There is an amazing video that was released earlier this month showing some divers helping a dolphin who became entangled by a fishing line. The hook was embedded in it’s fine with the line caught on it’s mouth and fin, restricting it’s movements. Happily the divers were able to help the dolphin and, despite the caption in the clip, the hook and line were all removed. It’s heart-warming, although we shouldn’t forget that it was because of people that it got tangled in the first place, but it also begs the question whether the dolphin co-operated inadvertently or whether it deliberately went to the divers for help.
The Yahoo! story, where I first became aware of the story, begins:
Dolphins are known for being highly intelligent mammals. So intelligent, in fact, that they can communicate with humans even when they have not been trained to do so. That’s what happened to a group of divers on an observation trip off the coast of Hawaii, known as the Big Island.
“The way he came right up and pushed himself into me, there was no question this dolphin was there for help,” Laros said.
Not everyone is convinced of course. I also saw the story on Why Evolution is True where Jerry Coyne expresses caution.
Was the dolphin asking for help? Or was it only tolerating help from the divers? Or did it even know it was being helped? It certainly seemed friendly and gregarious for a while dolphin, but maybe they’re all like that.
I think it is likely that the dolphin went there for help and I would definitely say that it knew it was being helped. While it may have originally arrived by chance I think after they started trying to help it it became deliberate. It doesn’t swim all around as you might expect if it was just tolerating the diver’s help but it stayed close the people who were helping it. I’d also guess that the hook and line were causing the dolphin pain, certainly they attempted to remove it. If it were old then it could hurt less but if it were restricting the dolphin’s movements then it seems unlikely that it could be all that old as the dolphin’s hunting abilities would have been impaired.
Dolphins have senses just like we do. They can certainly tell when their motion is restricted and when it is not and connect the change with the diver’s activities. Indeed we saw during the video that the dolphin allowed them to fiddle, went up for air and then came back down again. It seems very unlikely that the dolphin did not notice a change in how free it’s movements were.
We know dolphins are intelligent and we know we are animals too. When you see something like this one could dismiss it, and that should at least be considered, but when we are so similar it doesn’t make sense to treat actions we would see as deliberate in a human as inadvertent in another animal. If a child, so it can’t talk, goes up to a person and offers a hand with a splinter then let’s you remove it we wouldn’t have a problem considering that as deliberate. If the same happens in an intelligent non-human animal and we have no reason to treat it’s actions as different we should be comfortable with assuming they are deliberate as well.