Ideas about Dolphins in Various Media

Sources, variation and education

Julia H. Orth

New College of Florida




A small sample of media sources was examined for six common ideas about dolphins. The sources included children’s books, adult fiction books, nonfiction, and video games. Presence or absence of each idea was noted in each source. Results were tabulated and discussed. A compilation of such ideas gauging their relative pervasiveness may be a useful tool for educators. Techniques for an expanded study along these lines are discussed.




Ideas about Dolphins in Various Media: sources, accuracy, and education

How would one develop an effective education program for conserving and protecting marine mammals?

Anyone wanting to develop an educational program that is oriented towards actions, such as those favorable to conservation, is using education to impart particular attitudes. However, educational programs aren't the only source of information about marine mammals. Learning is an ongoing process, and any situation involving marine mammals is going to provide some kind of information about them to the people exposed to it.

Since learning can't be turned on and off or limited to "appropriate" times, there may be interactions between educational programs and other sources of information. Competition, where one source states something and the educational program states something contradictory, is an obvious type of interaction, as is reinforcement, where two sources state similar things. More subtle interactions might be more common, and more important to examine. For example, suppose a concise source of dolphin facts (a children's book, a museum sign, a pamphlet, etc.) states that dolphins are 'intelligent.' The term 'intelligence' is not clearly defined. One person who reads that dolphins are "intelligent" might equate an intelligent dolphin with an intelligent dog. Another person who has read fiction presenting dolphins sharing building a civilization with humankind might interpret the word 'intelligent' differently. These kinds of effects are what is meant here by the term interaction.

With these possibilities in mind, it stands to reason that individuals wishing to set up educational programs would be best prepared if they had a working knowledge of potentially interacting information or ideas. A study of the origins and transformations of such ideas is also valuable for its own sake, much like the study of literature or cultural mythology for its own sake.

Sources of information about dolphins are particularly, perhaps uniquely widespread and varied, and thus this project will focus on them. In this initial phase, the hope is simply to document some common, generalized, and important ideas about dolphins from a small sample of media. There are obviously some broader issues that need to be addressed if a comprehensive knowledge base about perception of dolphins is to be acquired, but for a seven-week project this is an appropriate beginning.

Again, information about dolphins comes from a wide variety of sources: books, videos, audio recordings, educational facilities, news media, video games, webpages, pamphlets, signs, and human contact/word of mouth. There are hundreds, even thousands of direct references to dolphins in nearly every one of these categories. A small sample was necessarily selected.





'Ideas' about dolphins were examined in a sample of three children's books, five adult fiction books, six nonfiction books, and four video games. Selection of sources was not random or otherwise formal. Sources were chosen primarily for their accessibility. The children's books were the ones already available in the author's private collection. Two of the adult fiction books, Day of the Dolphin and Startide Rising (winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards), were chosen for their popularity. In the future it would be valuable to choose sources based on popularity/distribution and on year made available. These could be used as rough estimates of current public influence. Both those characteristics would be assigned to each member of a database of dolphin-related sources. Such a database already exists, a series of comprehensive bibliographies, videographies and audiographies (Fuerstein, 2001) of cetacean related materials. This database has been group-compiled over many years on the internet with a primary supervisor and very inclusive criteria. It includes thousands of items. The characteristics would be weighted in importance, more popular and more recent books being given higher scores, and an upper percentage of high scoring media would be taken from each category for analysis.

In the current sample, note that none of the nonfiction books are by researchers. Note also that three of the four video games are in the same series and thus share similar traits.


Study Sample

3 Children's Books: ('94-'97)

Applegate, K. A., Animorphs #4: The Message; (1994)

Ballantine, Betty. The Secret Oceans. (1996)

Osborne, Mary, Dolphins at Daybreak. (1997)

5 Fiction Books: ('67-'94)

Brin, David. Startide Rising. (1983)

Dickson, Gordon. Home from the Shore. (1978)

Dietz, Tom. Above the Lower Sky (1994)

Merle, Robert. The Day of the Dolphin. (1967)

St. Clair, Margaret. The Dolphins of Altair (1967)

6 Nonfiction Books: ('90-'00)

Cochrane, Amanda & Karen Callen. Dolphins & Their Power to Heal (1992)

Crail, Ted. Apetalk and Whalespeak. (1983)

Dobbs, Horace. Dance to a Dolphin's Song. (1990)

Montgomery, Sy. Journey of the Pink Dolphins: an Amazon quest. (2000)

Sandoz, Bobbie. Listening to Wild Dolphins. (1999)

St. John, Patricia. The Secret Language of Dolphins. (1991)

4 Video Games: ('91-95)

EcoQuest I: The Search for Cetus. (1991)

Ecco the Dolphin. (1993)

Ecco Jr. (1995)

Ecco the Dolphin: the Tides of Time. (1994)





Following a review of several dozen sources, six basic "ideas" were selected that are common, general or applicable to the desires to educate. They are intentionally broad. Each source in the sample was examined for presence or absence of each idea and results were tabulated. For future work, a formal coding system would be useful, likewise multiple reviewers.

