Project Delphis – To Know the Mind of the Dolphin

There has never been a lab like the Delphis lab.

The dolphins were always in control, and the project was created to save dolphins in the wild.

Along the way, they made history.

The Delphis Story

The Delphis project wound up bringing the world’s leading dolphin scientists together with the world’s leading conservation advocates, and along the way involved astronauts, futurists, celebrities, and techno-pioneers.

So what sort of project gets the collaboration of Dr. Ken Norris, Dr. John Lilly, NASA, Arthur C. Clarke, John McAfee, Apple Computer, Kenny Loggins, and hundreds of others?  A project that treated dolphins, from the outset, as partners rather than research subjects.

Read on for the story…

A new Kind of Dolphin Research

By 1980 it was obvious to Dexter Cate and Don White that an entity was needed to advance the state of dolphin research, and shift the status of dolphin intelligence from the mythological to the science-based.

Dexter was a high school science teacher and Don had taught high school science for two years when moving to Hawaii. So these two activist high-school teachers spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach the world a bit more about dolphins, in a way that might help save them.

Dexter had just gotten out of Sasebo Prison in Japan.  He had served 80 days in solitary confinement for the crime of intervening in a bloody large-scale dolphin kill conducted in a Japanese bay on the island of Tatsunoshima, and freeing overnight about half the dolphins which were in the process of being stabbed to death in a multi-day kill-fest.

dexbanyaniki640400  Dexter shows his young son the Tatsunoshima drive-kill before intervening to release dolphins and being arrested

Clearly, although it saved some dolphins and brought world attention, such intervention was not a scalable tactic per se. It hardened Japan’s nationalism.  What was needed, thought the science teachers, was a way to get the message of dolphins “specialness” across in a more subtle and positive way.

The Ethics of Dolphin Research

This had been something they had discussed for years, and there was a central ethical problem to confront: any replicable scientific research would almost certainly have to be done with dolphins which were in captivity, yet captivity itself resulted in many dolphin deaths during the capture process as well as shortened lives and inherently miserable conditions in most cases. For this reason, nothing had been done by either Dexter or Don prior to his Japan incarceration.

However, just as Japan’s reaction to Dexter’s intervention showed that the need for such an approach was vital, it also provided what Dexter proposed to be a logical rationale for going forward, and it went like this:

While Dex was in prison at Sasebo for freeing dolphins, Don and a number of others wrote him letters, sent him games and crossword puzzles, and tried to make his time in prison more bearable.  In discussing this afterward, Dex and Don agreed that doing so was not an endorsement of Japan’s penal system or Dexter’s imprisonment. An analagous ethical case could be made for interacting with captive dolphins, IF it could be done entirely within the context of improving their life-quality, and never stray from that.

Of course, an additional ethical consideration was that the captive dolphins did not exist in a vacuum; but in the context of wild dolphins being killed in the millions on the high seas. In a very real way, the dolphins in the wild needed their message to get out.  Of course, at the time, those keeping captive dolphins were doing little more than making them tail-walk and throw balls.

Getting it Done

Computers, electronics and videotape were the obvious tools, but they were not very well-developed in 1980, so Dex & Don discussed various ways of going about it over the following years while Don tried to find a workable situation to actually do the research.  He focused on Sea Life Park on Oahu.This was somewhat ambitious, because the folks at Sea Life Park were simultaneously strongly in favor of saving wild dolphins, but strongly leery of the “free the dolphins” sentiments of the conservation movement.  Park director Ed Shallenberger had been a member of “Save the Whales-Hawaii” before Don incorporated it, but he said the “Greenpeace guys” were nuts.

Don on OK, logo_crop  Don when he still had hair, on the join ET/GP vessel Ohana Kai

Moreover, Don, as then-president of Greenpeace in Hawaii, had taken initiative to urge Sea Life Park to release its spinner dolphins back into the wild. Those dolphins had been captured for tagging studies and were not doing well in captivity, so Don had secured the agreement of Ken Norris (the scientist who had studied them) that they should be released to the wild. This “release the spinners” push by Don succeeded in getting the last surviving spinner released to the wild in June of ’83, but it also established Don as a person willing to press SLP to release its animals and added a bit of tension to the relationship.  Don was proposing nothing less than he and his staff having free run of the most proprietary part of their training area every evening.

Finally, the sincere desire of SLP staff to collaborate in saving wild dolphins, and their appreciation of Dex and Don’s honesty at all times, made it possible. It would have been easy to say no: they deserved a huge amount of credit for the decision.

