    I’ve always been a skeptic about dolphin intelligence – all the wind chimes, crystals, cuddly toys and, well, anthropomorphism really made me think that a lot of people are off the deep end about them. the diving didn’t change my mind, but in a way, perhaps… Firstly, we didn’t in any way, approach them – they were wild and they approached us (no going out looking for them, no dolphins in tanks, no disturbing their sleep or other things I’ve heard about before). Secondly, it seemed that as long as we were doing something interesting (doing backflips, making noises, trying to entertain), they would hang around and play with us. When we got tired or stopped to take photos, they swam off. This was collaborated by the dive guide – he told us that, if we were lucky enough to see them, we should try and make it fun for them so they would hang around. Thirdly, when you look into the eye of something that is actually playing with you, and there seems to be something there… well, it’s an interesting feeling.

    I was left with the very definite impression that these animals are at least an order of magnitude smarter than fish. Plus, the thought of keeping them in captivity… well, I didn’t like it before, but now it horrifies me.

    Anyway, when scientists talk about anthropomorphism, I’m now a skeptic. I’ve always knows I’m an animal, but saying animals can’t share human characteristics now seems like the most base hypocrisy from people who should know better. If we approached things from that point of view, perhaps we’d treat animals with a little more respect!

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