At Hawaii's Sea Life Park on the windward shore of Oahu, in a small, quiet pool, there is a gentle, well-mannered bottlenose porpoise named Alice. Compared to most of the captive porpoises frolicking around in seaquariums today, Alice is a real dud. She does not play baseball or basketball, although a number of porpoises of her acquaintance are now going in for these grand American games in a big way. In a lagoon at Sea Life Park, just up the hill from Alice's pool, there is a troupe of theatrical porpoises that wind up each of their five shows a day by doing the hula. Alice, in contrast, never dances and it is doubtful that she could ever be persuaded to wriggle exotically in public.
Although she would be a disaster in any discoth√®que, Alice is one of the pacesetters of the new generation of career porpoises that simply do not have time for trivia. After four or five years of proper schooling among her own kind in the Atlantic, Alice took specialized training under excellent human tutors at Marineland in Florida. Then, several years ago, she was flown, all expenses paid, to California, where she worked for a while for the Navy at the Point Mugu missile center. About a year ago she moved to Hawaii, where she is doing advanced research under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Norris, Professor of Zoology at UCLA. Although reserved, like any well-traveled porpoise, Alice is chatty and at times outspoken. At the mere drop of a dead smelt in her pool, she is apt to emit a great many sonic and ultrasonic squawks, blats, squeaks, barks and whistles, which probably carry a world of meaning to other porpoises but are largely wasted on Dr. Norris, whose ears and mind are not sophisticated enough for such gabble.
Despite the language barrier that separates them, Alice has been helping Dr. Norris to understand how porpoises use their ears as a second pair of eyes. The U.S. Navy wants to know and so do the National Institutes of Health, which have the interest of the nation's 400,000 blind at heart. Blind people today can guide themselves only by crudely rapping a cane on pavement, and even the most precise apparatus used by mariners is cumbersome and Neanderthal compared to the exquisite sonic system built into the porpoise Alice. By the use of man-made systems, a submarine can be spotted even when lying silent on the sea floor, but it cannot be identified or easily distinguished from the wreckage of a ship that sank in some forgotten year.
By contrast, when Alice is blindfolded, if a single BB shot is dropped into the pool she will know it. If a dead fish is thrown in, she can tell where it landed without seeing it and can recognize that it is worth eating. If two steel balls of about baseball size are silently lowered into her pool, Alice can locate both and distinguish between them even if there is no more than a quarter-inch difference in their diameters. In brief, by sound alone, she can not only find an object but also tell a great deal about its size, shape and composition.
March 21, 1966
Fishermen have suspected for some time that porpoises can reach beyond the limits of their eyes from the way they avoid fine-mesh nets in murky water. In the 1950s, in a painstaking series of tests, Dr. Winthrop Kellogg, a psychologist at Florida State University, tried to make porpoises run into submerged obstacles. He used sunken panels of transparent plastic and a maze of iron poles that barely allowed porpoises room to make a decent turn, but even when he shifted the obstacles about surreptitiously on dark, moonless nights in water of less than one-foot visibility the porpoises had no trouble staying clear.
Five years ago Dr. Norris and a research team of men and porpoises took up about where Dr. Kellogg left off. At present Norris is fairly certain that, by using its skull bones as reflectors and using special tissues as acoustical lenses, a porpoise puts out a broad band of frequencies of varying intensity in a wide arc forward of its head. While transmitting, the porpoise is also receiving and evaluating a hodgepodge of rebounding signals, so that at every moment it has a mental picture of what lies around it.
In his most recent tests with the porpoise Alice, Dr. Norris has discovered that the lower jaw of the bottlenose porpoise is a very important part of its ultrasonic receiving system. When Alice's lower jaw was covered with a foam-rubber guard that high-frequency sound could not penetrate, she had difficulty locating and identifying familiar objects. When wearing the soundproof chin guard, Alice increased the volume of her signals until the lower-frequency components could be heard by Dr. Norris above water—in effect, she yelled at the top of her lungs trying to overcome her ultrasonic blindness. In future tests Alice will wear ultrasonic "blinders" on other parts of her head and beak. By analyzing Alice in this way, piece by piece, cheek by jowl, Norris is inching toward the day when men may move in the dark as easily as porpoises have been doing for many millions of years.
Like the tribes of man on land, the various species of porpoises in the sea world differ greatly in their behavior and disposition. Last summer one of the pools at Sea Life Park was occupied by a rowdy career porpoise named Kai, a member of the species commonly called rough-tooth, or Steno. Although a Steno is a true porpoise, in body and soul it seems more to be some kind of archaic saurian renegade that has swum out of the dark ages, defying all the laws of evolution and battling all the way. Although Kai, the Steno, is only half Alice's age, he is already scarred from head to tail as if he had spent his finest hours brawling with a switchblade. While a gentle, bottlenose grande dame like Alice is often content to spend a lifetime in the quiet shallows of an estuary, a Steno like Kai prefers the wide, deep sea beyond the 1,000-fathom line. That is where the action is, and that is where Stenos really live it up.