By early 1985 Don had conducted basic interaction tests with the dolphins; basically a device to make patterns on a TV screen via making noises into a hydrophone, which the dolphins enjoyed. Cetacean video games! Editing these sessions into a promo tape, Don tried pulling together more support, and began the conversion of the dilapidated concrete underwater room, half-filled with seawater, at “Bateson’s Bay”, to a sophisticated dolphin research lab.

Dex&Suejoystick   Dexter with Sue White, and early version of McAfee dolphin voice-recognition system

By 1988, the IBM PC had been invented and became affordable. Don pulled in John McAfee (later to become famous for anti-virus software), who was an expert in the then-new consumer field of computer voice recognition. John developed a custom card which would allow dolphins to manipulate images on a computer screen using key sounds as cursor keys, and Dexter worked with Don on developing programs with with dolphins might be able to give clues to the workings of their minds – while enjoying themselves at play.

By 1990, it was clear that the original IBM PC design was limited, and each new advance in consumer computing was being conceptually jumped on by Dex & Don. But then a bad thing happened. Dex had represented EarthTrust at a meeting of the Whaling Commission (IWC) and there had met famed freediver Jacques Mayal (subject of the movie “The Big Blue”). He had convinced Dexter that humans could adapt their bodies to extended underwater excursions, and Dexter felt that this could be a key to better interacting with wild dolphins.

That is how Dexter died in 1990. He tried a series of free dives (that is, breath-holding) in the clear waters on the Kona side of the big island in Hawaii, and on his third free dive to 100 feet, he suffered shallow-water blackout just before reaching the surface, and sank to the ocean floor.  No safety divers accompanied him, and only his young son in a kayak was a witness.

This enormous loss hit Don, the organization, and the movement hard, and changed the direction of the research, which Don had given a working name of “Project Delphis”.  Don was involved in directing over a dozen large campaigns as strategist, fundraiser, and manager, and could not be the guy constantly out at the lab doing the research.  That was to be Dexter’s role, flying in from his home on the big isle to run and oversee the lab efforts.  The whole dynamic of “collaborating highschool science teachers”, and the years of planning between Dex and Don, receded into the past. Don could not drop the other important campaigns in progress, some of which had millions of dolphin lives at stake, so he needed to find another person to direct the lab from day-to-day, and that person could no longer be Dexter.

KenMarten_Delphis  Dr. Ken Marten at the Delphis Lab

The Project’s ReBirth

After an exhaustive search, Don found Ken Marten, a PhD who had studied under Ken Norris, and had experienced threats to his life and intimidation as a federal “observer” on US tunaboats as he tried to fulfill the legal requirements of observing purse-seine net sets “on dolphins”. Marten had seen appalling losses of dolphins by uncaring and belligerent fishermen for no particular reason, and had explosives hurled at him, his records thrown overboard, and more.  Yet he fought back by testifying about this to Congress. This was a fellow whose courage and dedication to dolphin conservation were matched by a rigorous scientific background and years of research on animal behavior. He could bring a level of scientific credibility that the work could otherwise lack, and his standards were the highest. And he agreed with the restrictions Don had developed to keep ET within the ethical guidelines Dexter and Don had worked out.

Don’s directives steered the way the Delphis project took shape and was run [until 2003 when it closed]. It was a significant departure from other research, before or since.


  • First: no food reward. ET would not buy in to the “training” paradigm used by all other captive dolphin researchers, called “operant conditioning”.  Don’s own past had included time doing research in a “food reward” dolphin lab in the ’70’s, and he felt that the data obtained was in some cases heavily compromised by the assumption that dolphins would behave as predictably as rats.  Moreover, what he wanted was to document original dolphin behavior, not trained behavior.
  • Second: no playing with the dolphins.  As much fun as it would be, no swimming with the dolphins, no petting the dolphins; it had to be clear that the sole reason for the lab’s existence was for the dolphins, not the humans.
  • Third: participation had to be optional for the dolphins.  They had to have a free choice to ignore it entirely.   The only way to be sure that it improved the dolphins’ lives was to have it only available when they wished to play with it. An amazing set of restrictions for researchers to live with.
  • Fourth: whenever possible, no humans in the loop AT ALL. Ideally, the interactions would be between the dolphins and specially-programmed computers, cutting humans out of the loop. Constantly-running multi-data-channel videotape would record multiple video angles, visual displays of the dolphins ultrasonic sounds, audible recordings of the dolphins and the researchers’ comments, and any other data available, as a permanent record.
  • Fifth: no manipulation of the dolphins by ET.  ET would not participate in asking that dolphins be moved or in any other way participate in the activities of the oceanarium.
  • Sixth: A mandate to serve as a platform for promoting dolphin intelligence and abilities to global media, particularly within dolphin-killing nations.  It would be a condition of any news or documentary interviews given that the kills of dolphins also had to be mentioned in context with the happy and interesting imagery.
  • Seventh: at the point reasonable progress to save wild dolphins stopped being possible at the lab for any reason, the project would end.  Since its existence might be used by some to argue for the benefits of keeping dolphins captive, the project had an ethical mandate to make ongoing progress toward saving wild dolphins or shut down.

