An Update On Albino Dolphin “Angel,” From Taiji Whale Museum

The Taiji Whale Museum (TWM) has a blog, and they recently posted a brief update on the albino dolphin they took from the Taiji drive hunt.

Via Taiji Whale Museum

With translation help from Google Translate and my bilingual friend Atsuko Horiguchi, here’s what TWM reports:

–“Angel,” as she has been named by Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project (which also recently posted a report), is still in the side pool.

–She was hesitant about eating when she first arrived from the transport (which was no doubt very stressful), but TWM is managing to hand feed her now.

Via Taiji Whale Museum.

–TWM is currently feeding her 7 kilograms of fish a day, over multiple feedings.

Via Taiji Whale Museum

–Recently, Angel appears to be interacting more with the other dolphin(s).

Via Taiji Whale Museum

–There were no major problems indicated in her blood test, and bit by bit she is swimming a little more actively, which leads the blog author to theorize that she is starting to get used to her “new environment.”

–TWM is still holding its breath regarding Angel, and will continue to keep a close eye on her.

The rest of the world will keep tracking her, too. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen it, over at The Dodo I broke down the revenue generated by the capture and sale of dolphins from the Taiji hunt.

UPDATE: Here’s a video of Angel being hand-fed.

Taiji Whale Museum On The Albino Dolphin Calf

Photo Credit: Satoshi Komiyama
Photo Credit: Satoshi Komiyama

During my reporting last week on the fate and status of the albino calf (dubbed “Angel”) that was taken captive and shipped to the Taiji Whale Museum, I asked a local Japanese contact if she would relay a list of questions to the Whale Museum for me. Intrepid person that she is, she managed to reach Assistant Director Tetsuya Kirihata. Somewhat to my surprise he provided pretty detailed responses (which were translated by my extremely helpful contact).

For the record (and without comment), I am posting the Whale Museum’s responses here, as I haven’t seen any detailed updates on the calf, and its fate, from the Whale Museum itself.

Q: What is the status of the albino calf?

Kirihata: She’s kept in a spare pool next to the main dolphin show pool with another bottlenose dolphin. At first there were two other bottlenose dolphins in the same pool, but those were more active and would snatch the food she couldn’t catch. Therefore they were moved to another tank.

The reason why she cannot catch the food she is fed is not because she is sick, but probably due to the change of environment. When she manages to be fed, she continues to be fed. She eats the same amount as the other dolphins.

Q: How is she doing?

Kirihata: Compared to other bottlenose dolphins she doesn’t interact with other dolphins as much. It’ll be better if she becomes a little friendlier. During the day her eyes are closed or slightly open and at night they’re open.

She can see [note: observers have wondered about her sight, as most photos, like the one above, show her with her eyes closed] and has no hearing problems. She responds to the splashing sound of the fish hitting on the surface of the water.

Q: Does the Whale Museum plan to keep the calf or sell it to another facility?

Kirihata: We plan to keep her long term.

Q: Is there any possibility of giving her away or selling her?

Kirihata: Not for the moment, but it might happen if another aquarium or a research facility could provide a better or more beneficial environment for her.

Q: How are you able to care for such a young albino calf?

Kirihata: We do not necessarily give her extra care because she is albino. However, as she is still a young calf we do feed her more frequently than other adult dolphins.

We are still observing and examining if she shows any difference from other individual dolphins. The more we know about her the better conditions we can provide for her.

Q: Is there a possibility you will transfer her from the current pool to another pool within the Taiji Whale Museum?

Kirihata: She is only temporarily kept in the spare pool.  Depending on the situations as well as her condition, we will consider transferring her to another pool within the Taiji Whale Museum.

Since albino dolphins are rarely seen in the nature and often do not survive long, we intend to do our best to take care of her and learn as much as possible from this unique albino dolphin.

Also, thanks to the determined efforts of Karla Sanjur, who was on the ground in Taiji for Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, we have video footage of the young albino:

Angel in the Taiji Whale Museum from Dolphin Project on Vimeo.

