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Dolphins at popular spot miss tourists and keep leaving 'gifts' on shore (7news.com.au)
326 points by SirLJ 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 116 comments

I swam with the dolphins at this location 20 years ago when I was a dolphin obsessed 10 year old.

There were about 12 of us there on a brisk autumn morning and there was a pod of about 6 dolphins, including a calf. The locals told us we probably wouldn't get much interaction as the dolphins were shy because of the calf. I swam out and within 10 minutes, the calf was absolutely enamoured with me. It swam up and played a form of "tag" and let me pat it, however it wouldn't go near any of the adults. Eventually the whole pod came to swim with me.

It was an absolutely incredible experience and 10 year old me felt like a dolphin whisperer.

Side note: My parents managed/ran the town swimming pool and so I was I very confident swimmer after spending all my spare time at the pool.

Have you seen this?


I can't imagine being that smart and curious and being trapped in a tiny pool my whole life

That is so awesome they recognized you as our calf. And was completely at ease. Rightfully so.

Dolphins probably have a multi-tiered approach to dealing with humans. When they can get free food without trying, they don’t bother performing high cost activities. When humans stubbornly refuse to give food, they escalate “pro-social” behavior. When humans don’t show up, they resort to the highest cost way of attracting them.

I don’t believe they actually miss the tourists themselves. Tourists are merely delivery vehicles for food. People are probably projecting their fantasies about animals being fundamentally better than humans.

They say in the article that “In all likelihood, they probably don’t miss humans per se. They probably miss a free meal and the routine.” and “When it’s not happening, maybe it’s just out of boredom.”

Which actually seems more plausible to me than food motivation. Dolphins are one of the most intelligent, social, and oftentimes pointlessly cruel animals we know of. All this points to an animal with a cognitive level capable of having been interested in humans and now being bored due to their absence. And in that boredom, having not much better to do with their time than go looking for “gifts”. It’s also possible they’re just motivated by the food of course, but ultimately I feel like a Dolphin’s mental complexity is high enough that it’s hard for us to say exactly what motivates them in complex situations.

It's kind of funny that whenever archaeologists find something they have no idea what it is, it's assumed to be a religious artifact, but when a fairly intelligent animal does something weird, we don't say "it must be for religious reasons"...a long time ago I read a science fiction novel that explained the lack of communication with cetaceans by their having religious sensibilities that prevented them from responding. Eventually, communication was established, but the religion was still incomprehensible to humans.

Do you remember the book? That sounds super interesting

Thank you!

As in humans, it’s also possible that they don’t all share the exact same motivation at the exact same time.

If there were one onion link posted in these comments I would have expected it to be https://local.theonion.com/dolphin-spends-amazing-vacation-s...

Well, when I was gone on vacation, my roommate told me that my cat would sit staring at the door forever each day, as if waiting for me to come back home. He'd be in the living room watching TV and cat would be at the door. Cat didn't do that when I was home. But cat did somehow manage to be at the door right away whenever I came home from work. Reason? Who knows, but I'd like to think the cat was waiting for me. :)

I try to not dwell on it because it makes me sad, but I had a cat I'm fairly certain knew he was sick and was basically waiting for me to get home from a vacation before he took a downturn and eventually passed. I've got four cats and the longer I have them around, the more I think there's more going on inside their little heads than the majority of people give them credit. They have good and bad days just like people.

The Onion is on point as ever, but dolphins are a lot more social than cats.

cruel sometimes maybe, but dolphins are also very well known for saving humans from drowning. I don't think its fair to project human characteristics onto animals, but at least some of what dolphins do is altruistic.

The drowning and shark savior stories are countless, and date back to before recorded history in some cultures. Maybe they aren't so bad?

There's also studies that can't find any reason they follow ship wakes besides "fun". I think they don't get as much credit as they may deserve

I've sailed with dolphins plenty of times. They've tended to lose interest when I was on a windsurfer or dinghy after a minute or so, no matter what speed I was doing. On the other hand, when I've been on a cruising cat, they can't seem to get enough. As long as you stay over 7 knots under sail they'll follow along apparently having great fun, particularly around and between the bows. I've even seen a large pod travelling in one direction hook a U-turn when they saw the boat to play for ten minutes before heading back in their original direction.