The six ideas are as follows: 'Dolphin' means 'Bottlenose dolphin'; Dolphins are (always) peaceful and/or friendly; Dolphins rescue humans at sea; Swimming with dolphins is fun; Feeding dolphins is fun; Dolphins are intelligent.


Two out of three children's books had unspecified bottlenose-like dolphins, the remaining one featured dolphins "modified" from unspecified bottlenose-like dolphins.

Two out of five fiction books focused on bottlenose dolphins, one included Risso's and common dolphins, one had unspecified bottlenose-like dolphins, and the remaining one featured dolphins "modified" primarily from bottlenose dolphins. Five out of six nonfiction books focused on bottlenose dolphins. Four out of four video games had only bottlenose and orca dolphins.

Only a single clear example of dolphin aggression was present in all samples, although two of the fiction books contained dolphin behavior towards humans that may be considered aggressive, and aggression was discussed in three of the nonfiction books.

Depictions of humans in the water with dolphins occur in three of the three children's books, five of the five fiction books, six of the six nonfiction books, and one of the four video games (the remaining three video games did not feature humans in any capacity).

Depictions of dolphins rescuing humans occur in one of the three children's books, one or two of the five fiction books, four of the six nonfiction books and one of the video games.

Depictions of humans feeding dolphins occur only once, in one of the four video games, and not in a wild setting. The feeding of wild dolphins is denounced in one of the nonfiction books.
One of the three children's books had 'modified' intelligent dolphins, four of the five fiction books had conversant dolphins, five of the six nonfiction books addressed intelligence, and four of the four video games had conversant dolphins.


'Dolphin' means 'bottlenose dolphin'

There are between 20 and 30 species of marine dolphins and 5 species of river dolphin, yet only one species is commonly seen and referred to as "dolphin." The bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) enjoys this popularity for a number of practical reasons. These center around the fact that as a coastal species common worldwide and successful in captivity, it is the easiest for humans to encounter, keep, train and study. This accessibility has made bottlenose dolphins overwhelmingly popular even in the realms of fiction where practical considerations are no longer necessities.

All of the video games, despite a wide variety of other undersea inhabitants, had only bottlenose and orca dolphins. Ecco Jr., a children's game, has an informational section for parents that does include the information that "There are somewhere between 40 to 50 kinds of dolphins. There are a total of 78 different kinds of cetaceans, whales and dolphins combined.

Startide Rising features modified bottlenose dolphins, "Tursiops amicus" (although some of these have spliced genes from other species, particularly rough-toothed), that have been bred for sentience by humans. The Secret Oceans stars bottlenose-like fantasy dolphins, an intelligent species with frills on their heads and rudimentary hands.

The dolphins from The Message are never specified as Tursiops, and indeed, Delphinus delphis, the common dolphin, is depicted on the cover. However the textual descriptions given of them--eleven feet long, four hundred pounds, with gray skin--makes them sound like they must in fact be bottlenose. Likewise Dolphins at Daybreak does not specify species, but does specify a gray color and coastal habitat. Similarly with the dolphins from The Dolphins of Altair, which are coastal, large enough to carry a human, and of the sort used for naval research. Presumably bottlenose, their species is not once mentioned, nor the existence of many varied types of dolphins.

Home from the Shore features an unusually wide variety of dolphin species, none of which seems to be favored. Included are bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Risso's dolphin, orca, and also a spectacled porpoise.

Journey of the Pink Dolphins focuses on the title species, the pink dolphin or boto, Inia geoffrensis, and also occasionally discusses the Tucuxi that live in the same area.

Dolphins are (always?) peaceful and/or friendly

Dolphin on dolphin and dolphin on human aggression are very rarely depicted. There was only a single discussion of dolphin aggression in all the sample, although in The Dolphins of Altair the dolphins, working with human partners, conduct a violent "war" against humanity, starting earthquakes and melting the ice caps--although the ideas for both these tactics comes from a human party. These dolphins also psychically control a person and force him to kill himself when he threatens their human friends. Not conventional individual aggression, by any means, but a clear indication that these dolphins have an idea of justifiable force. In Startide Rising, one of the modified dolphins who was given orca genes viciously hunts some of the other dolphins. This is marked as exceptional, and aggression towards humans is specified as being rare (understandably, since these dolphins were human-modified): "Only eighteen cases were known, in the forty generations of dolphins uplift, in which a fin attacked a human with murderous intent." In Home from the Shore, dolphins function as partner friends towards sea-born humans.

