The following blog is an excerpt from The Voice of the Dolphins. It's an account of our second effort in 2004 to communicate with dolphins by computer and yielded surprising results. For more on The Voice of the Dolphins go to http://hardyjonesdolphins.com.
The computer communication system John Ross had devised produced some interesting results during the final days of the trip. I joined John standing on the white sand bottom in about fifteen feet of water. Dolphins lazed around us. It seemed a silent world except for the inhalation and exhalation of our scuba tanks and some barely audible high frequency clicks and whistles from the dolphins. But when John passed me the frequency shifting headphones, what had seemed to be a piccolo turned into a full symphony orchestra. Once again, I realized that for dolphins, it’s not a silent world but rather a phenomenally rich three-dimensional acoustical universe, each sound conveying meaning, nuance, and vast amounts of information. Humans’ inability to hear dolphins is one of the reasons most experience them as mute.
John transmitted two kinds of calls from the computer. The first was a synthesized call similar in pitch to an actual dolphin whistle but was not the real thing. The dolphins returned that call with a perfect imitation, just as they had in 1978.
Then something surprising happened. John recorded dolphin vocal output and replayed those sounds to the dolphins. They responded not with mimicry but with an original phrase as though attempting to carry on the conversation. Of course, we didn’t know what they had said in the first place or what their reply was to the playback. I don’t delude myself into thinking that our efforts will somehow crack the code of dolphin communication. But there is a meta-message in what is taking place in those turquoise waters over brilliant white sand and that is that both species are interested in the interaction. That is the message and it is huge.