All of this is to say what everyone else is saying. They're complex creatures with sometimes non-trivial motivations.

Many animals exhibit play behavior, which has numerous benefits. The complexity of the play behavior is fairly bounded. Maybe that dolphin demonstrated an advanced form of it relative to other types of animals.

The animal section of the Play wiki is interesting, especially the cognitive theories https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Play_(activity)?wprov=sfti1

Dolphins don't save humans because of altruistic reasons towards our species. Their own offspring behaves similarly when drowning, and they mistake a drowning human to potentially drowning dolphin.

The same could be said about humans' behavior toward their domestic pets, which are to a large degree bred to retain the traits of infant wild animals.

Not sure what you mean. I didn't mean to undermine dolphins; they are highly intelligent species and definitely altruistic. The point is simply that they don't save a drowning human because they care about a random drowning mammal, but because they mistake it to a drowning dolphin because we both have lungs. Not sure that has anything to do with what you said.

Oh I just meant domestic pets appeal to the same parts of the human brain that human infants do, in part because humans have bred domestic pets to retain infantile traits into adulthood. For example, an adult dog retains most of the personality traits of a baby wolf, whereas an adult wolf does not.

This is somewhat analogous to your explanation of dolphins acting altruistically toward humans because we resemble their young when struggling in the water.

In the same way, it would be very hard for most of us to ignore a lost crying puppy wandering down the street.

No, it is not that simple. Humpback whales have been observed to interfere and mess up with orcas protecting gray whale calves from being killed. It was observed several times and researchers think that humpbacks just really cannot stand orcas harming other whales, read more here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-humpback-...

Humpback also have spindle (mirror) neurons in their brains, those are thought to be related to cooperation, empathy, etc. Humans have them too, but not many other species (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061127111607.h...).

It is good to not anthropomorphise, but we really should finally move away from Descartes' view on animals being simple automatons.

The same logic can be applied to humans.

“I don’t believe parents actually love their children and vice-versa. Parents are merely delivery vehicles of food for children. Children are delivery vehicles of future care for parents. Humans are probably projecting their fantasies about themselves being fundamentally better than they are in reality.”

We don’t directly perceive that dolphins project their fantasies about humans, but like with our fellow humans, it doesn’t mean they aren’t doing that.

Being merely a delivery vehicle for my children's food would explain some of their behavior...

I was going to downvote out of disagreement, but, on second thought, this makes good sense. We probably wouldn't hesitate to say "I don't believe $NONHUMAN_ANIMAL parents love their children, and vice-versa...." about most animals. There might be hesitation when it comes to apes, monkeys, and maybe dogs, but I can imagine people would say it about, say, hyenas, and it would seem plausible.

It's easy to anthropomorphize animals, but it's also easy to go overboard in the other direction. In general, as our understanding of animal cognition has increased, we have moved away from human exceptionalism, finding that traits once thought to be unique to humans are anything but. Certainly we've come far from the Cartesian viewpoint of non-human animals as mindless automata.

"Love" in particular, of course, is both a highly loaded and acutely ill-defined concept, so "can a <non-human animal> feel love" is probably a wrong question [1].

By the way, it's rather appropriate that you mentioned hyenas given how misunderstood they are by laypeople, in no small part due to their presentation in a certain Disney film.

[1] https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/XzrqkhfwtiSDgKoAF/wrong-ques...

Yeah, I agree. It's a difficult enough philosophical problem to understand the mental states of even another human, much less an animal with a completely different brain structure. There has been some work purring dogs in fMRI machines that shows that their brains respond to humans in ways that indicate they like us, but that's pretty far from conclusive. After all, I know my dog likes dinner, so she'd probably display activity in the pleasure center when presented with a bowl of her food. In any case, what matters is that I love her, and she is doing nothing to disabuse me of the notion. ;)

Oh, and, yes, I did choose hyenas specifically because they're a misunderstood species. Glad you picked up on that.