Three out of six nonfiction books actively advocate dolphin friendliness, sometimes very strongly. The following is from Listening to Wild Dolphins, the entirety of which is in a similar vein.

During my initial period of getting to know the dolphins, I was able to see that their magnetism and charisma are shaped by six special traits, each intertwining with the others as it's woven into the fabric of a dolphin's character. Each of these qualities represents a different facet of the higher self and work together to form the loving essence of every dolphin. This essence then merges with the essence of other dolphins to generate a force field of loving energy into which others are irresistibly drawn. [italics added]

This book devotes a chapter to the dolphins' gift of "harmony among themselves and others," although that chapter itself begins with a short discussion of aggression and the need to be respectful towards wild dolphins.

Swimming with dolphins is fun & safe

The majority of Listening to Wild Dolphins contains detailed descriptions of the author's swims with wild dolphins off of Hawai'i, and her advocation of such persuits as offering spiritual instruction. Dance to a Dolphin's Song is wholly devoted to the topic of humans swimming with, even touching and riding wild dolphins. Towards the end of Journey of the Pink Dolphin, the author braves Amazonian waters to experience the boto up close and personal. "Within…minutes of our arrival, the dolphins appeared…I swam out to them, perhaps a quarter mile. All seven boto appeared, blowing, pulling their heads from the water to look."

All of the children's and adult fiction books depict humans in the water with the stories' dolphins as a given matter of course.

An aside must be made here to point out that positive ideas about swimming with dolphins feed and are fed by a commercialization of that experience. An apparently uncounted number of facilities exist that offer, in exchange for a few hundred or thousand dollars, to allow individuals into the water with dolphins both wild and captive. In the small country of New Zealand alone, 56 organizations hold permits allowing them to offer wild dolphin swims to customers, and 22 of these make it their focus. In the US, the legal status of wild dolphin swims under the marine mammal protection act is ambiguous. Several captive facilities hold official permits, and meanwhile wild programs proliferate.

Some Dolphin-swim programs:

  • USA -- Florida: SeaWorld, DiscoveryCove, Miami Seaquarium, Dolphin Research Center, Theater of the Sea, International Divers, Dolphin Cove, Human-Dolphin Institute, Dolphin World, Wild About Dolphins, Dolphin Camp, Water Planet, Spirit of the Dolphin Journies
  • USA -- Hawai'i: Dolphin Essence.
  • Bahamas: WildQuest, Dolphin Experience, Dolphin expeditions, The Divine Dolphin, Wild Dolphin Charters, Dolphinswim, Dolphin Encounters, Dream Team,
  • Australia: Dolphin Encounters Mandurah,
  • Honduras: Dolphin Encounters
  • Mexico: Via Delphi, Dolphin Discovery
  • New Zealand: Marineland NZ,
  • Israel: Dolphin Reef Eilat



Naturally these organizations promote their wares, specifically advocating dolphin swims as enjoyable (an idea people will particularly willing to believe after having been parted with their hundreds or thousands of dollars for the experience). For example:

"Wow! A chance to get into the pool and swim with our two common dolphins. You don't actually get to ride or touch them, it's a chance to see them up close and try to get onto their own wavelength." (Marineland NZ site)

"You've heard the mysterious legends and fascinating facts about one of the world's most magnificent marine mammals — now you can experience these animals hands-on through the... Miami Seaquarium Water And Dolphin Exploration program!" (Miami Seaquarium site)

"Dolphin swimming is a very natural and rewarding experience" (Dolphin World site)

Dolphins rescue humans at sea

From Dolphins at Daybreak: "Had the hammerhead caught up with them? Jack … waited for the worst…Finally, he opened his eyes. In front of him was a shiny gray head--a dolphin's head!.... Jack felt safe now. His dolphin was taking good care of him. …He let go of the dolphin's fin and stood up in the water."

Stories of dolphins rescuing humans at sea are old and oft repeated. Their relative infrequency in the fiction of this sample probably has to do with the fact that a rescue scene will only take place if the plot requires it.

In The Dolphins of Altair, a dolphin rescues Sven, one of the main human characters, from drowning by page 8.

The informational section of Ecco Jr.discusses dolphin rescues in the context of general dolphin friendliness:

"…To this day, there has never been a report of a dolphin harming a human. In fact….dolphins have helped sailors in distress, fishermen in trouble, and swimmers who have lost their way back to shore. However, the motivation might just be that dolphins enjoy pushing things. We only know about the times when they have pushed people toward a beach and saved them. We have no way of knowing if they have pushed someone in the opposite direction--out to sea!"