Whenever a human approached his pool last summer, instead of merely rolling on the surface and flashing a big smile (as gentle Alice does), Kai often leaped six feet in the air. Then, instead of reentering the water as neatly as he left it, he would do a half twist and land fiat, thus (ha-ha!) drenching everyone within 15 feet. Often Kai would hang vertically, his tail on the surface, head down, as if fascinated by nothing at all on the pool bottom. Whenever a trainer slapped the water to advise Kai that it was time to work, if Kai was not of a mind to work he merely righted himself and slapped the water with his tail, signifying, "To hell with you." Then he would resume a vertical position and continue staring at the bottom. "Kai was a complete slob," Dr. Norris recalls. "He bit everybody until we convinced him that he could do important work."
By early last fall Kai had been so convinced that he could help the human cause that he would obediently follow a boat out into deep water, where, on cue, he would depress a lever on the side of the boat and start a clock that turned on a sonic transmitter attached to a hoop that dangled 100 feet or more below the surface. As soon as he heard the sound in the depths, Kai would swim down through the hoop, breaking a light beam and thereby stopping the clock.
Sperm whales are known to dive deeper than half a mile, and small bottlenose porpoises can, for sure, dive 350 feet. Although there is no reliable evidence as yet, it is believed that a sleek, restless Steno like Kai can easily dive deeper than 600 feet. From a few tests conducted with Kai last fall, Dr. Norris knows that a Steno can dive 135 feet in a mere 15 seconds and can do so again and again with precious little rest. Unfortunately, although Kai seemed obliging enough during the initial tests, the call of the wild was still in him. In the late afternoon of the fifth day of tests Kai took it on the lam. When last seen in the gathering dusk, he was chasing a school of flying fish, still wearing his plastic career-porpoise tag (No. 33) on his dorsal fin. No doubt Kai, old No. 33, is still out there somewhere, having a ball, roughing it up and gathering more scars. This coming summer, by hanging instruments on other Stenos converted to the human cause, Dr. Norris hopes to find out not only how deep and how fast they dive, but also how they do so on a single lungful of air, penetrating to pressures that would crush a free-diving man. Since Navy men are now living in the sea, exposing themselves to all the whims of pressure, the Navy would like to know how the Stenos get away with it.
Last summer, while the gentle porpoise Alice was performing miracles in sonic darkness and the wild one, Kai, was learning to behave, in Kaneohe Bay on the east coast of Oahu two Pacific spotted porpoises, Haina and Nuha, were making speed runs over straight, measured courses, clocking up to 21 knots. No one genuinely knows how fast porpoises can go, although sea captains will swear that, while cold sober, they have seen porpoises pass their ships doing better than 30 knots. Even if the 21-knot clockings of Haina and Nuha are the limit, physiologists and hydrodynamic experts are still confounded. It means that porpoises are somehow reducing the drag of the water far better than they seem designed to do. If they are not using superhydrodynamics beyond human comprehension, then in some equally perplexing way they are getting seven times more power from their muscles than other mammals can. Today, to be sure, there are ships and submarines that exceed 21 knots, but they all use very elaborate machinery and expensive fuel. The Navy would like to know how such a compact bundle of energy as a porpoise can move so fast while burning only 18 pounds of fish a day.
In the past six years the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and other agencies have spent well over half a million dollars exploring the superhuman bodies and bright minds of sea mammals. A good bit of this money has supported the work of Dr. John Lilly, who for the past 10 years has been the foremost champion of better understanding between man and porpoise. In an attempt to find some common ground on which men and porpoises might meet and communicate, Dr. Lilly has persuaded porpoises to alter their "voices," lowering some of their sounds into the frequency range of the human ear while emitting what at least is a mimicry of human speech. In a program somewhat different from that of Lilly, using recording equipment of the sort any hi-fi buff can throw together in his rumpus room for a mere $30,000, William Evans, an acoustical expert of the Norris research team, has been analyzing the normal vocalization of porpoises. The cryptographs of porpoise talk that Evans has plotted so far resemble the shorthand of a stenographer who has barely survived three martinis at lunch, but from behavior tests during which such scratchings were recorded it seems certain that porpoises have some kind of language. Porpoise talk may not have the windy eloquence of human speech, but tests suggest that it is far superior to the barking, braying and chitter-chattering of other animals.
At the U.S. Naval Missile Center at Point Mugu, a bottlenose porpoise named Tuffy now serves as bodyguard and delivery boy. If a diver down 250 feet wants a left-handed monkey wrench from topside, he need only beep on a sonic transmitter and good old Tuffy will bring it to him in less time than it takes a human diver to get into his gear. As if the porpoises were not reinforcement enough, another old gang of theatrical hams, the sea lions, are now getting into the scientific swim. Several years ago at Point Mugu a sea lion named Roxy—who also performs onstage, as her name implies—proved she could dive 240 feet in less than a minute. When a sonic pinger was hidden at a depth of 30 feet, anywhere in a 100-foot radius in murky water, Roxy could find it in less than 20 seconds. On one occasion, when Roxy got bored and refused to play such a simple game of fetch it, human divers had to recover the pinger. It took them eight hours to find it.
