Because dolphins are highly social and vocalize among themselves with a wide range of sounds, it has been conjectured that they might possess and almost human like intelligence. In the 1950s and '60s the American neurologist John Lilly conducted well publicized experiments based on this concept, in which he attempted to communicate with dolphins in their own "language," but other scientists have rejected his work as poorly documented and lacking scientific validity.
Because of the ability of dolphins to learn and perform complex tasks in captivity, their continuous communications with one another, and their ability, through training, to approximate the sounds of a few human words, some investigators have suggested that the animals might be capable of learning a true language and communicating with humans.
Most researchers agree that dolphins exhibit a level of intelligence greater then that of dogs and even comparable to that of some primates--but not human beings.
I participated in the Dolphin Intelligence project in late spring 1990 and loved it. Earthwatch volunteers help the research staff and graduate assistants carry out daily "school" for the four dolphins in the study, in morning and afternoon sessions. We learned the hand signals that represent nouns and verbs for objects and behaviors in the dolphins' vocabulary&emdash;it's an artifical syntax they've learned and from which they are able to carry out new behaviors based on their prior understanding of the vocabulary. So it's different from rote training.
The regular researchers design the "lessons" and "tests" (or experiments) for the dolphins to learn and perform. Earthwatch volunteers work with them at tankside to help position and retrieve water toys that are the objects around which the dolphins must carry out the instructed behaviors. We also helped prepare the daily fish feedings and helped observe various health conditions of each dolphin. The best part for me was "play time" when we got to tell the dolphins (through hand signals) what we wanted them to do ourselves&emdash;hug, kiss, swim around the tank, jump over the hoop, tandem jump, etc. Take your camera!
At lunchtime, we often heard reports from the graduate assistants about their own research projects in conjunction with the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab (KBMML) or about marine mammal conservation concerns in general. We left with a much greater appreciation both for the species and for the nature of human interaction with the species.
I think the majority of the Earthwatch teams stay on campus at the University of Hawaii, but certain times of the year there isn't enough dorm space available and the team stays in a condo on Waikiki Beach. I had that "misfortune"&emdash;really tough duty... ;-)
Dolphin Intelligence is the largest Earthwatch project, I think, both in terms of the number of participants, amount of funding, and length of time it's been going on (14+ years or so, I'm not sure exactly how long). Plus, it's conducted year-round, and you can go for either two weeks or four weeks -- and seems to me I just read that one-week sessions have just been added. Altogether, between Dr. Herman's immediate staff, students, and Earthwatch volunteers, somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred people per year are involved with the study.
KBMML is just down the street from the Ala Moana Shopping Center, among the world's largest and nicest. KBMML started a newsletter about their expansion plans about a year or so ago -- the current lab is one-quarter acre, and the new Dolphin Institute is exploring two sites ranging fromTOP 5-10 acres, to include a habitat and a marine mammal learning center and research facility. I'd bet they'd be willing to send you a copy of the newsletter if you wrote to them -- KBMML, Univ. of Hawaii, 1129 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu, HI 96814.
When I was there, our team included a retired couple, a college student,
an animal behavior specialist, a young man from England who tended bar,
and me. (I'm a public relations counselor.) You don't need to know the
specifics of marine mammals or linguistics beforehand, although if you
have special knowledge that you can contribute, you may well be able to
use it. The staff are all very friendly, as is common around the island.
It was definitely one of the most memorable trips in my life.