Ugh. s/purring/putting/g

I don’t know about “love” because it has a lot of connotations but try to take a baby from a litter from any animal and watch how crazy mama animal gets. Swans, cats, birds, dogs, bears, whales, whatever.

You clearly don't have children. No amount of fantasy projection makes up for the trouble you go through. You have to be spiked with oxytocin to cope with it.

I think that was the point. They are trying to show how that sort of logic is flawed.

You are right.. sleep deprivation is a bitch

I appreciate that HN is a place where people are willing to admit mistakes like this / change their mind, etc. Thank you :)

It seems we are getting in philosophical territory here.


this can be seen in some cultures where the eldest son and his family are held in high esteem because he is the one responsible for taking care of the parentd while daugthers are a burden, since they will be with their husband supporting the husbands parents.

I don't think this logic applied to humans actually is inaccurate. For much of human history, extended family cohabitation was the norm, and the standard American nuclear was a radical, almost unimaginable idea. Most animals operate on a biological impulse to further their offspring; do most animals operate this way to pursue immortality and evade death?

I don't see anything inaccurate with this base level analysis, although it obviously elides most of the finer elements of human existence that exist a bit higher up on Maslow's hierarchy.

I've heard this said about cats, that cats view humans strictly as food dispensers. But I've personally seen cats develop separation anxiety when they thought their humans weren't around -- and then settle right down as soon as a familiar human come into view. To a cat, humans provide some manner of physical and emotional security as well, to say nothing of affection.

It's the same with any healthy human relationship. Can you imagine how sad it would be to make extraordinary efforts for a person who did absolutely nothing for you? We reward those who provide us something of value -- security, affection, a sympathetic ear -- with our sacrifices.

I don't see how your anecdote differentiates between these two scenarios:

1. Human leaves, cat gets separation anxiety due to feeling less emotionally secure

2. Human leaves, cat gets separation anxiety because their primary source of food is missing

I've seen cats bond with people who don't feed them.

Some cats are food motivated. Others are affection motivated. Some are both.

I've had a cat eat my hair which is a grooming behavior they otherwise only do with other cats that they trust. If that isn't evidence of some kind of mutual relationship then I don't know what is.

> settle right down as soon as a familiar human come into view

After a period of sulking first, of course.

It must be frustrating as a cat.

Imagine going through the effort to domesticate and entire species to provide fire, food, shelter, etc. and then have them wander off somewhere without asking. At least they still upload those funny worship videos to the internet.

Cats are also very aware of changes on their habitat and are kept in way too small space to express natural behaviour. Most house cats are extremely stressed. You can see this if you even move one bigger object in the house and watch how the cat gets anxious. The behaviour is much more complex than the human emotions we project to cats. They are different, we don't know how they feel. But most cats are not "happy", we just fail to see it and laugh when they run around and do stupid things out of boredom and stress. Edit: Also Stockholm syndrome... And would cats hang around humans if living in their natural habitat and not receiving food from humans? I don't know.. But the spectrum of "do they care about humans or not" is much wider than just that question.

> And would cats hang around humans if living in their natural habitat and not receiving food from humans?

Domestic cats' natural habitat is with humans. They were bred by humans for domestic characteristics.

Domestic cats natural habitat is not a 40sqm flat without the possibility to go outdoors. Also, domestic cats were not bred by humans for domestic characteristics but to keep places clean of animals such as mice. Anyways, that's beside the point: cats reality is complete different to ours and trying to describe cats behaviour using human characteristics is a poor way to describe their behaviour. Even as mammals, they still have very different senses and perspective to everything. We have very limited understanding about their "feelings".

> Domestic cats natural habitat is not a 40sqm flat without the possibility to go outdoors.

Agreed, and neither is that a natural habitat for humans,in particular the not going outside part.

