When David Carmodel (red shirt on left) was spinning tales about Grand Isle and hurricane rescues, he spliced in a short aside that made my historicist ears prick up. Dolphins, he said, are great weathermen. When they slap their tails on the water, a storm is coming, Maybe not right away, but sometime soon, so it’s a good idea to listen to them and bring the boat in, gather the family, etc.
That claim — that dolphins are weather-signs, and more specifically that they presage storms — may or may not have much empirical truth behind it, but it’s an old and resonant story. Shakespeare alludes to it in Pericles, when a fisherman (who, like David and the residents of Grand Isle, lives in intimate contact with the sea) observes that dolphins “never come but I look to be washed” (2.1.25).
I don’t think that David was remembering his Shakespeare, or of the host of other authors from Lucian & Ovid forward who employ this metaphor. But I do think that this story, whenever it’s repeated, points to a deep and powerful human fantasy about how we want our bodies and our culture to interact with the ocean. If maritime mammals such as dolphins are communicating with us, and are in sympathy with human experiences, it may be that we needn’t be so merely terrestrial after all.
I’ve written about how dolphins figure an oceanic humanity recently in an article that’ll come out next year in a book collection, The Indistinct Human. Dolphins are bridge figures that thrive in a world of ceaseless change. They measure a fantasy of physical intimacy and connection to an oceanic world that’s mostly a place in which human bodies can’t survive.
Or, as I put it in the essay —
Unlooked-for allies and sometimes-reliable weather signs, dolphins are near-humans that remind humans of what their bodies cannot be (aquatic) and what their minds cannot do (foretell storms). Living in the inhospitable ocean, they are, as a Fisherman says in Pericles, “half-fish, half-flesh,” with their straight-and-crooked bodies astride the boundary between land and sea.
Padmini Sukumaran says
I really like your analysis of dolphins, that they are the bridge between the land and the sea, that they remind us of what we are not.
I wonder whether the dolphins particularly mean to communicate with humans when they presage storms or they are just reacting themselves to what they are predicting. It would be very interesting if they were actually meaning to communicate with human beings. A lot of animal researchers have found that animals are more aware of circumstances and can communicate with us in ways that we are unaware of. I think that whether the dolphins mean to communicate with us is an important factor of this curious behavior that should be researched.
If it so happens that the results are indeed that the dolphins mean to speak out to us, then your point about them being our bridge to the sea would definitely hold true!
I think that the reverse is also true regarding dolphins reminding us of what we are not and cannot be, that we are to dolphins what they cannot be, survive on the land. If it turns out that they mean to speak out to us, then it would make it more likely that the dolphins either consciously or unconsciously are reminded of what they cannot be when they see us, human beings. We actually can survive for a while in the water if we know how to swim, but they would not be able to survive on the land. That might be a curious fact that crosses their mind when they see us leaving the marine world to enter our natural terrestrial world or vice versa.
I really like all your references to the sea in this blog, Dr. Mentz! It is a fascinating topic that you keep posting on, which serves as leisure (and definitely intellectual enrichment, as this post allows) for our minds by the side of intense academic topics such as English department events or dissertatioons. Keep it up! I always look forward to all that you have to say about the sea, which is another one of my passions in my life. You know, Dr. Mentz, it even makes me want to one day follow your footsteps and study the sea in literature, such as in Shakespeare’s literary works. Before I took your seminar, Shakespeare and the Sea last spring, I had known that a lot of research could be done on this topic. I am even thinking of possibly changing my final project topic for this Introduction to the Profession seminar completely to one about the sea, which would honor a lot of our discussions this semester and be well guided by a faculty member who is of that expertise. Maybe we can have some talks about that in upcoming class meetings.
Steve Mentz says
It seems pretty clear that dolphins do communicate with humans, at least sometimes. I’m not sure about the tail-flaps that David mentions here, but the current state of research into cetacean language (and also that of chimps & bonobos, I think) seems pretty clear that they do communicate & not just to themselves.
In early 1989 I spent an amazing day at Shark Bay, Western Australia (about 1000k north of Perth) hanging out with some dolphin researchers & park rangers & wild dolphins that liked to hang out with humans. One guy could whistle a series of whirrs & clicks into a microphone that projected sound underwater & get most of the dolphins in the bay to whistle back. He thought that they were mostly talking about food, & also that one of the strange features of dolphin language was that, b/c of the conductivity of sound underwater, it could take place over a very large expanse of the ocean. What would it be like to talk farther than you can see?