There came a point early in The Dolphin in the Mirror–the prologue, to be exact–where I began to dread reading the remainder of the book. I’m an animal lover who’s been known to anthropomorphize my pets on more than one occasion, and I’m total sucker for animals-overcoming-hardship/abuse stories. This book begins with a riveting one: the rescue of a humpback whale named Humphrey from San Francisco Bay in 1985. By the end of the prologue I was in tears, and I thought to myself, “At this rate, I’ll never make it through this book!” Fortunately, the rest of the book isn’t as emotionally charged. Diane Reiss, the director of dolphin research at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, has dedicated her life to exploring the dolphin mind. Though her work as a scientist has required her to keep a scientist’s cool distance in her research, Reiss’s empathy for dolphins shines through the book, and she is clearly passionate about using her work as a scientist to improve dolphins’ environment both in captivity and in the wild.
Following her prologue, Reiss switches gears and gives readers an overview of dolphin myths from around the world, reaching as far back as Greek mythology and as recent as the stories of the dolphins who reportedly saved a six-year-old Elian Gonzalez after the boat he was on capsized during his escape from Cuba. Historically, dolphins have always been revered and respected, but their stature has rapidly diminished over the last couple of centuries.
Reiss then shifts the focus of her book again, reminiscing over her early years as a researcher whose goal was to learn how to communicate with dolphins. Her idea was to develop a keyboard that would allow her research subjects more control of their environment (what toys to “ask” for, etc). She talks about the early days of dolphin research, when aquarium environments left much to be desired, especially compared many of the research facilities that exist today.
One of the pinnacles of Reiss’s career was discovering that dolphins were self-aware when they looked at a mirror. Mirror self-recognition is considered as evidence of high intelligence in a species, and only a handful of species (such as certain primates) have displayed self-recognition when looking at a mirror. Reiss’s project was trickier than most, though, in that the experiments had to take place under water; the problems were compounded even further by the fact that dolphins have no hands (this made it harder to ascertain what dolphins were thinking–if a subject has hands, it’s obvious when they’re reaching out or experimenting with what they see in the mirror’s reflection). Through trial, error, and a lot of creativity, Reiss and her collegues were able to make their breakthrough discovery:
Above (no dialogue): A young female dolphin experiments with her reflection.
Armed with decades of research that proves dolphins are highly intelligent creatures, the last part of Reiss’s book is devoted to calling for the protection of dolphins. One of her biggest passions is raising awareness on the yearly dolphin slaughters that take place in Taiji, Japan, where thousands of dolphins are rounded up in a hidden cove. Those who have seen the Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove, are familiar with this injustice (Reiss was a science advisor for the film). For those who haven’t seen the movie: once the most attractive dolphins are separated and sold to aquariums around the world, the systematic slaughter of the remaining dolphins begins as dolphins are stabbed to death or hanged by their tails and disemboweled while they’re still alive. Over the course of a few days, the crystal blue waters in the cove turn blood red. Considering the intelligence and self-awareness of dolphins, Reiss passionately argues that the slaughters are horrifically inhumane.
There is a lot to absorb from this book. There are a couple of slow parts, but for the most part, Reiss makes all of the science and cultural history easily digestible. I was constantly amazed by the painstaking lengths scientists must take to adhere to the scientific method (I would not have the patience to be a scientist). But really, who doesn’t love dolphins? They’re beautiful creatures, and Reiss’s research provides much wondrous insight into their minds.
The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 20, 2011.