Most people love whales and dolphins. They think of them as intelligent creatures. They have heard stories of dolphins coming to the aid of stranded sailors, guiding swimmers back to shore and engaging in cooperative hunting with local fishermen. They feel whales and dolphins are important. And they are right! Maybe more than you might think!
Whales and dolphins embody most of what we need to understand about oceans. They are predators at the top of the food chain and can tell us a lot about what is important in the ocean; where are sites of high productivity, what is the most energy efficient way to travel, and what are the best senses to use in the water.
Because of their complex behavior and social structure, whales and dolphins are especially interesting. But they also offer us a window into the physiological and anatomical adaptations to aquatic life; information we can apply to echolocation and boat sonar. More than valuable intellectual exercises, these studies help us understand phenomena such as population decline, recovery, and extinction, and teach us to care about the world. Generally, understanding begets caring.
Further, whales and dolphins are a vibrant part of the global ecosystem and their populations have been severely affected by, and continue to be extremely vulnerable to human impact, including interactions with fisheries and whaling. Above all, marine pollution and habitat degradation looms as the most menacing threats of all. If we have any philosophical leanings towards preserving nature, either for future generations or for its own value, than learning enough to prevent this damage is crucial.
Lastly, whales and dolphins, are the archetypal ‘charismatic mega-vertebrates’. Throughout centuries, whales and dolphins have played major roles in myths and legends. Every culture that has come into contact with an ocean, have created myths and legends about how whales and/or dolphins came into being, and what their existence means to the world and to us.
In our times, whales and dolphins have come so symbolize, more than any other species, the concern for the environment and have become a special symbol of sharing the earth. People react to them with empathy and express concern for their welfare. They epitomize and illustrate many of the problems humans inflict on the sea. They engender, in people who might not otherwise care, a wish to improve the ‘health’ of the marine environment. The huge interest in these animals can therefore be used to encourage interest in the sea more generally, with whales and dolphins becoming flagships or ambassadors of the oceans.
All that makes it important to study these wonderful creatures. If you understand dolphin echolocation and how it works, then you have the tools to apply that knowledge. If you are a conservationist and are concerned about dolphin entanglement in nets, knowledge allows you to reduce that risk. The application of the knowledge depends on what you value: for an academic, to further knowledge and understanding; for an applied researcher, to be able to provide information to managers on the implications of a range of management options, for a conservation biologist: to find ways of ensuring the health of populations and habitats.
For more than thirty years, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have been studied along the west coast of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern sea border, from the Carolinas to the southern tip of Florida. I have been involved with Coastal Dolphin Conservation through the Palm Beach Dolphin project of the Taras Oceanographic Foundation, headquartered in Jupiter, Florida. This project provides critical information on coastal dolphin communities, their lives and societies and shed light on how the health of these top predators, and the conditions of the natural resources they depend on, may directly or indirectly impact our own health and well-being.
In light of the enormous impact whales and dolphins have on humans and their lives, it is not difficult to understand why studying them serves the support of all of us. Search the Internet for the word dolphin sometime and see how many ‘hits’ you get. People believe that whales and dolphins have value and people put their money in things they hold interesting.
Why do dolphins hear sounds up to 150kHz while we hear only to 15? What is there to listen to anyway? Why do only male humpback whales sing and why don’t females? What directs Humpback whales in Hawaii to swim directly north in the summer? How do they know which way is North? Do dolphins ‘see’ an image in their brain from echolocation signals that is similar to what we see with our eyes? Does a dolphin think, and if he does, what does he think about? Do whales dream? Why are blue whales the biggest animals that have ever lived on earth? Why do dolphins have pointy rostrums? But most importantly why does anyone care about the answers to these questions? The main point is that people do care, and this is why we should all take a stand, and invest our time and money into understanding and protecting these marvelous marine mammals. No doubt, life is better with dolphins around.