It is important to note that while the world’s attention has been preoccupied with the experience and fate of the albino calf, her life is no more important than the life of any other dolphin that gets driven into the Taiji capture and slaughter process. It’s just that she is easy to identify and is therefore easy for the world (and the media) to connect with. It shouldn’t be that way, and it would be nice if everyone cared as much about ALL the dolphins as they do about the albino calf. But if people are willing to pay more attention to what happens to dolphins off Taiji because Angel exists, then her experience is important and has additional meaning.

Obviously, Angel did not ask to become the poster-dolphin for the Taiji drive hunt, and would rather still be a wild dolphin, swimming with her mother and pod. But that is the role the human world has given her.

Dolphins In The News: Taiji, Then Lolita

Lots of dolphin and orca news in the past week. And National Geographic online has been deep into the Taiji part of it.

Photo Credit: Satoshi Komiyama
Photo Credit: Satoshi Komiyama

Here’s my look at the changing financial incentives for the dolphin drives. Bottom line: over the past ten years the average annual number of dolphins slaughtered for meat has roughly been halved. And the average annual number of dolphins selected from the hunt for captivity has roughly doubled. The captive display industry, in all its forms and no matter what protestations it issues regarding drive hunts, is driving the demand for dolphins that drives the fishermen of Taiji to hunt them. Show the world that you can make a lot of money with dolphin shows and by letting park guests jump in a pool with them, and parks around the world (both existing and abuilding) will want dolphins. Fact.

NatGeo saw impressive traffic and social media sharing for its Taiji coverage, so followed up with the sort of media NatGeo does so well: a photo gallery. The interest that readers showed drove home the point that more and more people deeply care about how humans are treating the dolphins of this world, a point dramatized by the fact that Caroline Kennedy, newly installed as the U.S. Ambassador, had the undiplomatic temerity to voice, er tweet, opposition to the Taiji drive hunt. She explained why in this interview:

Q: Your tweet regarding the drive dolphin hunt in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, drew a lot of attention in Japan. Why did you make that comment?

A: Well, you know, people had been writing to me and tweeting and emailing and calling the United States–calling the embassy here. Hundreds and hundreds of people have been doing this for the last few weeks. And so I thought it was really important to make our policy known, and we have a longstanding policy of protecting these mammals, since 1972, in the United States. And the U.S. government has a policy on this: Drive hunt fisheries are unsustainable and inhumane. So I thought it was important to clarify that and put that out there.

Finally, I checked in on the albino dolphin calf that was taken from the Taiji drive hunt to the Taiji Whale Museum. Melissa Sehgal, the lead Cove Monitor for Sea Shepherd told me that the calf was the first dolphin selected for captivity, and that there appeared to be a good bargaining session by Taiji’s dolphin brokers under the tarps on the beach before the calf was finally trucked to the Whale Museum. (You can read an interview that I did with Melissa, about what it takes to be a Cove Monitor, here).

An albino bottlenose dolphin is extremely rare. In fact, no authority I spoke with had ever heard of one. That no doubt made the calf seem extremely valuable to the brokers and the captive industry. But the rarity of the calf also drew the attention of the world media. So the race to capture, select, and display the calf, could in the end backfire on the Taiji Whale Musuem. The calf may be a public draw. But it is also extremely young, likely stressed by the capture and its new environment, and without its mother. If it dies, it will not go unnoticed by the world and the media, and in the heat of the condemnation that will follow the Taiji Whale Museum could well end up regretting that they ever grabbed it.

No dolphin calf should ever be put in a position to be martyred. But if “Angel” as she has been dubbed becomes a victim of the hunts and the captive display industry, her memory will matter.

I hope to have more information to share about the status of the calf soon. The picture above was sent to me by Satoshi Komiyama. Here is another set of photos Satoshi took, and was kind enough to share:

Photo Credit: Satoshi Komiyama
Photo Credit: Satoshi Komiyama

It is hard not to feel for the albino calf, and the dramatic turn her life has taken. The life of Lolita, the killer whale who was captured at Penn Cove and has been performing at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 40 years, evokes all the same emotions.

We featured the capture operation that sent Lolita to Miami in Blackfish, and people often tell me it was one of the most moving sequences in the film.

