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We tuned into a series of postings on the BioAcoustics Discussion Group about dolphin language or communications systems. In the midst of very serious scientific exchanges we found a pearl of a posting by Carol Drummond about her personal experience with a Harbour Porpoise. We emailed Carol and asked if we would allow to present her story as a feature in SoundNet. She graciously consented and emailed a picture of herself to go with the story.

As a matter of interest Carol is not alone in feeling that the dolphin was aware of her thoughts. Frank Robson, the imminent New Zealand Naturalist who dedicated his life to understanding why Cetaceans strand and helping rescue stranded whales and dolphins, wrote of similar experiences in his book 'Pictures in the Dolphin Mind' (Sheridan House 1988 - ISBN 0 911378 78 2).

Dolphin Communications:
A personal experience with a Harbour Porpoise

By Carol Drummond

I have enjoyed everyone's comments and speculation on dolphins, and for anyone interested, would like to add my personal experience 23 years ago with what I have been told was a harbor porpoise. I tell this story as a student of life. I am not a scientist.

My husband and I were fishing from our 25' gillnet fishing boat in Juneau, Alaska, and I was 4-5 months pregnant. While I was watching the net, I saw that a dolphin-like animal had been caught and was struggling under the water. I reeled in the net, and slid the struggling form alongside of the boat and slipped one arm underneath 'him' so his blow hole was above water.

Carol - Centre - with her father and daughter, Carrie.

Carol was pregnant with Carrie at the time of her encounter with the harbour porpoise.

I could only see from his dorsal fins upward, which was about 3', making him probably 6' in length. He was very black on the top, and it appeared he was white underneath. I remember thinking that his skin felt like a rubber tire. It never occurred to me that he did not understand that I was trying to help him, and at all times I had this strong feeling that he knew exactly what I was thinking before I said it.

I told him that I was pregnant and that he would have to lie very still because I could not put pressure on my stomach. He immediately calmed down and lay still. While I have never thought he understood my words, I have always felt he knew my thought, that he knew I was pregnant.

He had his right dorsal fin stuck in several squares of the net, and in the process of trying to twist himself free, he had wrapped himself like a mummy. I was too busy trying to get him free to take time to inspect him closely, but I remember that the outer two corners of his dorsal fin seemed to be square, not like the pictures of sloped, more triangular dorsal dolphin fins that I had seen. Because I was holding him with one hand, I only had my other hand free to work on him, and I told him that I would have to tear the net and it might cut him. Once again, while I do not think he understood my words, I believe he understood my thought. I pulled the filament against his fin, and I remember seeing blood as it cut the surface of his flesh. The cut was not serious, and while later I was struck that he did not move a muscle, at the time I simply knew he understood.

All the time I worked on him, his blow-hole was 6" from my face, and I remember listening to him breathe. It sounded just like a human taking a breath.

When the fin was free, I was exhausted. I told him that I did not have the energy to push him away from the boat, and at that moment he gently swam away. A few moments later I saw two dolphin-like forms swim very slowly near the boat and then slowly slip away. I'd like to think the other form was his mate and that they were both thanking me.


Common Porpoise Phocoena phocoena

"In Alsaka the Common Porpoise was known as tselkh-koo... it is often called the Harbour Porpoise... The Common Porpoise is small and chunky, rather stoutly built for its size... the flippers are oval in outline and relatively small... as a rule Common Porpoises are timid and rather wary of swimmers or boats.

There are several cases of Common Porpoises supporting an ill or injured group member and bringing it up to the surface to breathe; and one instance in scotland in which a porpoise (presumably the mother) followed a boat carrying a calf that had been captured in a fishing net, and continued the pursuit for an hour until the calf was released, whereupon the two swam away together."

Above illustration and excerpt from:
Lyall Watson, Sea guide to Whales of the World, illustrated by Tom Ritchie, Hutchinson 1981.
I was very young at the time. It never occurred to me that this might not be a usual occurrence. And then, about 6 years ago I took a course on marine mammals and told my instructor my story. He became very interested and gave a colleague my description of the dorsal fin. His colleague said that harbor porpoises are native to the Juneau waters and had similar rectangular dorsal fins.

My instructor also explained that the lungs of a porpoise are very similar to the lungs of a human, and therefore, the breaths the porpoise took would sound so human to me. Finally, my instructor also told me that at that time there was underway a study between dolphins and pregnant humans. Several pregnant women were asked to swim in a pool with dolphins during their pregnancies. It was planned that when these women gave birth, they would take their infants back to the pool to swim again with the dolphins to find out whether the dolphins recognized the infants after having 'seen' them in the womb with their sonar.

My instructor felt very certain that this harbor porpoise 'saw' that I was pregnant and that I had experienced a communication with him that had been experienced by others.
I have no proof, and I have no witnesses. To those of you who require dolphins to speak words in order to prove that they have language, you may, in part, be disappointed. While they may or may not speak words as humans know them, I know in my heart that they have another way of communicating without mechanical words. Perhaps dolphins speak on a different plane, a plane with which humans are not yet familiar. There are some things in life that simply are, things to which we must simply be sensitive.

Thanks for listening.

Carol Drummond

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