interview: Denise Herzing

Denise Herzing

Research Director, Wild Dolphin Project / The Bahamas

Denise Herzing founded the Wild Dolphin Project to study free-ranging Atlantic spotted dolphins — "in their world, on their terms." She is currently writing a book with that title.

What is the Wild Dolphin Project?

The Wild Dolphin Project is a scientific research organization that studies and reports on a specific pod of free-ranging Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis). Objectives of this long-term, non-invasive field research are to gather information on the natural history of these dolphins, including behaviors, social structure, communication, and habitat; and to report what we have learned to the scientific community and the general public.

When was it created?

Wild Dolphin Project was created as a research project in 1985, incorporated in 1988 in California, and then in 1990 in Florida. The NGO was created to provide a broad funding vehicle for long-term fieldwork with dolphins.

Who started it?

I started the research project as well as founding the NGO, WDP, to support the work.

Why did you get involved?

I created this project so I could try to do what Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did in the wild. I wanted to observe, long-term and intimately, a society of wild animals (dolphins) and tell their story to the world.

Have you always worked in the NGO field?

Yes, in addition to working in university positions. I am also research faculty at Florida Atlantic University, Dept of Biological Sciences, and Dept. of Psychology.

Why is NGO work important?

It is especially difficult to fund long-term fieldwork in the sciences. NGO work is critical because funding opportunities are much more diverse and able to respond to immediate needs and high risk but high value projects as determined by individuals or foundations with long-term vision.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing your NGO?

The biggest challenges are 1) to keep continuity in the fieldwork and research, which means finding support/funding every year. Although our vision is long-term and big, our funding is obtained yearly and 2) to tell the story to the public, both scientifically and personally to have a greater impact for the health of dolphins and our planet.

What is your dream for the NGO?

To monitor, long-term, this resident group of dolphins and follow three or four generations through their life and times, and tell the story.

What situation most frustrates you about your NGO?

It has been frustrating to not have an endowment in place to secure the base funding for the project. Fundraising takes time away from the critical work of WDP, but of course it needs to be done.

What would you consider the WDP's greatest accomplishment?

Our largest accomplishment has been to stay out in the field every summer to insure continuity with identifying individual dolphins that is so critical for life history monitoring and family relationships. In addition, we have managed to keep a trusting relationship with the dolphins in order to have their cooperation in the water for observations.

What are three things about your NGO what you wish people knew?

  • WDP works non-invasively, benignly, and respectfully with the dolphins as mutual participants in the research.
  • WDP has a unique story to share about the dolphins and what it is like to live, love, and survive in the ocean.
  • WDP needs long-term support to continue its mission
How can people get involved?

  • Public can become members and receive our newsletter with announcements of events and opportunities.
  • WDP has a limited amount of space on our research vessel for the public who wish to be an eco-volunteer.

How was the grant given by explore through the Annenberg Foundation used?

Grants given by the Annenberg Foundation are used to support the ongoing research and the vision of WDP. This includes operations, development and capacity building.

Do you think it had have an impact?

Yes. Like many NGO’s our funding is often very dependent on the support of a few long-term and visionary foundations and individuals. Such support allows us to focus on the most important needs of the work.

What was your biggest surprise when explore came to visit you?

It was a surprise to learn how personal of a story it was that you wanted to tell and share. But it is true, a leader can not only shape an organization but certainly propel a vision. Explore is a very visionary project itself.

What is your operating budget? With more funds, how would you get involved?

For many years our operating budget was about 350-400k/year. This last year it was about 550k/year. With additional funds WDP would be able to build capacity through board members and development, continue or ongoing research and also hire some technology help to build capacity to tell the story utilizing our media in today’s communication venues.

Is it worth people of foundations to come visit you? Can they if they want?

Yes, of course. Our bricks and mortar is our fieldwork and our research vessel. Our land office primarily hosts our computers, video tapes, and administrative support. It is invaluable for foundations to see the work in action, at sea, and can often give them a reality check on how and what it takes to get the work done. In our case it involves many days at sea, lots of time in the water, and much post-production analysis and work to make sense of the information and put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Do you think media accurately portrays the issues your organization represents?

Not always. I think it is easy to see the beauty, the clear water, and the dolphins. But it doesn’t’ show what it takes to do the work, how we do it, and what the detailed story is. It can sometimes be inaccurate as far as our stance of being in the water with dolphins, and to not encourage it as a general policy in the world, without guidance and knowledge of the species.