A number of groups and individuals, most notably Howard Garrett and the Orca Network, have been fighting for Lolita’s freedom for almost two decades. Last week, after years of frustration in that quest, Lolita finally caught a potential break. I explain what happened over at Outside Online.

If Lolita does get listed with her family under the Endangered Species Act, then it will be very difficult for Miami Seaquarium to hold onto her. But, I learned, there is a note of caution that needs to be kept in mind. NOAA has already expressed some skepticism about returning Lolita to the wild. So, absent a very convincing and well-funded plan to take her to a sea pen in her home waters, there could be a scenario in which U.S. Fish And Wildlife (which would be responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act), would remove Lolita from Miami Seaquarium, but decide that it is less risky to place her in a better facility than it is to transport her across the country and drop her into the Haro Strait.

Photo Credit: Piotr Domaradzki, Miami, FL, 1998 via Wikimedia

Yep, SeaWorld could come into the Lolita scenario. Not saying it will happen, or that it is even likely to happen. But I am saying that if even if she is listed under the Endangered Species Act it will still be a fight to get her to a sea pen.

Dolphin Slaughter In Peru

Credit: BlueVoice.org

Via BlueVoice comes word of extensive dolphin slaughter in Peru that could easily exceed Taiji:

As many as 15,000 dolphins are killed yearly for use as shark bait and human consumption by Peruvian fishermen.

A BlueVoice/Mundo Azul expedition has returned with damning evidence of a massive hunt for dolphins carried out by Peruvian fishermen. This expedition follows an earlier expedition conducted by UK-based Ecostorm in collaboration with Mundo Azul.

BlueVoice provided full funding for the Mundo Azul expedition and partial funding for the Ecostorm effort.

Both expeditions brought back graphic video and photographic evidence of massive dolphin killing by Peruvian fishermen. Dolphins are harpooned, clubbed to death and then butchered to be used as shark bait. Dolphins are also killed for human consumption.

Based on the size of the Peruvian fleet and interviews with the fishermen Austermuhle estimates as many as fifteen thousand dolphins are killed for bait and human consumption by the Peruvian fishing fleet in this manner. An unknown additional number are killed in the driftnet fishery.

This fishery is doubly damning, because the dolphins are being killed so the fishermen can kill sharks, which are under enormous pressure as fishermen everywhere slaughter millions of sharks every year in an effort to feed the enormous demand for shark fin from Asia. And it shows that even in a globalized, wired world, there are corners that are engaged in slaughters that we know little about.

The Ecostorm report about the Peruvian dolphin/shark fishery can be found here, and the story of how Ecostorm got the video and photos can be found here.

Credit: Jim Wickens/Ecostorm/ITV News

Human populations scrapping for a subsistence living will always hunt and kill if that is a path to even small profits. So as sad as this news is, it is also a reminder that human poverty probably kills more animals (think elephant and rhino poaching, as well) than any other global phenomenon. And until we come to grips with that reality, there will always be profoundly cruel and wastefl slaughter.

Credit: BlueVoice.org

Annals Of Animal Intelligence: Elephants Understand Pointing

“Dude, it’s over there.”

Here’s another datapoint in humanity’s endlessly evolving understanding of animal intelligence, otherwise known as “Holy crap, they are smarter than we thought!”:

We point to things without giving much thought to what a sophisticated act it really is. By simply extending a finger, we can let other people know we want to draw their attention to an object, and indicate which object it is.

As sophisticated as pointing may be, however, babies usually learn to do it by their first birthday. “If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” said Richard W. Byrne, a biologist at the University of St Andrews.

When scientists test other species, they find that pointing is a rare gift in the animal kingdom. Even our closest relatives, like chimpanzees, don’t seem to get the point of pointing.

But Dr. Byrne and his graduate student Anna Smet now say they have discovered wild animals that also appear to understand pointing: elephants. The study, involving just 11 elephants, is hardly the last word on the subject. But it raises a provocative possibility that elephants have a deep social intelligence that rivals humans’ in some ways.

