I’ve already annoyed a few scientists with that title. Why? Because “talking to dolphins” assumes they have a language in the first place.

I can sense the frowns from here. Dolphins are smart, social, and can use tools and carry bombs. How can they not have a language?

They must have a few choice words for us, at least.
Photo by Louiephoto.

The same way getting your dog to “fetch” doesn’t make you fluent in Dog. You can communicate a need or an idea, but you’ll need the horrors of  grammar and syntax to take it any further.

But what about all that dolphin relaxation music circling the globe? All those clicks must mean something, right?

Maybe, but so does all the beeping in a traffic jam. Beyond a few basic messages, it could just be the sound of a crowd going about their day.

I realise I’m shattering some illusions here, including my own (!), but fear not. Dolphins are second only to humans in brain-to-body ratio, so a full-blown language isn’t completely out of their reach. It’s just that there’s no actual proof yet.

So if “talking to dolphins” means “copy the human and you get a treat”, then yes, we’ve been doing this for a while.

The real questions is, can they talk back?

We’ve spent more than 50 years trying to bridge that gap, sometimes with sex, drugs and frisbees. You might be surprised to learn this was less fun than it sounds, but unsurprised that it all kicked off in the ’60s.

If you think dolphins are peace-loving, mystical sea-humans who speak “dolphinese”, I’m sorry to say you’ve been “Lilly’d”.

Yep, me too. I’m pretty sure I had a t-shirt like this.
Image by Prettysleepy.

According to expert Justin Gregg, most dolphin myths can be laid at the feet of neurophysiologist John Lilly, whose experiments pretty much transformed them from slightly annoying fish-things into the smart sea scamps we know and love today.

And if you just flinched at the word “experiments”, congrats on your Spidey Senses.

While on the one hand the “father of dolphin intelligence research” showed us, among other things, they can understand and follow underwater keyboard commands, we also learned that they stop breathing under anaesthetic and need to be awake through all the brain probing.

Lilly’s most notorious project, however, was probably Dolphin House.

Sadly, nowhere near as idyllic.
Image by Michael Treu.

This was a flooded lab in the Virgin Islands where he and colleague Margaret Lovatt tried to teach dolphins English. Fun fact: thanks to the hypothetical “help us talk to aliens” angle, it was partly funded by NASA, and even Carl Sagan paid a visit.

Since Peter, the male dolphin, had no prior training, Lovatt chose to focus on him and ended up living in the lab with him six days a week. You can see a clip of her teaching him English words here. And yes, they were teaching them to speak through their blow-hole.

You know it’s bad when Lovatt giving Peter the occasional “hand” isn’t the worst part of the story.

Although Peter was spared thanks to Lovatt, females Pamela and Sissy experienced the joy of LSD via injection, because why not. It apparently had no effect, but their reality took a dive.

Partly due to Lilly’s waning interest, the project lost its funding by the mid-60s, and the dolphins were shipped off to Lilly’s smaller, darker Miami lab. Peter died a few weeks later, purportedly committing suicide, since unlike humans, dolphins can just choose to stop breathing.

So apart from all the trauma, what did we learn?

At least one thing: while the dolphins were great mimics, they didn’t show they actually understood the bizarre human sounds they were making. What they did show a few years later, though, was that they could wrap their heads around language concepts.

This lets us move on to happier topics, like Hawaii and frisbees.

Photo by Justin De La Ornellas.

In 1984, researchers Louis Herman, Douglas Richards and James Wolz at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab used artificial audio and visual languages to communicate with Phoenix and Akeakamai, two female bottlenoses.

The dolphins managed to bring a frisbee to a surfboard, or the reverse, correctly and enough times to convince the researchers it wasn’t a fluke. (Pun entirely intended).

Doesn’t sound like much? It means they grasped the idea of word order and how it changes meaning.

Having their own language wouldn’t be a massive leap then, would it?

Not according to Dr. Vyacheslav Ryabov, who documented a conversation between two of them in 2016.

Photo by Romuald Bézard.

Unprompted by food or otherwise, bottlenose male Yasha and female Yana at the Karadag Nature Reserve in Crimea were recorded exchanging clicks. Not only did they avoid rudely interrupting each other, but they used different clicks to the rest of their pod. According to Ryabov, “each pulse represent[ed] a phoneme or a word of the dolphin’s spoken language”.

I don’t remember hearing about this, but whatever waves it made in the media, it caused a cynical splash-back. With 30 years of dolphin study under his belt, marine biologist Richard Connor was happy to respond, on the record, with “complete bull”. He wasn’t the only one who thought the results less than water-tight.

Marc Lammers, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, pointed out that dolphin clicks are focused, like a torch beam, and that the way the sounds were measured in the study would be “similar to recording a conversation by people in the other room speaking into pillows”. So not the best way of documenting another language.