Both people and dolphins are highly social. Of course the food is an important part of the interaction, but it seems likely they view humans socially and get more out of the interaction than, say, if they were pressing a lever to get food. (BTW, food is an important part of human social interactions as well — probably the easiest way to get someone to like you is to feed them.)

I don’t know that, of course, but I’m only assuming dolphin social tendencies can bridge the species gap in a similar way that human social tendencies do (and for cats, and dogs, and horses, and lions, etc.)

> Tourists are merely delivery vehicles for food

People say that about pets too, but those people usually don't own pets. Why can't animals have similar social instincts to humans? Maybe they just want to hang out too.

> I don’t believe they actually miss the tourists themselves. Tourists are merely delivery vehicles for food. People are probably projecting their fantasies about animals being fundamentally better than humans.

I think your perspective is from a lack of personal experiences and relationships with non-human animals, or you would feel different.

I've had many relationships with all kinds of animals, and while food is often the initial connect (just as it often is with human), there is also much recognition, affection, comfort, attachment, appreciation of each other's company.

I've experienced this with cats, dogs a sparrow, a pigeon, and many other animals, so to think that dolphins, some of the smartest animals we know, would miss the company, play, etc. of humans does not seem that far-fetched to me, personally.

I don't think this is a fair conclusion at all. Dolphin behaviour has been well studied and it's clear that they seek out mental stimulation for its own sake.

>I don’t believe they actually miss the tourists themselves. Tourists are merely delivery vehicles for food.

Sharing food between mammals generally leads to bonding. Like, all mammals.

Hmm, I’ve bonded with birds via food too. At least I like to think I did ;)

Birds are brutal. Watch this black stork kill her weakest baby while its siblings wait for the meal.


Ha! Fair point. I didn’t mention that I’ve also had fingers pierced to the bone by birds.

How would this involve being "better" than humans?

The projection here would solely be: "people are social animals and we miss seeing the dolphins; dolphins are social animals and they could miss us too"

That's a much smaller leap than you're suggesting people are making. The other way also seems to risk erring on the "people are special and unique compared to animals" side.

To clarify, I meant some people not all. I’ve observed an uptick in Malthusian sentiment.

It’s not uncommon for people to say things like this: “Honestly is it wrong that I’m happier that the dog survived the car crash than its owner?” or “it would be better if we all just die off and let Mother Nature heal.”

> I don’t believe they actually miss the tourists themselves. Tourists are merely delivery vehicles for food.

I’ve recently taken to the idea that intellectual stances and embodied experiences are not derivable from one another. Each toolkit is separate, and weird things happen when you try to extend one into the other.

For example, I felt it emotively when reading your comment, that the intellect is extraordinarily good at reducing everything into nothing, because it is a core presupposition that we must view things mechanically, to have mechanical proficiency.

Similarly, to have emotional proficiency, we must make our emotional presuppositions. This is not the obsolete definition of “myth” as stories we make up to make us feel good, because that’s again a framing of a reductionist intellect.

What I’m trying to limn is not anti-intellectualism, but that there is no common framework to contain both of these separate modalities. Don’t let the stomach cannibalize the liver, we need both.

I hear you, and I think it’s valuable to delineate the intellectual from the emotional to some extent. With love being such a nebulous concept, I want to set out my narrow definition in the context of this conversation. Anthropomorphic love necessarily requires abstract cognition which is beyond the abilities of dolphins. Dolphins can love you, and love each other, but the love is entirely rooted in lower cognitive states which simply draw a connection between you and a few very tangible, primal things.

There’s love, and then there’s love love.

i agree, and thanks for your charitable reading (re-reading what i said, i actually hate the way i said it).

> love is entirely rooted in lower cognitive states

you likely already know this, but emergence adds a famous corollary to what “rooted in” means:

> Downward causation can be defined as a converse of the reductionist principle: the behavior of the parts (down) is determined by the behavior of the whole (up), so determination moves downward instead of upward. The difference is that determination is not complete.

