BOOKS: The Dolphin in the Mirror

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2011:

The Dolphin in the Mirror
by Diana Reiss
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
(215 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10003), 2011.
265 pages, hardcover. $27.00.

Diana Reiss, Ph.D., shares her extensive experience with
dolphin intelligence in her first book, The Dolphin in the Mirror. A
Hunter College professor of psychology, and director of dolphin
research at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Reiss has studied
dolphins on the West Coast, in Europe, and in various other places
while earning her advanced degrees.

An early chapter introduces the reader to dolphins in Greek
and Roman mythology. The dolphins of classical myth were often
consorts of gods, and helpful to humans as well. The Maori, the
first human inhabitants of New Zealand, also have extensive
mythological acquaintance with dolphins. To the Maori, says Reiss,
“Dolphins are a source of spiritual guidance and a font of wisdom in
difficult times.”
Reiss’s hands-on experience started in the late 1970s in the
Florida Keys at a place called Little Torch Key. After a month she
picked up specific dolphin vocalizations. She left with more
questions, but started on her career in dolphin research. Her study
of dolphin communications later took her to the Animal Acoustics
Laboratory in France.
Dolphins are notoriously adept at mimicking sounds. At
several oceanariums captive dolphins have amused themselves by
imitating fire alarms, to the consternation of staff. During an
experiment Reiss conducted at Marine World, dolphins “learned the
rub sound, the ring sound, and the disk and float sounds that we
later added,” she recalls, “each one after fewer and fewer
What these sounds represent to dolphin, Reiss says, is
unknown. Dolphins lack hands. Instead they steer with dorsal and
pectoral fins to “touch, stroke, rub, caress, slap, carry and
interact with other dolphins.”
When Reiss held up a mirror in front of a pair of dolphins
they reacted as if their reflections were other dolphins. “While
staring at themselves, they circled and cocked their heads, rocked
their bodies back and forth, and opened and closed their mouths,”
Reiss writes.
Dolphins are lovable. The popular television series,
Flipper, featuring a dolphin in a leading role, aired for just
three seasons, 1964-1967, yet remains among the best-remembered
programs ever. Audiences at the three Sea World marine parks are
captivated by dolphin antics. Swim-with-dolphins attractions have
proliferated worldwide.
But dolphins have enemies, including those who capture them
for entertainment use. The Academy Award-winning film The Cove, for
which Reiss was scientific advisor, depicts the cruel Taiji dolphin
hunts. Most of the dolphins who are trapped in the Taiji cove are
butchered, but the money driving the killing comes from the sale of
selected specimens to exhibitors.
Reiss is a gifted researcher and an impressive advocate for
dolphins. But The Dolphin in the Mirror is unfortunately congested
with details that sidetrack the reader. Details of every study could
probably be left out and replaced with graphs or charts that
summarize the results.
Photos of the dolphins whom Reiss studied might help. I grew
up in New York City and rarely saw dolphins. I now live in Phoenix,
far from any ocean. I’d have enjoyed a few color photos of the
dolphins Reiss speaks so eloquently about.
–Debra J. White

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