These directives were followed rigorously for the life of the lab, which meant creating an entirely new research paradigm: educational toys. The overriding constraint was that dolphins had to enjoy any research enough to participate in it rather than engaging in social behavior with the other dolphins or other distractions; that is, unless the dolphin found it inherently rewarding to participate, it didn’t happen. The only reward a dolphin might get would be the reward of an enjoyable activity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Don designs the delphis lab and paradigm

Designing Research based on “Dolphin Fun”

This meant, among other things, figuring out what the dolphins enjoyed. It also meant developing interaction interfaces like the world had never seen before, with which the dolphins could flexibly control computers to made things happen, in safety and without intrusion into their lives. The onus was on the research team to design things dolphins thought were “cool” enough to engage them.

It is perhaps worth taking a step back and remarking on this, as a slight digression from this narrative. Some of these were wild animals born in the open sea. None of them had been trained in any way to use a computer or display screen. Yet to varying degrees they taught themselves to do so using various programs and interfaces, much as a non-technological human might play a video game, entirely of their own initiative and volition. Isn’t that cool?  There may be a Copernican-level reframing of the default human worldview hiding in there somewhere.


Don designed the lab layout and its data-acquisition standards and set the priorities, goals, and research directions while Dr. Marten conducted the day-to-day research with very bright people like Suchi Psarakos and many gifted volunteers.

Another responsibility shouldered by Don was to keep the project funded, and keep Sea Life Park from kicking it out. Both were a challenge; the lab always ran at a significant loss, and to a large extent the salaries for Marten and other lab staff were paid by Don out of what would have been his retirement savings.  Moreover, the ownership of SLP changed hands many times during the duration of the project, and each time it did, ET was given an order to vacate. It was up to Don to intercede to prevent that from happening, and it was no small task. Ultimately, in 2003,  with Dr. Marten needing to retire for health reasons and SLP changing over to a dolphin-swim facility under authority of bankruptcy proceedings, Don stuck by the original guidelines and closed the lab.

It has never been duplicated, and it was one of the longest-running, original, and open-ended attempts ever conducted to learn more about the mind of the dolphin. In a very real way, dolphins themselves controlled the research directions.The senior advisors included Dr. Ken Norris, considered by many the world’s leading authority in Dolphin research, who considered the program very important and kept in close touch with Ken Marten, visiting the lab when he could. Another very active advisor was Dr. John C. Lilly, who Don had initially spent time with in 1979 discussing the concepts and practicalities.  John lived on Maui and visited the lab multiple times as an adviser and collaborator, publicly endorsing it as the logical extension of his own groundbreaking research into dolphins and the nature of Mind.  There’s no way to list all the others here, but mentioning Norris and Lilly may pretty well bracket the scope of dolphin experts who considered it a vital project.

don_lilly640400  John Lilly with Don at Delphis tankside

Notable among the advisors, part of the funding to keep it going came from Sir Arthur C. Clarke personally.

The lab inspired many dozens of documentaries and hundreds of international news stories over the years, as well as conducting utterly groundbreaking research. Prior to Project Delphis, for instance, it was believed by most scientists that “self-awareness” had only evolved once in the universe, in the great apes. By 1991, due to the Delphis research, it was clear that it had evolved from scratch at least twice, in beings evolutionarily separated by over 60 million years. This has profound implications for the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Textbooks had to be changed, as did human understanding of our own place in the universe.