Can’t say I am shocked (though I do wonder how they prevented the smell of the food being a factor). Anyhow, Byrne is interested in testing the pointing recognition of dolphins and whales. I can save him some time and money but letting him know that dolphin researchers like Lou Herman, among others, have pretty successful demonstrated that dolphins understand pointing. And pointing certainly gets used at SeaWorld and in other marine parks every day.

A Global Whale Stranding Network?

This is a great Indiegogo idea to harness smartphone technology with the need to respond as fast as possible to whale and dolphin strandings:

We are looking to create a worldwide network for sightings of beached and stranded whales and dolphins. Developing the app for it however, is the most expensive part of the project. We are therefore appealing to all IT experts to step forward and volunteer their design services. If we can achieve donated help with this aspect of our project then our costs will drop significantly. Funds can then be used instead, towards a public awareness campaign.

This will be helpful for strandings that might otherwise go unreported (such as in countries where there is no stranding network in place), and also it will save researchers valuable time by having the data available in one place.

Candace Calloway Whiting, one of the creators of the project, explains further how a smartphone enabled network could help save whales and dolphins, particularly in an era of intensifying seismic exploration for undersea energy:

Although a half a world apart – one in the Philippines, the other in the British Isles – these stranding events have some things in common.

In both situations an usual variety of normally deep water species were involved, and both involved animals that looked battered and behaved unusually. (Please see “Panicked Whales Are Stranding in Area of Seismic Exploration” for information on the Great Britain strandings).

Both occurred in areas of intense exploration for oil. While the North Atlantic region has a longer history of offshore exploration, some areas of the South China Sea are just opening up. The Philippines is poised to exploit anticipated offshore sources of oil and gas, and is in a hurry to do so – the region is plagued with power shortages and has financial incentives to encourage foreign oil companies to perform seismic surveys of the seabeds.

Go to Indiegogo to learn more about the project and the different perks you can earn via a donation.

Why Don’t Dolphins Fight Back?

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 10.09.42 AM

This has always been one of the most puzzling questions related to dolphin drive hunts, like Taiji, and the wild orca captures of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (that are featured in Blackfish). Dolphins (and orcas are large dolphins) do not attack humans–even though they easily could–that are slaughtering them or taking their calves. It is hard to imagine almost any other species, reacting with the same passiveness or pacifism. Imagine trying to kill or take the cubs from a bear or a lion.

I’ve occasionally asked this question of dolphin experts like Lori Marino, but there is no obvious or satisfactory answer. Here, Laura Bridgman takes a shot and digs into the science that might suggest some answers to this profoundly complex question:

Our brains share many structural similarities with dolphins. For example, we both have a limbic system, which is responsible for handling emotional information. One difference between us, however, is that the dolphins’ limbic system is much larger than ours and, says scientist Denise Herzing, it “may be stretched out over more of the brain,” indicating that “the dolphin brain may have more of a ‘global connection’ to [emotional] information”. This could mean that dolphins are more emotional than humans, and that emotions could figure more prominently throughout their thought processes.

While it might be tempting to think that increased emotions would lead to greater aggression when being backed into a corner, another compelling feature of the dolphin brain appears to account for this notion. Sterling Bunnell, in The Evolution of Cetacean Intelligence points out that the cerebral cortex, responsible for logical thought and reasoning in both humans and dolphins alike, is controlled by the emotional activity of the limbic system. This process is facilitated by what are called ‘neocortical association neurons’.

Bunnell observed that, in human studies, the ratio of these neurons to limbic-system brain stem neurons “is necessary for such qualities as …emotional self-control” and that a decreased ratio is associated with “impulsiveness, emotional instability, irritability, loss of humor”. Bunnell points out that dolphins possess a higher neocortical-limbic ratio than the average human, suggesting that their control over their own emotions is greater than what we experience.

It could be that dolphins, while being more emotional, are more emotionally stable than we are, and are therefore able to better control themselves in stressful situations. This could explain their apparent control over the impulse to lash out at the humans who are so callously ending their lives.

This is an interesting hypothesis, but it makes me wonder what the evolutionary advantage or benefit of controlling emotions might be when experiencing an existential threat. In other words, in these situations it would be to the dolphins advantage NOT to control emotion and remain passive.

