Alumni & Friends

Whistling While She Works

Four dolphins under water near the surface

Denise Herzing (M.A., ’88) says she approaches her studies of Atlantic spotted dolphins in the shallow, shining waters off the Bahamas like an anthropologist as well as a biologist: “Observe, make sense of their sounds, behaviors, understand their relationships and culture, and then try to make contact.”

After 30 years following three generations of dolphins through her nonprofit Wild Dolphin Project, each one given a name like Linus, Cobalt and Nereide, Herzing is attempting to make that contact using an underwater wearable computer system called CHAT. Created by computer scientists at Georgia Tech, the device links distinctive whistle sounds to objects like scarves and seaweed that are shared playthings between dolphins and divers. Herzing and her team of researchers, who spend five months on the water each summer, hope that the dolphins will begin to mimic these sounds to ask for the objects and that CHAT will “translate” those dolphin sounds to words in real time for the humans.

It’s not an experiment that many would try, admits Herzing, an assistant professor of psychological and biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University. “Unfortunately, scientists have been stifled to study interspecies communication because of the larger paradigm that animals simply don’t have language or complex communication,” Herzing says. “It’s kind of funny because as a scientist you are not supposed to make such assumptions.”

“It’s a privilege to observe another species so close and for so long but it is their world, not ours. We still only see a glimpse of what the life of a dolphin in the wild is like.” — Denise Herzing, founder, The Wild Dolphin Project

Herzing’s fascination with dolphins began with watching Jacques Cousteau on TV as a child. When she was 12, she wrote an essay about her desire for a human-animal translator “so that we could understand other minds on the planet.” At SF State, her main adviser was the late Hal Markowitz, an international leader in animal enrichment studies. She also worked with Diana Reiss in the Department of Speech and Communication on a communication project with captive dolphins at nearby Marine World Africa USA. “I was looking for a location to study dolphin sound and behavior, and this was why I chose SFSU,” Herzing said. “We had a great group of graduate students at the time, and most of us went to study dolphins in the wild, in the Bahamas, Tahiti and Hawaii.”

Herzing, recently described by National Geographic as a “veritable Jane Goodall of the sea,” has demonstrated the same passion, persistence and willingness to work beyond the world of academia as the famous chimpanzee researcher. “If I had waited to get government funding, I would still be waiting to start my project,” says Herzing, whose nonprofit scientific research organization relies upon the generosity of donors.

She says she will continue working toward a time when humans can get their message across the species barrier: “We now have the tools to explore language in many species if we are willing to try.”


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