What’s more, the dolphins’ heads were at the surface, so fun things like reverberation would have also played a part in the recorded sounds.

At least we were listening to them rather than telling them what to do. And that’s the first step to understanding them, right?

Photo by ketennison.

Yes, if you mean the first of a thousand! But listening has at least helped us pin down three main types of noise:

  • whistles, which sound like someone tuning in a radio and are used for long-distance and mother-calf calls,
  • clicks, which sound like someone twisting a plastic wire and are used for navigation, and
  • burst pulses, which sound like half a baby-squawk and are used in social situations like fights.

All we need now is a bit of context!

Fortunately, the Speak Dolphin Project found an awesome way to get around that.

Let me put you in the picture.

Led by dolphin researcher Jack Kassewitz and acoustic engineer John Stuart Reid, the team developed a device called a CymaScope, which can make high definition imprints of dolphin noises underwater. We’ve been recording their clicks for half a century, so what makes the CymaScope different? As their website explains:

Previous techniques, using the spectrograph, display […] sounds only as graphs of frequency and amplitude. The CymaScope captures actual sound vibrations imprinted in the dolphin’s natural environment—water, revealing the intricate visual details of dolphin sounds for the first time.

The result? Patterns believed to be “picture words”, like an ultrasound, used by dolphins to communicate with each other. It sounds way easier beaming a holographic image to someone than explaining it, after all.

Not only that, but in 2015, we purportedly got a glimpse of “what the dolphin sees”.

In this case, a diver.

Dolphin Amaya was recorded clicking at said diver in a pool, and the sounds were later fed through the CymaScope.

From Kassewitz et al., 2016: “A phenomenon discovered while imaging dolphin echolocation sounds”, Journal of Marine Science:Research and Development, doi:10.4172/2155-9910.1000202.

Incredible, isn’t it?

Kassewitz also recorded a set of dolphin sounds as they reflected off a set of items, including a flower pot and a plastic cube. When he used a game to reflect these back to the dolphin, it identified them correctly 86% of the time. A dolphin in a different facility got a similar score, suggesting that they communicated via “picture words”.

However, you may be wondering why this wasn’t bigger news.

To start with, this was based on a press release and its subsequent article, and other dolphin experts said more peer-reviewed research was needed before they went nuts over it. Popular Science magazine editor Rachel Feltman also pointed out that we don’t know how dolphins’ brains actually translate sensory information. The dinosaurs were still kicking around the last time we shared an ancestor, so would we even be seeing the same image?

The response from Kassewitz was mostly crickets, although he has invited criticism “from physicists, because that’s what is going on here”.

So a pinch of sea salt may be required until more research is made available. Sorry to pour cold water on. You know, again.

At this rate, will we ever see proof of a dolphin language?

Not without more study, that’s for sure, but herein lies another problem.

All the examples so far have involved captive dolphins. Yacha and Yana spent 20 years in a four-metre-deep swimming pool, and Phoenix and Akeakamai were captured off the Gulf of Mexico. In a post-Blackfish world, the thought of keeping dolphins in captivity for science or entertainment can be uncomfortable.

Then again, how else will we learn more about their communication?

Fortunately, the Wild Dolphin Project is a thing.

It also gives the bottlenose a break from the spotlight.

Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis).
Photo by Skeeze.

For the last 30 years, Dr. Denise Herzing has had the tough job of swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas.

By filming and documenting wild Atlantic spotted dolphins, she and her team hope to uncover the secrets of their communication, but as per the slogan: “in their world, on their terms”. So if the dolphins get scared or bored, they can just swim away.

Rubbish tech has been one of the main obstacles, but the team have a couple of tricks up their sleeve. To help with the context I mentioned earlier, Singapore University’s Dr. Matthias Hoffmann-Kuhnt has developed a device that records audio, video and triangulates clicks, so they know which dolphin made which noise.

Yes, yes, but what about the language itself?

Using Cetacean Hearing And Telemetry, or “CHAT” also helps. See what they did there?

This nifty two-way underwater communicator was developed by Georgia Tech University and Thad Starner, the brains behind Google Glass. It’s programmed with an artificial click language that’s easy for dolphins to mimic, and has words for the pod’s three favourite toys: a scarf, a rope, and a piece of sargassum seaweed. The dolphins are exposed to these “words” while interacting with the toys, and if they make any of the sounds in the CHAT library, they’re translated back to the divers in English.

And it’s worked at least once.

On one occasion, a dolphin near Herzing used the word for “sargassum”.

It’s obviously worth talking about.
Photo by rjsinenomine.

It may have been another fluke (again pun entirely intended), but there were cases where the dolphins seemed to use a CHAT word, only at a higher or lower frequency than the device was programmed to pick up.

