Dolphins (review)

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Under the Sea

One of the most extraordinary experiences of my life occurred at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where there is — or at least there was 10 years ago — a low, open tank containing several untrained bottlenose dolphins. You could sit right on the edge of the tank and put your hands in the water, and if you were lucky, you’d get a chance to touch the animals. Most people dangling their arms in the tank slapped their hands against the sides and splashed around, despite the fact that the keepers specifically warned that that would scare the dolphins away. I really wanted to meet one of these magnificent creatures, so I kept my hand very still under the water and was eventually rewarded with a caress from one of the dolphins as it swam slowly by. It was an amazing feeling, like making contact with an alien being — we may not have been able to speak each other’s language, but there was an undeniable sense of real communication in that momentary touch.
My impression that there is more than mere animal intelligence behind the keen eyes of a dolphin is strengthened by a new IMAX documentary called, appropriately enough, Dolphins. IMAX films have tended to be spectacles, however entertaining: Look how big! how high! how fast! Dolphins, while undoubtedly spectacular, achieves more depth with its exploration of the underwater world of these majestic aquatic mammals and how their interactions with humans have affected them — and how they affect us.

As Dolphins opens, the camera plunges immediately underwater, and it doesn’t feel like we leave until the lights come up. The giant IMAX screen fills your senses, and we share the sheer joy that a pair of trained bottlenoses seem to get out of swimming and leaping, out of performing their tricks and inventing new routines on their own — in tandem, with obvious communication between the two — for their trainers.

Kathleen Dudzinski, a marine biologist who studies communication among wild bottlenoses in the Bahamas and dusky dolphins off Patagonia, explains the complexities of dolphins languages — they call one another by name, for example. We’re there in the warm sea with her as she dives to join her local bottlenoses in the gorgeous turquoise Caribbean waters. As she records their vocalizations and observes the accompanying behavior, the dolphins accept her into the group with a balletic dignity, swimming around her to touch her with a flipper, or to let her touch them.

Even more remarkable is the story of naturalist Dean Bernal, who has had a continuing relationship with a bottlenose named JoJo, who lives among the reefs in the waters off the Turks and Caicos Islands, in the British Bahamas. Unlike most wild dolphins, JoJo actually seeks out and enjoys the company of humans, and Bernal and JoJo have been swimming and playing together every day for the past 15 years. During the course of the shooting of Dolphins, Bernal was forced to leave the islands for an extended period, and it’s remarkable to watch JoJo’s reaction to his return, four months later — there can’t be anything but intelligent reasoning and complex emotions behind JoJo’s initial cold-shouldering of Bernal, as if in punishment for his absence, and then the gradual resumption of their friendship.

Dolphins doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that the cetaceans can be aggressive with humans and with one another, nor does it ignore the terrible things we’ve done to them — the film features some disturbing video of dolphins caught in fishing nets, thrashing for a release that will not come. But with cheerful narration by Pierce Brosnan, chipper calypso music from Sting, and lots of extraordinary and beautiful underwater footage, Dolphins is mostly a celebration of other intelligent species that share our world and deserve our respect and understanding.

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