The search for intelligent life

[Thoughts inspired by an hour spent with a wild dolphin in the Whale Rider country of North Island, New Zealand. The terrain is 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.]

Gisborne, New Zealand. 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 savanna in view of their own children, or confine them behind plate glass with a beach ball.

What exactly do we mean by intelligent life?

[Postscript: This incident took place in April 2009, and was originally posted at the Natural Patriot. Moko was famous in the region, beginning with his role in saving two pygmy sperm whales from drowning, and eventually was featured in Time magazine. But he caused a scare a few months later when he got rough with a woman swimming alone. He moved around a bit thereafter and was eventually found dead in July 2010. Alas.]


One Response to “The search for intelligent life”

  1. John Bruno says:

    wow! Amazing story Emmett! What a cool experience. For a few years when I was growing up (in Jupiter Florida), there was a dolphin that lived in the loxahatchee river that we used to swim with and ride, flipper style. It was just what kids did after school-it sounds magical now but seemed normal at the time. It’s name was Georgie Girl; she was eventually shot and killed with an arrow…

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