In the suburban community of Tucson Park West in southern Arizona, where at one time even a chuckwalla had trouble making ends meet, today the barking of sea lions echoes from the dry and timeless hills. Although there are now several sea lions working in the Arizona desert, most of the barking comes from one frenetic young female named Moki, who is no smarter than the average sea lion but is nonetheless very important. In the strict terminology of psychologists, Moki is "very highly food-motivated," which is merely a clumsy way of saying she will do anything for a piece of fish. On command Moki retrieves objects, pokes buttons, turns on lights, swims through hoops and performs other feats that are not in themselves extraordinary, but while doing them Moki is helping to test telemetry equipment that will eventually be used in experiments involving porpoises, men and other creatures. Moki is employed in Arizona by the Sensory Systems Laboratory, a small beehive of human ingenuity that is dedicated to finding ways to measure, analyze and simulate the bewildering capabilities of living creatures. If you want an electronic hoop such as the porpoise Kai used in Hawaii; if you need a device to make chicken eggs hatch at a particular time or a method of synthesizing sea-lion milk; indeed, if you have any use for an electrical probe that will penetrate a single nerve cell in a frog's nose; if you want a radio built into a false tooth; or if you need a sonic relay that will control the movements of a free-swimming shark, the man to see is the Sensory Lab's director, a West Pointer named Howard Baldwin, who is one of the leaders in the new science of biological engineering.
Long before there were any engineers like Baldwin, there were, of course, men who tried to make a small profit by imitating nature. These early experimenters usually failed because they were not trained engineers but were simply optimists, like Icarus, who tried to fly like a bird and crashed in a mess of soft wax and feathers. Early men spent a great deal of time fussing with ordinary animals, like dogs and horses, that had little to offer except blind, stumbling loyalty and subservience. The values inherent in wild creatures were largely ignored. Although the porpoise often swam just offshore, it was separated from the human camp by a great chasm of time and philosophical differences. By the time men evolved a complex society, taking on a lot of excess baggage in the process, the porpoise had already traveled far along a different route, avoiding the many oppressions that men heap upon themselves. Packing everything worth having into one large brain, it mastered the art of traveling light.
It is only very recently, when men began occupying the sea in an awkward, landlubberly way, that anyone has really tried to find out what goes on inside a porpoise. Although a few specimens were on display earlier, the porpoise was not even considered an acceptable showpiece in zoos or aquariums until 30 years ago. Porpoises are very playful creatures, and sex is one of their favorite games. In the Victorian and Edwardian years, when a bare ankle was considered an inflammatory object, the sexy porpoises were simply de trop. Today children who have never heard about the bees and the flowers can go to any Porpoiseland and get the frank, mammalian truth.
Although it did not occur to them that the porpoise could be of practical value, many men of science and letters recognized 2,000 years ago that it was an extraordinary mammal-fish. Their observations and legends hold as truth today. In the resort town of Opononi in New Zealand there is a statue of a wild porpoise named Opo, which 10 years ago often came into the shallows, not for a handout but only to horse around with adults and to play ball with children and give them rides. In the writings of the ancients—notably the Plinys, Elder and Younger—there are similar accounts. The porpoise was as much admired then as it is today for its playfulness, its sociability and unselfishness and, most particularly, for its intelligence. The porpoise has proved that it has the ability to solve problems better than the apes, to improvise with the alacrity of a desperate rat and to remember like an elephant. It now has quite a reputation as a bright animal—perhaps an inflated reputation. In fact, it is most difficult to weigh the intelligence of the porpoise against that of man or other animals because it differs so in its function and makeup. Indeed, any comparison is as meaningless as comparing the diverse geniuses of Einstein and Thoreau.
But there is one superhumanoid trait of the porpoise that has fascinated everyone who has observed it closely. Over the years many panhandling animals, smart ones and dumb ones, have been persuaded to join the human camp. The virtues of these domestic panhandlers are, in large part, a product of conditioning and generations of breeding. In contrast, long before the wild porpoise was invited to join up—or was ever seriously considered—it seems to have been reaching across the great chasm, motivated by something more than a dead fish. It was Plutarch 1,900 years ago who first noticed this salient difference. "To the porpoise alone, beyond all others," Plutarch observed, "nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage. Though it has no need at all of any man, yet it is a genial friend to all, and has helped many."
Whatever its motives, the porpoise is now in camp, helping us sharpen our wits and weapons. And this, of course, may be the biggest mistake it has made in 40 million years.