If a child asks you, what is the most important thing in life, what would you say?

Be real, be kind, and follow your bliss.

Who is smarter, a two year old or an adult?

Depends on the individual…and the definition of smart.

Did you have an inspirational figure in your life growing up?

Jacques Cousteau was inspirational for his exploration of the oceans and telling the story. Jane Goodall was inspirational for her exploration of another species, non-invasively. And my father was inspirational for his gentleness with nature and his unconditional support of my studies, despite having a very difficult life of war and loss.

If there is one place, issue, or thing out there in the world you could explore, what would it be?

I would focus my time on exploring interspecies communication, between non-human animals and between humans and animals.

What do you believe to be the biggest challenge facing our planet today?

Our biggest challenge is the awareness and acceptance of our interconnectness to nature and our need to respect and give other species a healthy place in the world to live.

What do you think will be our planet’s biggest challenge 10 years from now? 25 years from now? 50 years from now?

  • 10 yrs - Environment and the rights of other species to live in their natural environment
  • 25 yrs - Population control of the human race
  • 50 yrs - Depending if the above could be solved, could be the same, but I hope not. I would hope our biggest challenge in 50 years is how to learn and explore nature to its fullest without negative impact.

Why is it important to be a selfless person?

Because we are bigger than our persons and to make an impact, we must put something else first and put ourselves in a larger context of energy and life.

What is the key to living a happy life?

Being yourself.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

I would share the experience of connectedness with nature, so that the large and ever-growing human population could begin to live and make decisions that incorporated nature and work with it, instead of against it.

Why do people have such a love affair with dolphin?

I think that dolphins represent freedom and joy to many people. Probably because of their playful nature. It is natural, and healthy, for us to connect to nature, and good that we do. But it is important that we do it non-invasively so it is healthy for them.

Why do you have such a bond with these creatures?

I think intelligence recognizes intelligence. Awareness of another sentient species by simply looking into an eye and noting that something is behind that eye is incredible. Dolphins make it clear that they are aware of you, and can engage you as no other wild animal can engage a human being. I think the ultimate bonding for me comes from not only a mutual awareness, but also a respect for each other. I want them to be dolphins; they probably want us to be humans. The question is where can we meet and what can we learn. It's a relationship, you want the other to be themselves (hopefully) and that is what you enjoy about them.

How can we learn from the dolphin?

I think respecting and observing dolphins in their natural and healthy society can teach us much about conflict and cooperation, respect and learning, and civility. I think it can also make us reflect on our place in the world, in nature, and it may help us recognize other intelligent minds in the universe.

What are some things that people simply don't know about wild dolphins that they should?

Dolphins have long-term friendships. The dolphins' world and society is primarily about relationships. Their lives are enhanced by complex relationships (which doesn't mean they aren't challenging relationships and issues). I think that a dolphin's greatest joy is probably in the companionship of another.

Do dolphins travel in pods like orcas?

Depends on the species, because there are over 30 species of dolphins, and it can depend on their habitat. Our group of Atlantic spotted dolphins has small subgroups of typically 7-8 individuals. They get together at certain times of the day in larger groups of 20 or so. Many open ocean species, like spinner dolphins in the Pacific, live in large schools of hundreds or thousands, probably driven by safety issues in deep water.

Are orcas and dolphins related?

Orcas are the largest species of dolphins in the dolphin family. Taxonomically, all whales and dolphins are cetaceans (Order Cetacea). There are two suborders of cetaceans, Suborder Mysticete (baleen whales) and Suborder Odontocete (toothed cetaceans). The Family Delphinidae is one of 6 Families of toothed whales. Other examples of families are the sperm whale family (Family Physeteridae), the river dolphins (Family Platanistidae) and so forth. Within the dolphin family (Family Delphinidae) there are over 30 species including "dolphins" as we think of them, and orcas, as the largest dolphin. From there it goes to Genus (Stenella) and species (frontalis) in the case of the spotted dolphins. Of course much in taxonomy is changing because of genetics, so that has restructured some of this taxonomy, but those are the basics.

Do they communicate in similar ways?

All toothed cetaceans used a variety of whistles and clicks to communicate. They also have similar body structures, so some of their body language probably overlaps. Although signals can vary, visually, in clear vs. murky water, etc.

Like orcas, are dolphins identified by their dorsal fin?

