Wild Dolphin Play

What a magical start to the new year.


A pod of seven spinner dolphins twist and play with each other off Lana'i in Hawaii. When they get bored with me, they wander off, but when I dive back under water, they take a new interest, as if to show off their tricks and see what I can do. It wasn't until I spent about 4 hours swimming with them and seeing them spin and flip above water that it occurred to me to try some better tricks than floating like a dead fish on the surface. When I simply pointed head down in the water and spun around as fast as I could, it seemed to really catch their interest, and large groups of them would circle around me and come up to arms reach for a closer look face to face.


Here’s a short Video of Pod 7 where you can see their interest return when I do a simple dive. From their energetic swirling dance, I got the sense these were the adolescents of the pod, in contrast to mama-baby pair at the end of the second video.


The dolphin antics remind me of a talk I heard Dr. Stuart Brown give at a Play Date at the Stanford Design School. He started with a fascinating series of photos of animals playing – ravens sliding on their backs down an icy slope, monkeys rolling snowballs and playing leapfrog, and various inter-species games.


“We are designed to play. We need 3D motion.

The smarter the creature, the more they play.

The sea squirt auto-digests its brain when it becomes sessile.”


And sure enough, as PhotonQuantique pointed me to, playing with dolphins is an active area of research. This passage resonates with my experience looking back at the 40 videos I took of the dolphins: “Often, in our games with dolphins, there is so much activity going on all at once, that we only notice what is right in front of our dive mask. It is only later when reviewing the video that we fully grasp the depth of the dolphins' willingness to engage us.”


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Taken on January 3, 2009