For millennia, humans and dolphins have had a special connection. Stories go back to the time of the Romans, and beyond, the dolphins who assist the stranded sailor or the drowning child. We’re fascinated by them, and they seem to like us back. The affinity we have for these mammals cuts across eras and cultures, but why?
Perhaps dolphins are the other highly evolved species of the planet, the Homo Sapiens of the seas, who might have an opposable thumb, a written language, and use laptop computers were it not for the water medium in which they live. They are our brothers and sisters…of the ocean.
Are they actually smarter than we are?
Within the larger mystery of the human-dolphin connection, the history of science harbors some smaller ones. We don’t know, for example, just precisely what happened to the project to translate dolphin language to human speech, and vice-versa, because the U.S. Navy sponsored the project and later classified the documentation.
Beginning in 1964, the groundbreaking research of Dr. Wayne Batteau and Dr. Patrick Flanagan led, supposedly, to a Dolphin-human speach translator with an initial 35 word vocabulary, projected to be in the hundreds of words within years. And bear in mind, this was distinct from the later research where gorillas might learn to respond to human vocabulary. This research focused on the complex sounds already in the sea mammals’ lexicon, and match those sounds with human language equivalents. It sought not to teach language to other intelligent beings, but simply to translate language already in use.
After the death of Batteau, the research faltered, and documentation or even memory of the project largely disappeared. Batteau, an excellent swimmer, had drowned in shallow waters near his home, at a time when other research had Navy operatives attempting to train dolphins to drown swimmers—the object was to protect ships in harbors from sabotage at the hands of enemy divers. Some even speculate that these different dolphin projects became tragically entangled, part of the reason for so much official silence.
And what can be expected of a species with such a soft, friendly view toward humanity? Was it ever really in the cards that they could be trained to be deadly marine killers, to take sides in military disputes?
So how should we conceive of dolphins, are they the somewhat advanced primates of the sea, equivalent to a swimming monkey?
Or is the dolphin the advanced Homo Sapiens of the ocean, merely unable to easily demonstrate their advanced status in their watery surroundings?
You could do much, much worse than dedicate your life to solving the Dolphin Mysteries.