It got very close to doing much more.  For instance, by 2001 White and Marten had set up everything necessary to allow computer-using dolphins to interact in realtime over the internet with students in schools around the world – including nations conducting high dolphin kills. This was a “holy grail” goal Don had worked towards for many years. There were no technical obstacles left to be overcome, and the computer-using dolphins were ready and willing. But the latest ownership of the marine park did not have a comfort level with it being out of their control, and would not allow it to “go live”, blocking the donated broadband internet from being connected. It concerned them that their captive animals might be freely interacting with foreigners over the internet. And one can kind of see how it would mess with their core narratives. Thus it never happened, and one wonders whether it ever will. But it came so close….

robin_delphis_pensive700  The Delphis project became a focus for Documentaries, and brought many people together.

The lab is closed, but the work continues

So the project started by Dex & Don went a long way, and is still going (as a set of principles and methodologies, and a data and video archive, if not a lab). Project Delphis brought together astronauts, futurists, conservationists, musicians, celebrities, politicians, and teachers, while presenting the realities of dolphins to billions of people and improving – if only a little – the life-quality of the dolphins who participated. The program itself did not close when the lab did, and its voluminous archived video data, experience, ethics and methods still exist to help us all reach a far future with dolphins still our earthly companions.

Now as we survey the prospects of oceans acidified and heated by human CO2 emissions, the spirit of Project Delphis needs to motivate us all. Scientists, conservationists, visionaries, and good people – with both legs and flippers – need to work together.



To improve human understanding and appreciation of the dolphin mind, and to leverage this new understanding into immediate and long-term protection for dolphins.


Create an experimental methodology to make it possible to scientifically test dolphin self-awareness and other advanced cognitive thresholds.  Put together a situation in which the dolphins themselves determine the directions of research by showing what interests them, entirely free of training and food reward. Devise an ethical standard for dolphin research motivated entirely by dolphin well-being.  Make the facts about dolphin cognition available and accessible to the world, always connected with issues of wild dolphins under siege by mankind. Take the next steps in interspecies communication.


Build a lab dedicated to these goals, and get the world involved. Take the images and the knowledge gained and build on them.


Create a flexible interface in which there is no “functional fixity”, and dolphins may use advanced computer electronics to control aspects of their environment, with the computer itself, and for purposes of communication with humans. Innovate the new hardware necessary to accomplish this. Create an ever-growing set of programs and situations the dolphins can react to and become involved with, at their sole discretion.



Nothing remotely close had ever been attempted. It broke new ground and has not yet been even remotely replicated. The techniques, ethics, and standards have set a high bar, and the goals of the program continue.


DIRECTED BY: Don White, Dr. Ken Marten (until 2003)


The program that first established dolphins as self-aware 1991. Documented use of dolphin communications via narrow-spectrum intercom.  Documented the passing on of cultural traits. Documented and analyzed dolphin air-core vortex ring “sculpture” and manipulation. The only dolphin research lab established entirely for dolphin conservation, by dolphin-savers.  The only lab not using food reward and operant conditioning. The only lab allowing dolphins simultaneous computer interaction by touch or sound. One of the longest-running labs in history.

It was designed to meld research with real-time dolphin conservation outreach, including the netting of dolphin in fisheriess, the killing of dolphins in drive kills in many nations, the sale of dolphin mean as “mock whale” in Japan, and other such issues. It spun off hundreds of documentaries, and always required by contract that these issues be included.


The dolphins themselves determined the research directions in very real ways. If they didn’t enjoy participating, a test would be scrapped. There was never any training or reward, and the dolphins were always free to ignore the research. This meant a high priority was given to making all aspects “fun” for the dolphins. Often, an experiment would be totally re-done based on dolphin preference, and more than once the focus of the research was suggested by what the dolphins preferred to do.

EarthTrust never owned dolphins, and it is very aware of the deleterious effects of captivity on cetaceans.  Thus, there was a constant reality-checking, an imperative to enhance the environment and lives of the captive dolphins involved while saving dolphins in the wild.  The past management of Sea Life Park is to be commended for allowing full access to the facility to people who they knew really didn’t believe in cetacean captivity, due to a joint desire to save dolphins in the wild.

When the lab could no longer benefit dolphins in real-time, significant ways, it was closed.  However, the methodological and ethical framework stands as an example of what can be done. And the sort of thing that must be done.

Some research links worth reading, from Marten & Psarakos, ET Project Delphis

Using Self-View Television to Distinguish between Self-Examination and Social Behavior in the Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus)

published in: Consciousness and Cognition  Vol 4, Issue 2, June 1995 pg 205-224
available  here.   Abstract  only.

