I am a bridgetender at a bridge that spans the intracoastal waterway in Florida. This job gives me a front row seat to observe nature. The other night at around midnight, I was walking on the bridge to check if all the navigation lights were functioning properly. As often happens, I startled a blue heron, and it did not hesitate to voice its displeasure as it flew away. “SQUAWK, squawk, squawk…” I’ve heard that sound a million times at least. There was a brief pause and then I heard the same exact sound again. Identical. Except that this one came with three jets of water right below me. I looked down and there was a dolphin.
I came to an abrupt halt and just stared in shock. The dolphin had imitated the bird! By using its blow hole. I have never seen or heard anything like it. I stood there trying to accept what I’d just witnessed. As the dolphin swam away, I wondered who I could ask about this.
When I got home from work the next morning, I went straight to the internet and fired off an e-mail to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. I figured, why not go straight to the top? The worst that could happen is that they’d think I was a total crackpot and ignore me.
So, feeling like a nut, I told them my story, and asked, “Have you heard of dolphins imitating other creatures, or making sounds from their blow holes? I didn’t even know they could jet water out of them like whales can. I’m dying to know if I’m completely crazy. I know what I saw, but it was so weird.”
For the next several days I tried to put it out of my mind. I honestly didn’t expect a response. These are very important people engaged in extremely vital scientific inquiries. Why would they waste time responding to little old me? But just a few days later, I received this response:
Your message was forwarded to me by the WHOI Information office, since I study dolphin communication. Your observation is very interesting, and no, you are not crazy! I only wish you had had a video camera though since it would have been very cool to document what you heard. Dolphins are renowned vocal mimics, as are their relatives belugas (see attached recent paper by Ridgway et al). And they can be trained to make sounds like you heard (see attached paper by Lilly), but to my knowledge there are no published observations of spontaneous mimicry like you found. If it ever happens again, try to get video of it (I know it was at night, but even the audio would be great). I’m not sure about the water coming out of the blowhole. I guess they could not take in some water and shoot it out if they want to, but I have not personally observed this.
I was really stunned by this response. Dr. Sayigh is a Research Specialist in the Biology Department at Woods Hole, and also a Research Associate Professor in the Marine Biology department of the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she focuses on animal communication, behavior and ecology, and here she was, confirming that what I’d seen was within the realm of possibility! I responded to her right away:
Hi Dr. Sayigh,
Thank you so much for your response! I will read the attachments with great interest.
I wish I had a video camera at the time, too, but the odds of me being at the exact right place at the exact right time again would be astronomical. I have been a bridgetender since 2001 and I’ve never seen or heard anything like it before. I feel like it was a rare gift, and don’t expect I’ll ever experience it again. It makes me very happy to know that this is really possible. How amazing.
And FYI, I just watched the movie “Dolphin Tale” about Winter, the dolphin with the missing tail that lives at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and I saw him squirting water out of his blow hole a few times.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my inquiry! I hope you don’t mind, but I write a daily blog, and I’d like to write about this in it. Is it okay if I mention your name?
Dr Sayigh was kind enough to allow me to mention her in this blog, and the papers she attached were, indeed, very interesting. Apparently dolphins can, in fact, be trained to mimic through their blowholes. And beluga whales have been observed, in the wild, to mimic a crowd of children shouting in the distance, and in captivity, to say “out” and their own name.
What I saw and heard that night was like winning the lottery. It was like being given a ticket to be on the front row for a very unique natural performance. It was as if, for a brief moment, the veil between man and dolphin was lifted up, and we were on the same page. I don’t think I’ll ever look at dolphins in the same way again.