Feeding dolphins is fun

The single example of a human feeding a dolphin occurs in the computer game EcoQuest: the search for Cetus, when the main character, Adam, is feeding a dolphin that's being rehabilitated. One of the nonfiction books, Listening to Wild Dolphins, even contains a harsh denunciation of the practice of feeding wild dolphins: "Lamentably these famous dolphins [at Monkey Mia] are fed frozen fish, which has altered their interactions with people as well as introduced some uncharacteristic competitiveness among themselves."

Dolphins are intelligent

Generalized references to dolphin intelligence are extremely common. The Secret Oceans's modified dolphins show a fascination for music, communicate initially via imitation, and have a full-blown language quickly translated by humans with a computer.

In The Message, the shape-changing human characters worried about whether they'd find a sentient mind when they morphed into dolphins, but to their relief, they didn'. The main human character concludes her thoughts on cetacean intelligence with this touching declaration: "People who argue about how smart whales are…kind of miss the point. Whales will never read books or build rockets or do algebra….But it isn' necessary to believe whales are as smart as humans to believe that they are great. They don' have to know words to sing songs. They don' have to be anything but what they are to be magnificent. And even though I don' really know what a soul is, I know this--if humans have them, then so do whales."

In Startide Rising, dolphins are the second "pre-sentient" species, after chimpanzees, to be modified by humans into sentience. In The Day of the Dolphin, the two bottlenoses Fa and Bi learn to speak English. The Dolphins of Altair was narrated by a dolphin, a dolphin historian at that. They could speak vocally amongst themselves, and some had learned English as well. In the Ecco video game series, the cetaceans speak to each other in song language. In Home from the Shore, there is a "dolphin code" that sea-born humans and wild dolphins use to communicate with one another. What's notable about these stories is that in them, unlike in general talking-animal stories, dolphins are unusual for their linguistic abilities and apparent sentience; the rest of the animal world remains mute. EcoQuest: the search for cetus is an exception in that it has a wide variety of conversant creatures, sharing undersea language and society.


Practical Applications

With a set of ideas established along with estimates of their popularity, educational environments can be examined for instances of these ideas. For example, the dolphin display at EPCOT necessarily has bottlenose dolphins and affirms the idea that dolphins are intelligent, in as much as the display is oriented towards sharing on-going cognition research with the visiting public. This facility also has a program allowing paying customers up-close interactions with the dolphins. Most factual information here is transmitted individual-to-audience during research presentations, and thus is difficult to evaluate. Recording and analyzing types of questions asked by members of the public in such an environment may be a source of information on dolphin "ideas" that the visiting public actually has.

Other issues include the feeding of wild dolphins. This has become a problem in certain parts of the U.S., including Nokomis, Florida where a bottlenose dolphin named Beggar has been provisioned for over a decade. An educational campaign faces the difficulties of transmitting ideas contrary to most that have been discussed here–trying to tell the public that this dolphin is aggressive, that it's bad to feed him, and that it's even worse to swim with him. No depictions of provisioned dolphins occurred in any of the fictional media.

Expanded work along these lines could clearly serve a useful purpose. Most of the ideas discussed here have some truth in them, and that that truth be expanded and propagated without being dangerously sensationalized would be a worthy goal of any educational program.


Applegate, K. A., (1994). Animorphs #4: The Message.

Ballantine, Betty. (1996). The Secret Oceans.

Brin, David. (1983). Startide Rising.

Cochrane, Amanda & Karen Callen. (1992). Dolphins & Their Power to Heal.

Crail, Ted. (1983). Apetalk and Whalespeak.

Dickson, Gordon. (1978). Home from the Shore.

Dietz, Tom. (1994). Above the Lower Sky.

Dobbs, Horace. (1990) Dance to a Dolphin's Song. Jonathan Cape: London

Fuerstein, T. L. (2001). Cetacean bibliographies, audiography, and videography. At >http://www.physics.helsinki.fi/whale/literature/biblio.html

Merle, Robert. (1967). The Day of the Dolphin. Fawcett Crest publications.

Montgomery, Sy. (2000). Journey of the Pink Dolphins: an Amazon quest.

Novotrade & Sega of America. (1993). Ecco the Dolphin. [video game]

Novotrade & Sega of America. (1994). Ecco the Dolphin: the Tides of Time. [video game]

Novotrade & Sega of America. (1995). Ecco Jr. (1995) [video game]

Osborne, Mary. (1997). Dolphins at Daybreak.

Sandoz, Bobbie. (1999). Listening to Wild Dolphins.

Sierra On-line. (1991). EcoQuest I: The Search for Cetus. [computer game]

St. Clair, Margaret. (1967). The Dolphins of Altair Dell Publishing: New York.

St. John, Patricia. (1991). The Secret Language of Dolphins.