Copyright 1991-2014 EarthTrust, Hawaii. All rights reserved.

Copyright 1991-2014 EarthTrust, Hawaii. All rights reserved.

Mirror image processing in three marine mammal species: killer whales (Orcinus orca), false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) and California sea lions (Zalophus californianus)
published in : Behavioural Processes

F Delfour (EarthTrust)  K Marten (Earthtrust)  Behavioural Processes
Volume 53, Issue 3, 26 April 2001, Pages 181–190
abstract available here:   Available for purchase from Publisher.

Mixed-species associations between Pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) off Oahu, Hawaii

published in: Aquatic Mammals
Suchi Psarakos1, Denise L. Herzing2 and Ken Marten1

1EarthTrust, HI 96734, USA 2 Biological Sciences, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL 33431, USA

Aquatic Mammals 2003, 29.3, 390–395

Long-term site fidelity and possible long-term associations of wild spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) seen off Oahu. Hawaii.

published in :  Marine Mammal Science

Marten, K., and S. Psarakos. 1999. Long-term site fidelity and possible long-term associations of wild spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) seen off Oahu. Hawaii. Marine Mammal Science 15:1329–1336.

abstract available here:

Patterns of Use of Maku’a Beach, O’ahu, Hawai’i, by Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris) and Potential Effects of Swimmers on Their Behavior
published in :  Aquatic Mammals
Aquatic Mammals 2005, 31(4), 403-412, DOI 10.1578/AM.31.4.2005.403

Scientific American, “The Ring Bubbles of Dolphins”

Marten, Psarakos, Sharif and White; cited in NASA technical reports here.

Link to Archival Delphis Pages

These pages are dated, but are still great resources for the program’s history:

The Delphis Lab

The Delphis Lab #2

The Apple-Delphis Collaboration

Delphis – Ken Marten

Dolphin self-awareness!

The Delphis project was the first scientific study to demonstrate self-awareness in dolphins by the phychological standard used for humans and other apes. Soon the 1991 results were replicated and confirmed by other labs around the world.

Despite all the environmental “wins” chalked up by ET, this research may be the most profound. Before it was done, it was believed that “self awareness” – having an individual awareness of oneself as one individual among many – existed only in humans and a few close human relatives among the great apes.

That is, it was believed that self-awareness might have evolved only once in the universe.

This breakthrough caused the textbooks to be rewritten, and opened the doors to the testing of other animals. And it drastically altered the way we think about intelligent, self-aware life in the universe.

It also added a moral dimension to human wiping out of dolphins: it was now clear that this was a massacre being perpetrated on conscious, aware beings.

See more about the research at these links:

Self-awareness in Animals and Humans: Developmental Perspectives.

Using Self-View Television to Distinguish between Self-Examination and Social Behavior in the Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Before the Delphis research, mankind believed that self-aware intelligence might have evolved only once in the universe. Now we know we’re not alone.

“..A large part of the mental capacity of a human culture exists outside the individual, whereas in non-manipulative dolphins it is still embodied in brain and behavior. As far as our ability to act as social beings is concerned, we may be inferior to many cetaceans”. – Dr. Ken Marten, lab director, ET’s Project Delphis


Mystery of the Silver Rings

 – written by Don White in 1991, excerpted here

The young dolphin gives a quick flip of her head, and an undulating silver ring appears–as if by magic–in front of her. The ring is a solid, toroidal bubble two feet across–and yet it does not rise to the surface! It stands erect in the water like the rim of a magic mirror, or the doorway to an unseen dimension. For long seconds the dolphin regards its creation, from varying aspects and angles, with its vision and sonar. Seemingly making a judgement, the dolphin then quickly pulls a small silver donut from the larger structure, which collapses into small bubbles. She then “pushes” the donut, which stays just inches ahead of her rostrum, perhaps 20 feet over a period of up to 10 seconds. Then, stopping again, she regards the twisting ring for a last time and bites it–causing it to collapse into a thousand tiny bubbles which head–as they should–for the water’s surface. After a few moments of reflection, she creates another. Silver Rings 2 This isn’t fantasy, it’s real. And it isn’t magic, just marvelous. It is a rare dolphin behavior, and we first saw it in the play of two baby dolphins. It gives us a little more insight into the superb level of control dolphins can exercise on their water environment, and underscores the fact that we can still discover things about dolphins by simply watching them.