Most projects use dorsal fins for identification, as individuals or species. In our underwater work we use not only dorsal fin information, but spot patterns and any other coloration on their bodies that is trackable.

Tell me about the family structure of the dolphin.

Again, it is dependent on the species. Atlantic spotted dolphins have close ties between mothers and calves. After 3 years of nursing, calves join juvenile groups to learn social rules. Females mature around 9 or 10 years and can get pregnant at that time. Previous to female maturation, many females have been learning how to babysit, in preparation for their lives as mothers. Females can change their friendships based on reproductive status. Males tend to form life long friendships and coalitions.

Do baby dolphins eventually separate from their mothers?

See above, but females may be a bit closer to their mothers than male offspring. It is not unusual to see a grandmother with her grandkids and daughter.

What is the role of the father?

Well, only through genetics can begin to estimate who the father is, so it is unlikely that the dolphins themselves know. Dolphin society is fairly altruistic and it behooves all individuals to help take care of the offspring, since many different males could be the fathers. Male coalitions tend to take the role of protectors and scouts in the society in general.

How much do dolphins eat?

Dolphins eat around 1/5 to 1/4 of their body weight in a day, again dependent on species and their activity level.

What do dolphins eat?

Dolphins eat many different things. Fish and squid are the staples. Dolphins are carnivores, not omnivores.

Do dolphins have predators?

Orcas, False killer whales, and sharks are all predators on dolphins. Humans also are predators in some parts of the world.

Why are the dolphins in the Bahamas?

The Bahamas is a great environment if you are a dolphin. The shallow sand banks provide safety during the day to rest and socialize because dolphins can see predators easily on a shallow white sand bottom. This is also the feature that allows human researchers to spend a significant amount of time in the water there. At night, the dolphins can tap into the Deep Scattering Layer on the deep-water edge and hunt flying fish and squid at night. It's more dangerous but it's good eating.

What is the status of the dolphin population?

Our population of Atlantic spotted dolphins in the northern Bahamas was stable, around 200 individuals, until the hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005. After that, over 35% of our known individuals were missing, either through direct loss or secondary habitat/food loss. There are many species of dolphins that are endangered around the world, some who have sensitive and small home ranges, and others who live in polluted waters. Marine mammals, in general, have slow reproduction — investing much time in their young, so impacts on mammal populations are especially significant.

Has global warming or environmental pollution of the sea had any effects on dolphins?

Global warming and pollution affects all life in the sea. Dolphins are top predators and indicators of the health of the oceans. As sea levels and temperatures rise and coral reefs and other primary production systems are affected, so too will be the dolphins because they depend on fish for their food. And because dolphins have blubber layers, many toxins accumulate in dolphins, some of which are "dumped" through milk to the young. In urban areas with heavy pollution from run-off in the waterways, dolphins have lesions, diseases, and are in very bad shape.

How do you feel about dolphins in captivity?

In an ideal world I don't think any animals would be in captivity, at least not large mammals. Although dolphins in captivity are sometimes the only exposure of the public to these creatures, it is not necessarily good for the dolphins. Many parks focus on entertainment and tricks, which is not the best education for the public. Many captive swim programs, especially in other countries, have captured young dolphins out of their families, to provide entertainment to tourists. There are elephant sanctuaries, primate sanctuaries, African animal sanctuaries, but there are no dolphin sanctuaries. There is no place for a dolphin to retire and live out a dignified life.

First, there should be no more capture from the wild, period.

Second, any dolphins that can be rehabilitated should be allowed to either be released properly, or at least live their lives out in a dolphin retirement/rehab center. A few attempts have been made by well-meaning individuals, but human politics and long-term funding have prevented such a facility from becoming a reality.

Thirdly, if humans decide that dolphins should no longer be in captivity, then birth control for captive dolphins should be utilized so no more dolphins are bred in captivity. There would likely be some stranded dolphins, and many existing dolphins, who would still need to be in a facility for health reasons, or that could not be released. I envision a facility that would allow a dignified life, mental and physical stimulation, while allowing the public to view these creatures (without interference).

How do you feel about the testing of Navy Sonar and the impact it might have on dolphins and other marine animals?

I believe we are well aware of the negative impacts of these sounds on marine mammals. I don't believe the use of this sound is justified if it is going to destroy ocean life to accomplish a military mission. The human race, and many countries, will be in much worse shape should our food chain break down and life in the oceans be extinguished. Now that will be a crisis. And a political one at that.