It gets into an example that makes this sound less mystical. But applying that here, “love love” abstractly might be the higher signal abstraction for understanding “lower cognitive states”, because the lower stuff emerges higher stuff that constrains its behavior using higher complexity rules.

[1]: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/DOWNCAUS.html

"The dolphin who loved me: the Nasa-funded project that went wrong"


If several possible motivations describe the same behavior, why go for the most cynical one? It is not a sign of intellectual rigor. There is a wide array of emotions, and not every action is driven on fear and selfishness, in fact the best things most certainly aren't.

They are like human teenagers and gather resources in the same way.

It starts with the least costly (waiting), then higher cost (text nd $$ sn)... but dolphins don't text.

If you can’t tell the difference, does it really matter?

But surely this multi-tiered approach is not articulated logically or linguistically by the dolphins themselves. They can't be cynical if they don't reason. So the instinct or memory that makes them associate humans and food must manifest as some kind of feeling, right?

There are cases of dolphins bonding with humans, but they are formed after long periods of time. There's that famous fued stoty of the douphin that commit suicide and inspired the ECCO games.

After all the strict lock-downs every weekend, here in Istanbul. There are a ton of dolphins swimming in the Bosphorus straight. I've been told by locals there are normally not so many around.

I sit on the balcony each weekend and see dolphins swimming about every single day. Sometimes they're very close to land.

My theory is, they're around, due to drastically less boat traffic. Either way, they sure seem happy humans aren't around.

Ah man, you’ve given me nostalgia - the strait is so beautiful, and I loved the city. I will be back, sooner or later.

That must be a nice view. Do you see a lot of warships or other interesting stuff crossing the straight?

Oh yeah, I see all kinds of random industrial ships go by. I've only seen one small warship. I haven't been here long, I just sort of got stuck here in Istanbul and I'm waiting out the pandemic.

I am from Istanbul. My elementary school was near (but not next to) marmara sea. This was probably 24 years ago. I loved the sight of dolphins, it would make my day.

Good times.

I kayak in the ocean and have been seeing more whales and dolphins near shore than usual. My layman's theory is that it's due to fewer whale watching boats bothering them - I can hear those boats from miles away.

Also could be that the underwater sounds we humans create, is probably way less than it used to be.

What if they are wondering where humans went and are experimenting with luring humans toward the water? Not something out of necessity, but curiosity.

I’ve never been able to find it there’s been much research in communicating with dolphins. Especially with all of the latest machine learning and translation research. It would be so cool if they could open source a data set of dolphins recordings with context. (Maybe sound and video)

Does anyone have the sea world connections to make that happen?

It is not easy, we have not yet cracked the code, plus will they even have the motivation or any interest to communicate with us?

What we do know is that they produce a variety of signals, some very complex and their communication is super fast, which is another obstacle for possible "communication". For example, we cannot generate a burst pulse with our current technology, we can only record theirs and play it back.

But many research groups are trying. We are starting Dolphin Chat citizen science project on Zooniverse in a month or so, to classify and prepare a large dataset of bottlenose dolphins' vocalizations for out deep learning model. You can check it out and even participate, it will definitely help to appreciate how complex their vocal repertoire is (and how "chatty" they are).

What do you actually mean by 'we cannot generate a burst pulse with our current technology'? What is the obstacle?

The obstacle is that we still do not fully understand nor are able to replicate their sonar, even the Navy that has been studying dolphins for decades still cannot duplicate biosonar (read more here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2019/5/140328-navy-d...)

The burst pulse is extremely complex, some can have 400 single clicks in one pulse (our ear cannot even hear these single pulses, they merge and for our human ear it sounds like a creaky door), and the pulse duration is like a few seconds. Each click is broadband (can go up to 100 kHz and beyond), it is frequency modulated with varied peak frequencies, center frequencies, RMS, some clicks can have 2 peaks, etc. It is super fast and super complex, we we cannot just generate one, only dolphin's sound producing mechanism can.

Really cool. Do you have a link?


It is not active yet, it will be in a month or so. You can also sign up for our newsletter here: cetalingua.com , we will send notification when this project goes live.

I saw a video on the long now channel today with dr. Laurance Doyle about dolphin communications and other species. Dolphins start at 30 minutes.

He basically found that dolphins language follow the Zipf law and Shannon information theory.

Baby dolphins also have a babbling periode like humans in the same timespan. It is interesting talk all the way through. Maybe you can contact him.

https://youtu.be/H30NipTkA5s https://simple.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zipf%27s_law

I'm pretty sure that research to that effect is going on, even involving attempts at simple bi-directional communication with dolphins in the wild. It's just slow and hard - wild dolphins are nowhere near as easy or cheap to deal with as fancy mice in a cage.

I thought that too but I can’t find anything. Maybe the two skill sets are just so different that no one ends up working on it. Marine biology and data science.

"Sorry about the Covi and thanks for all the fish?"

Zoos animals are vulnerable to corona virus.

And their budgets require visitors. Worldwide all zoos are in a state of crisis.

Now wondering about these sea mammals too.

Bronx Zoo Tiger Is Sick With the Coronavirus - The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/nyregion/bronx-zoo-tiger-...

Zoo May Feed Animals to Animals as Funds Dry Up in Pandemic https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/world/europe/germany-zoo-...

so... they are bringing offerings presumably hoping this will make their free meals return...

so curious reminds me of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propitiation

Serves them right, not so much "so long and thanks for all the fish" now, huh?

How is it that nobody thinks they've just learned to use bait?

There's no reports of people being lured into the oceans by dolphins with sinister purposes ... which means that its not happening, or that no one is escaping to tell the tale.

I can only assume you mean sinister porpoises.

There is some evidence of whales displaying gratitude and understanding of a human's intentions to help them. Very moving and interesting podcast here:


I wonder if whatever the last item they bring before the beach opens back up is going to be strongly associated with the return of humans.

"Wow, it was that boot that did it, huh?"

Years later we find a crate of boots stashed away in some sea cave labelled "for when the food stops."

Scare quotes belong around 'miss' not 'gifts'.

Most wild life don't miss humans presence though, vegetable and insects, birds really got back last weeks, hope it'll last.

Marvellous fruit in the wild too: figs, medlars (I've fed myself almost exclusively with those last days!), thanks to insects and low air pollution

I went to Tin Can Bay three months ago and fed the dolphins there. There's a tiny little cafe that manages the process and hundreds of people turn up every morning. Presumably the operation makes good money.

Based on the assortment of items I’m impressed they are able to find things that are potentially useful or unique and interesting. Makes me fear for our future when they rise up and take over.

Honestly it'd probably be an improvement.

A few paragraphs down:

> "Barry McGovern, an expert in dolphin behaviour, said it was possible the dolphins were giving gifts because they missed humans, but unlikely."

I’ve been searchin’

For the dolphins in the sea

And sometimes I wonder

Do you ever think of me


Sign on beach: "Guys, the stores will reopen sooner if you will just wear masks over your blowholes."

could be this how religions started?

This is the cutest thing I have heard recently.

reminds of dogs bringing the toys, balls, etc. to suggest and initiate play.

Seems to be all backwards. The dolphins can't imagine what happened to us:

"So long and thanks for all the gifts"

What an annoying site. I feel like this should get tagged [popover autoplay video].

Or maybe, here's a link without that:


Ok, we've changed the URL from https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/498781-car... to what appears to be the original source and appears not to autoplay a video.

I've got NoScript installed and set for default deny of all javascript. I read the article, but did not have to contend with any popover autoplay videos.

digg? I haven’t heard that name in years.

Also agreed, much better link.

“In all likelihood, they probably don’t miss humans per se," [a dolphin expert] added. "They probably miss a free meal and the routine."

This describes my feelings about not being able to go to work exactly.

I'm cracking up reading this and hearing it with the monotone voice of the guy in the video.

We changed the URL but you can find the video via https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23261711.

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