Experiences and Thoughts on Dolphins
I decided to explore the human-dolphin connection first by reading the Dolphins in Popular Literature and Media article and then thinking back on my own personal experiences interacting with dolphins in a few ways.
The article provides some clearly defined "labels" for dolphins and it is my experience that humans generally enjoy assigning to each other and everything in their environment. I can see the value in these shortcuts for ideas and some of them even ring true in some ways, but every living being is way more complicated than an easily applied label would suggest. I don't personally know any dolphins, but I'm certain that there are a few surly ones that would enjoy biting a human's face just as much as swimming with them or performing for rewards.
A few years ago I was stationed in Pensacola, Florida and spent several summers cruising the Intracoastal Waterway between Pensacola Bay and Mobile Bay in a 21' Cuddy cabin. Those cruises were some of the most awesome outdoor experiences I have had. There's a sense of wonder and freedom that comes from being on a boat, in nature, with lunch and cold drinks packed for the trip. The experience of eating a sandwich and chips is really taken up a notch when it is enjoyed sitting on the deck of a gently rocking boat anchored in a calm corner of a bay or 20 feet from a white sand beach. On several of these trips we happened upon schools of dolphins who seemed to also be cruising the Intracoastal Waterway (I did not witness them with any sandwiches or beer, though). There's a video below that gives an idea of the situation (not my video). Seeing dolphins in their environment, as a tourist in that environment is a pretty moving experience. Especially when the dolphins seem to be enjoying it just as much as the people. The dolphins choose to hang out in the ICW even though there is never a shortage of boats in the area when the weather is nice. There doesn't seem to be a traditional instinctual need being filled by this choice. There doesn't seem to be any easier food to catch, no obvious mating going on, nor any other activity that would explain them being there. When thinking about that part, I started wondering if maybe they were also enjoying being tourists at that intersection of their world and ours. All species seem to be curious about other species, so maybe they have arranged to take "Human Tours" there in the relatively controlled waters of the ICW. Here's why I think that: they choose to stay around boats full of people. We spent easily three hours one day in a calm area of a bay while about 9 dolphins "played" in our vicinity. They would approach the boat and surface within 10 feet of us while we stared in awestruck amazement. We weren't providing them with anything obvious, but they hung out none-the-less.
Another experience I had in the Gulf region was at the Gulfarium ( https://www.gulfarium.com ) in Fort Walton Beach. For the first time, I saw a live dolphin show. I was just as amazed as seeing them in their natural habitat. They were performing for rewards, but they also seemed to genuinely enjoy their jobs. Obviously, this is not the lifestyle/career choice for all creatures, but for some I would think the trade of absolute freedom for security is one they would happily make.
Humans make the same tradeoffs. We can choose to have absolute freedom or trade some measure of that freedom for security. In a perfect world, there would be an application process for the dolphins to choose to make that trade, but until we work out that language barrier, that's not happening.
Now, why we humans care so much about hanging out with dolphins. I think this boils down to the fact that once you strip away all of our tools and creations we have been able to produce that makes these opposable thumbs so powerful, we are simple creatures. We want simple lives that revolve around fulfilling primal urges, finding joy and not worrying about the future. Survival is simple, but living a life full of empty pursuits and getting ahead is exhausting. We struggle everyday to balance the animal inside us and the civilizing forces around us. Dolphins seem to have that balance figured out, at least as far as the 20 feet into their world that we can see.
Final thoughts: I don't have any solid answers about why we are drawn to dolphins, but I know that when I see them in their world, my heart is full of joy and that's what makes this world turn for me.