Twenty years ago in Australia I helped free a bottlenose dolphin from a drift net. In 2004, a small pod of bottlenose dolphins protected four swimmers from great white sharks for 40 minutes until the sharks lost interest and left. Last week, I was very touched that a wounded dolphin had the presence of mind to alert a nearby diver, who then helped remove a fishing hook from its left pectoral fin.
Both intelligent and likeable, dolphins are aquatic, top-predator mammals classified as a type of whale or cetacean. There are two types of cetaceans. Baleen whales filter massive amounts of small oceanic organisms, called krill, with comb-like sieves in their mouths. Toothed whales, on the other hand, grab prey with their teeth. Dolphins and their mistaken twin, the porpoise, are a type of toothed whale. There are about 70 kinds of toothed whales, and about 45 species of dolphins, porpoises and false whales, such as killer whales or orcas.
Dolphins are innovative when faced with a new scenario or situation. This goes beyond genetic programming of behavior. Innovation allows rapid assessment of a new situation and reactions to it. Dolphins clearly understand gestures, similar to sign language that chimpanzees are also able to learn. Humans and dolphins appear to be the only known animals to spontaneously interpret images on a screen without prior teaching. Dolphins are capable of highly flexible behavior, and therefore are considered intelligent.
But these wonderful creatures are facing a brutal threat. Like millions of moviegoers around the globe I was enraged by the 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove,” which followed the annual hunt of dolphins and small whales by fishermen in Taiji, Japan.
From September to March, fisherman head out to sea each morning in their banger boats, from which they bang on steel pipes. The noise confuses the dolphins, driving them or small whales into a bay, which is quickly netted off to prevent their escape. Agitated, they are left overnight to calm down.
Many are injured, suffering from broken pectoral fins, while others die from extreme stress and exhaustion. The following morning, fisherman re-enter the penned bay and catch and kill the dolphins one-by-one. Some are dragged by their tails in a process known as ‘pithing’ onto the shoreline—a steel pine is driven through their spine, quickly pulled out, and the hole is plugged by a wooden stopper preventing blood from filling the cover. It is a gruesome spectacle. Some juveniles are taken away for sale to dolphinariums.
Sea Shepherd and other activists protecting nature arrive each morning in the Taiji harbor, where they are met by throngs of police outnumbering them by at least five to one.
The Japanese slaughter dolphins for food. Meat sells for $520 per dolphin. Sadly, the dolphins are toxic; that is, they contain levels of mercury poisoning in excess of 160 times that of safe levels for human consumption. As a matter of fact, young children and pregnant mothers are advised by the Japanese government not to eat dolphin. (Aquariums, meanwhile, eagerly pay upwards of $140,000 for juvenile dolphins.)
In a world preoccupied with rights—which in most cases are confused with privileges—it is a terrible indictment on our species not being concerned with why levels of mercury are so elevated in these apex-marine predators. What we do to our oceans we do to ourselves.
Mercury is a neurotoxin; mercury poisoning disables the central nervous system. No animal should swallow mercury.
The bloody and senseless right of entitlement by the Japanese fisheries must end. Dolphins and whales play a crucial role in the health and wellbeing of our oceans. They cull the old and weak - essentially ensuing a high level of fitness amongst their prey. They also prevent diseases from becoming epidemics.
There's a lot each of us can do to stop this barbaric practice and extreme cruelty to these exquisite marine mammals.
The way to effect change is through the power of our collective wallets; by acting fiscally together we can cut off the demand for live-traded animals. Don't buy tickets to any dolphinariums or parks with captured marine mammals.
Next, let the Japanese Tourism Agency know that you will not visit their nation due to the destruction of dolphins and whales. It will take less than two minutes to send them an email—our goal is 50 million emails. Just do it.
Dolphins are playful, affectionate, curious, intelligent, social and vocal. Are they the creatures humans would have been had we not left the water?
Wild dolphins, like all other animals, including humans, are entitled to the right to life on our blue planet.
Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and co-author with Chris Maser of their forthcoming book: "Life, The Wonder of it All." For more reads visit his blog.