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Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, October 30, 2000

Dolphins attract
with friendly grins

I have a friend, Johney, who is 8 years old and from Bangladesh. Johney will be in Honolulu for about a year while he has his clubfeet surgically repaired at Shriners Hospital for Children. He's been here about three months now, and is rapidly learning English, but since he arrived, communicating has been a great frustration for him.

Last week, I took Johney to Sea Life Park. Now I know only about five words of Bengali, but one of them happens to be the word for dolphin. So I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when I explained to Johney that we were going to see some shishu.

He looked at me blankly and asked, "Shishu?"

"Yes. There are shishu at this place." With my hand, I made the motion of dolphins swimming up and down through the water.

"Shishu?" he repeated, trying hard to understand. Then I realized that he lived far from the Ganges River, home of the famous river dolphins, and even further from the ocean. Johney never heard the word shishu.

"Dolphins," I said, thinking I was teaching him a new word.

Johney lit up. "Dolphins? Me like dolphins!"

Apparently, someone at Shriners Hospital, which has excellent education programs, taught Johney about dolphins. And even though he had never seen one, he loved them.

What is it about these marine mammals that makes them so universally loved?

My first guess is that people fall in love with those big smiley faces. Since dolphins' mouths turn up at the corners, they give the impression they are grinning from ear to ear.

It doesn't matter that the smiles on these creatures' faces are accidents of anatomy. We find these expressions endearing in our own species, and therefore, in animals, too.

This attraction to a friendly face is no fluke. We humans evolved to interpret facial expressions in one another and respond accordingly. Smile means good. Frown means bad.

That may be one of the reasons most of us can't bring ourselves to love those frowny-faced sharks, even though intellectually we admire them. Nor do many of us feel much warmth toward toothy eels or grumpy-looking crabs. It's easier to like animals with happy, friendly faces.

And that's another thing people like about dolphins: their friendliness.

Dolphins are the golden retrievers of the marine world. Like our beloved family dogs, park dolphins eagerly greet their trainers, work to please them and love being petted and praised.

This ready bonding with people likely comes from the animals' natural inclination to bond with members of their own species. It also comes from their adaptability, because also like many of our pet dogs, dolphins are extremely smart.

Some people believe dolphins have healing abilities, are telepaths and/or cast mystical spells. These ideas may improve their lives, but some take it too far. A Hawaii woman once insisted on delivering her baby in the ocean so it could commune with dolphins at birth. The baby lived, but only because of emergency medical care.

Dolphins aren't gods to most of us, but they sure capture our imaginations, both in parks and in the wild. At Sea Life Park last week, Johney fed sea turtles and sea lions, and saw penguins, sharks and dolphins, all for the first time.

His favorite? "Dolphins!" he answered immediately. Those friendly, smiling animals chased away his pain, made him laugh and boosted all of our spirits.

Now that's my kind of shishu magic.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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