On top of this, Herzing’s team is using additional software to sort and organise more than 30 years’ worth of dolphin clicks for any patterns. When they sent a batch of mother-calf signature whistles to Starner for analysis – without telling him the context – the algorithm pulled out five basic units, which suggests they were repeated and recombined in different ways. Could these be the equivalent of words or syllables?

That one in the middle isn’t telling.
Photo by Sheilapic76.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re still at the stage where we know dolphins can make use of an artificial language, but don’t know if they use one themselves. Going back to the traffic jam example earlier: you may use beeps to send a message in that environment, but unless you’re the world’s most “hilarious” colleague, that’s not how you communicate normally.

If this sounds frustratingly basic, you’re not alone in that thought. But we have learnt some awesome things in the meantime.

For instance, it’s generally agreed that dolphins use the aforementioned “signature whistle” for their name, which they pick themselves when they’re calves. Not only that, but they have regional accents.

We’ve found at least two groups of bottlenose dolphin – one in Cardigan Bay, Wales, and another in Walvis Bay, Namibia – that use distinctly different signature clicks.

The Cardigan crowd seem to use a slightly higher frequency, with one of them dipping into the 30-40kHz range, whereas the Walvis band opt for the lowest, and presumably most seductive, dolphin frequency ever recorded, sometimes as low as 1.58kHz.

“Awww, yeah”.
Photo by Claudia Beer.

The sexiness comes at a price though, because it’s also a frequency crowded out by marine traffic.

So take heart: as Herzing has claimed, absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. Dolphins might have a language, or they may simply have a weirder, more alien way of communicating with one another. And maybe someday soon, thanks to evolving tech, we’ll know for sure!

TLDR: Dolphins can understand instructions and language concepts, but we still don’t know if they use one themselves. Until we know that, we can’t “talk” with them. Fortunately, tech is improving to help us find out.

Featured image credit: “Spotting spotted dolphins” by Donald Ogg, via Flickr.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Bittel, Jason. 2016. “Dolphins Recorded Having a ‘Conversation?’ Not So Fast.” National Geographic.

Changing Seas. 2018. “Dolphins: Breaking the Code“. Episode 1001.

“CHAT: is it a dolphin translator, or an interface?” No date. Wild Dolphin Project.

Decoding and deciphering dolphin sounds“. No date. Wild Dolphin Project.

The Dolphin Pod. 2014. “Do dolphins have a language?” Dolphin Communication Project.

Feltman, Rachel. 2015. “There’s something fishy about that viral image of what dolphins ‘see’“. Washington Post.

Foer, Joshua. 2015. “It’s time for a conversation“. National Geographic.

Gregg, Justin. 2015. “About that “Image Showing What Dolphins See With Echolocation” thing… Justingregg.com.

Gregg, Justin. 2013. “Are Dolphins Really Smart?” Oxford University Press.

Gridley, T. et al. 2014. “The acoustic repertoire of wild common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Walvis Bay, Namibia“, Bioacoustics, 24:2, 153-174.

Harrington, Rebecca. 2015. “Don’t believe that viral image showing how dolphins ‘see’ humans with their voice“. Business Insider.

Herman, Louis M. et al. 1984. “Comprehension of sentences by bottlenosed dolphins“, Cognition, 16.2:129-219.

Herzing, Denise L. 2016. “Interfaces and Keyboards For Human-Dolphin
Communication: What Have We Learned?
Animal Behavior and Cognition 3(4): 243-254.

Hiley, Helen M. et al. 2017. “What’s occurring? Ultrasonic signature whistle use in Welsh bottlenose dolphins (Tursiop truncatus)“, Bioacoustics, 26:1, 25-35.

Kassewitz, Jack et al. 2016. “A Phenomenon Discovered While Imaging Dolphin Echolocation Sounds“, Journal of Marine Science: Research and Development 6:202. doi:10.4172/2155-9910.1000202.

Nguyen, Tuan C. 2014. “Checking the Claim: A Device That Translates Dolphin Sounds Into English“. Smithsonian Magazine.

Pack, Adam A., and Herman, Louis. 1983.”The Dolphin’s (Tursiops truncatus) Understanding of Human Gazing and Pointing: Knowing What and Where“, Journal of Comparative Psychology 121. 34-45.

Riley, Christopher. 2014. “The dolphin who loved me: the Nasa-funded project that went wrong“. The Guardian.

Roitblat, Herbert L. et al. 1993. “Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives“. Psychology Press.

Speak Dolphin. No date. “Press Release:Deciphering Dolphin Language with Picture Words“. Speak Dolphin.

Speak Dolphin. 2011. “The discovery of dolphin language“. Speak Dolphin.

Taggart, Stewart. 1986. “Dolphins Are Getting the Word From Trainers“. Los Angeles Times.

TED Radio Hour. 2013/2019. “Denise Herzing: Do Dolphins Have a Language?” NPR.

Worley, Will. 2016. “Scientists discover dolphins ‘can speak almost like humans’“. The Independent.