I first saw this behavior on one of my relatively rare trips out to the Delphis lab; the project’s principle scientist Ken Marten said that “the two babies, Tinkerbell and Maui” had been doing it for a little while. My reaction: “Wow, neato. How the heck do they DO that? Try to get some photo and video shots of it. It sure is cool”. Ken, along with Suchi Psarakos, Research Assistant and computer programmer, did indeed document the silver rings (although video and photos don’t do the rings justice), and this has made it possible to both analyze the physics behind the phenomenon and to watch the dolphins do this trick in slow-motion. delrings   lordrings3 As it turned out, small silver rings weren’t the only toys the dolphins were making for themselves: some of the creations were as large as a basketball rim. And Tinkerbell proved able to create a silver helix, spiraling perhaps 20 feet long, that would spring into life in a fraction of a second and remain stable in the water as she swam past, observing it with sonar and vision. then–presto! she would grab a small silver ring from the helix to play with, while the rest of the helix degraded into bubbles which would belatedly “remember” to rise to the surface. 

This was a wonderful mystery to ponder. My attempts at re-creating the rings in a swimming pool succeeded only in getting water up my nose, but my guesses were confirmed–with better and more rigorous explanation–by the fluid dynamics class of Suchi’s close friend Hans Ramm at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

The silver rings, as it turns out, are “air-core vortex rings”, and the helices are a similar phenomenon. Invisible, spinning vortices in the water are generated from the tip of a dolphin’s dorsal fin when it is moving rapidly and turning. According to Hans: “Being unstable without a boundary nearby, the vortex line tends to form into a more stable form such as a helix. When the dolphins break the line, the ends are drawn together into closed rings. Owing to the Bernoulli effect, the higher velocity fluid around the core of the vortex is at a lower pressure than the fluid circulating farther away. Air is injected into the rings via bubbles released from the dolphin’s blowhole.” The energy of the water vortex is enough to keep the bubbles from rising for a reasonably long period–on the order of 10 seconds. There also seems to be a separate mechanism for producing small rings, which a dolphin can accomplish by a quick flip of its head.

There is little doubt that this is what is occurring. However, understanding the physics should not diminish our appreciation of this spontaneous act of creation by a dolphin mind. These young dolphins have detected, understood, and manipulated a subtle aspect of their environment, for no reason other than play. Silver Rings 1 Creation of these rings by dolphins isn’t new. (far from it–dolphins were probably blowing magnificent silver rings while our anscestors were hanging off tree limbs). It does seem to be a relatively rare behavior, though: it has been seen before only in a specific group of dolphins documented by Diana Reiss and Jan Ostman at Marine World. “The fact that ring-blowing is rare and that we have two babies doing it suggests that one baby learned it from the other”, comments Ken Marten. “Whether it was a case of observational learning, or one “taught” the other, we don’t know… but it’d sure be interesting to know.” 

The social situation also seems to affect ring-blowing: ” The babies made them most intensely when they were the only two dolphins in the tank and when there was only one adult. The behavior stopped entirely when they were outnumbered by adults, ” observed Suchi. “During one intense session with Tinkerbell there were often two or three rings visible in the tank at one time. She frequently swam over to me in an excited state, then went and made some more.”

The reaction to our documentation of these rings has been universal–people are fascinated by them. Dr. Ken Norris, the world’s leading expert on dolphins, had never seen it before. Robert Wolff of Apple Computer’s Advanced Design Group made a “quicktime” movie of ring-blowing for display on Mac computers. Arthur C. Clarke, EarthTrust Advisory Board member, thought they were wonderful–but debated my offered contention that they might be the first “extraterrestrial art”, pointing to interesting “artistic” achievements by other nonhuman animals.

For myself, I do consider these rings to be “art”: the creation and observation of artifacts by a nonhuman mind, with no use other than entertainment and aesthetics. One must be constantly wary not to anthropomorphize the actions of other species–to treat them as though they were human. But after watching a dolphin create one of these kinetic sculptures–observe it from many angles–and then destroy it with a bite–it seems a long leap of logic to ascribe any other motive.

This can, and will, be debated… but the beauty of the rings is beyond debate. As evidence mounts for “self awareness” and other “intelligent” qualities in dolphins, I think that it must cause us again to ask the question: what are these creatures, that they spin silver lariats for the sheer joy of creation? And what sort of creatures are we, if we cannot appreciate and protect them? lordrings1