Dolphins have saved humans from disaster
In Douglas Adams' book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," dolphins are brilliant and humans are dolts.
In that funny story, dolphins continually warn humans about the impending destruction of the planet, but people misread the animals' leaps, clicks and squeaks as mindless play.
Pygmy sperm whales, however, heed dolphins' counsel. Or two did anyway last week when they got stranded on a New Zealand beach.
Biologists spent an hour and a half trying to coax the little whales back to deep water, but the confused mother kept turning the wrong way and running herself and her calf onto a sandbar.
Just when it seemed as if the whales would have to be euthanized to end their suffering, Moko, a local bottlenose dolphin, showed up. Moko communicated something to the whales which observers say clearly changed their state of mind. Then the dolphin led the pair out a nearby channel to safety.
The whales disappeared, but Moko came back to the beach to play with human swimmers, something this dolphin has been doing for the last six months.
This rescue is the first biologists have witnessed between two cetacean species. Rescues of humans by dolphins, however, have been recorded in myth and art since ancient times.
The word dolphin comes from ancient Greece. Its root, "delphis," refers to "delphys," the womb. The Greeks knew dolphins are mammals.
In the seventh century B.C., Greek poet Arion recorded the first dolphin rescue story. Pirates threw Arion into the sea, and a dolphin carried him to shore on its back.
Dolphins are more than friendly in some stories. In Amazon River communities, legend has it that the pink river dolphin emerges from the river in the form of a red man and is responsible for surprise pregnancies.
Today, stories about dolphins saving humans from drowning or sharks are fairly common. In near drownings, dolphins push humans to the surface. During shark attacks, dolphins protect victims by surrounding them.
Such a save occurred last August off Monterey, Calif., when dolphins approached a surfer being attacked by a great white shark. The shark had lunged and bitten the man three times when dolphins encircled him. This, he thought, kept the shark at bay while he swam to shore.
Rescues are natural to dolphins; they do the same for their own kind. Sick or injured dolphins get boosts to the surface from their pod-mates, and dolphins work together to fight off sharks threatening a pod.
The question is, Why do these animals help us?
No one can know what dolphins are thinking when they do it, but a logical explanation is that dolphins are smart, friendly animals that, like some cats and dogs, rise to the occasion to aid members of other species. Whether such rescues are purely instinct or thought out in some way will always be a mystery.
That's my theory but there are others. One Web site claims that dolphins are space aliens, and if we can just learn their language, we'll be communicating with extraterrestrials.
Whether dolphins are geniuses trying to save the planet, celestial beings that talk in squeaks or just smart, sociable mammals with rescue instincts, it's inspiring to see them cross the ultimate class barrier to offer help.
We dolts could pay attention and do more of the same.