Whatever the answer, I suspect that if and when we do come to understand why dolphins behave with such pacificism when under attack by humans the answer will humble us.

Dolphins Are Really Smart

Thanks for the update. Is this research really telling us anything we don’t already know?

A dog may be man’s best friend, but dolphins can imitate human actions, and even how they solve problems.

When a dolphin has one of its senses blocked, it can use other senses to mimic a human’s movements, according to a recent study.

A bottlenose dolphin named Tanner was blindfolded and instructed to copy the actions of a trainer in the water with him. When Tanner wasn’t able to use sight to figure out the movement, he switched to another technique: He would emit sounds, listen to the echo and interpret the resulting sound waves. This process — known as echolocation — allowed Tanner to mimic movements by the trainer, such as spinning in the water.

The study, conducted at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, expands on earlier studies looking at how dolphins are able to imitate other dolphins while blindfolded. To see whether a change in sound would affect their imitation, researchers used humans instead of dolphins to make the movements in the water.

Kelly Jaakkola, research director of the marine mammal center, said researchers were surprised by Tanner’s use of echolocation.

“He outsmarted us,” Jaakkola said.

Honestly, I can’t think of anything less surprising, and this conclusion tells us little beyond what Lou Herman and his researchers already demonstrated many years ago.

I am not a fan of any captive research. But if it exists, it would be nice if it at least had to achieve some minimal threshold of utility–for the species being held captive. Not sure how humans impressing themselves over and over again with how smart and creative dolphins are is not redundant, or how it extends at this point beyond idle curiosity.

Department Of Dubious Ideas: Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

Lori Marino digs into the long and twisted history of human belief in the healing and spiritual powers of dolphins, and then zeroes in on the claims (versus the ethics and reality) of “dolphin-assisted therapy” (DAT):

DAT typically involves several sessions either swimming or interacting with captive dolphins, often alongside more conventional therapeutic tasks, such as puzzle-solving or motor exercises. The standard price of DAT sessions, whose practitioners are not required by law to receive any special training or certification, is exorbitant, reaching into the thousands of dollars. It has become a highly lucrative international business, with facilities in Mexico, Israel, Russia, Japan, China and the Bahamas, as well as the US. DAT practitioners claim to be particularly successful in treating depression and motor disorders, as well as childhood autism. But DAT is sometimes less scrupulously advertised as being effective with a range of other disorders, from cancer to infections, to developmental delays.

While not always promising a cure, DAT facilities clearly market themselves as offering real therapy as opposed to recreation. Under minimal standards, authentic therapy must have some relationship to a specific condition and result in measurable remedial effects. By contrast, DAT proponents cite evidence that is, more accurately, anecdotal, offering a range of explanations for its purported efficacy, from increased concentration to brainwave changes, to the positive physiological effects of echolocation (high-frequency dolphin sonar) on the human body. Parents of autistic children and others who appear to benefit from DAT believe that these explanations are scientifically plausible. The photos of smiling children and the emotional testimonials from once-desperate parents are hard to resist. Even those sceptical of DAT’s scientific validity often just shrug and say: ‘What’s the harm?’ In the worst-case scenario a child who typically knows little enjoyment and accomplishment in life can find joy, a little bit of self-efficacy and connection with others for what is sometimes the first time in his life. But amid all the self-justification, the question most often left out is: what about the dolphins?

Great piece. Here is just one example what Marino and others who would debunk DAT are up against. It’s a classic example of human exploitation of other (needy) humans, and animals, for profit.

Communicating With Dolphins

(Photo: Sheilapic76/Flickr)

Last year, I spent a fascinating two weeks learning about the work Denise Herzing and the Wild Dolphin Project have been doing with Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. I wrote about the experience for Outside, in a story called Talk To Me (which will also be published later this year in Best American Science And Nature Writing 2013).

It was perhaps the most interesting science I have ever seen, and the possibilities it opens up could change how humans view themselves and the other species on the planet.

Here is Herzing describing her work, in a newly released TED Talk: