Thursday, February 2, 2012

True Confessions of a Dolphin-Loving Marine Biologist by Miriam Goldstein

It seems as though most people have some sort of cultural guilt; we feel bad about not calling our parents regularly, about forgetting our brother’s birthday, or we chow down on half the gallon of ice-cream while watching the season finale of Glee (yes, I cried).  I have an additional guilty secret – I am one of the few marine biologists that actually studies dolphins. And not cold-water dolphins either – dolphins that frolic under tropical Hawaiian sunsets. It really is a secret, at least from casual acquaintances.  When my dentist asks me what I do, I usually tell her I spend a lot of time on the computer.  When the guy next to me on the airplane strikes up a conversation, I generally tell him I study underwater sound.

Why all this guilt?  Well, when you think about all of the millions of amazing creatures in the ocean, dolphins make up a very very tiny percent.  And yet, it seems as though they get the majority of the love.  Everyone loves dolphins, but there is so much more out there that deserves our love, respect, and interest.  I mean, there are tunicates build their own house every day and are one of the inspirations for the alien in Alien! How cool is that?

So, if I feel so guilty about cetaceans (the group that includes dolphins and whales), why am I doing it?  Well, despite the love, we really don’t know that much about whales and dolphins.  We don’t know where they are most of the time, we have only a hazy idea of what some of them are eating, and we don’t know a lot about their breeding habits.  No one has ever seen a humpbacked whale, well… hump.  A lot of cetaceans are in big trouble, like the North Atlantic Right whale and the Yangtze River Porpoise.  The ones that are in trouble (like almost all other endangered life on earth) are endangered because of humans.  North Atlantic Right Whales get hit and killed by big ships. Yangtze porpoises, which have to be one of the cutest animals ever, are being polluted and dammed into oblivion, just like their neighbors, the Yangtze river dolphin, which is now extinct.   The beautiful vaquita porpoise is among the 50 most endangered animals in the world.  So yes, there are a lot of other fascinating things to study in the ocean, but there are a lot of good reasons to study dolphins, too. Also, I love them, even if admitting it can be like admitting I like Twilight (which I am SO not admitting).

Photo of outstretched hands holding a red dolphin.
This is how I sometimes feel when I’m talking to non-dolphin-studying marine biologists.

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