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Dolphin -- Watercolor by Grandson Chris Bayhi [at 8 yrs old]


An Adventure in Inter-Species Communication


Bobby Matherne


Chapter 7: The Kindergarten Class

[©1997 by Bobby Matherne]

The dolphins had been speaking for a long time and requested a break. ICN cut to a live interview with Dr. Mornay. "Dr. Mornay, your project is immensely complicated -- I wonder if you can give us a simple explanation of how dolphin communication works that everyone could understand?"

"My good friend, Professor Jim Todd, asked me that same question several months ago. He went a step further and challenged me to explain my theory and project to his wife's kindergarten class."

"How did it go?"

"Perhaps better than I might have expected. The ISC Project Team has prepared some of the tapes we used for our demonstration to the project team that day and we'll show them as I tell you what happened."


"Children, this Dr. Robert Mornay," Margaret Todd said, as she introduced me to her kindergarten class. "He's here to talk to us about his work with dolphins."

I trembled a bit inside as she said these words. I had talked to many groups before about my dolphin project in complete comfort, but never to such an array of such young, eager and smiling faces. Would I be up to the task of communication I had set myself when I accepted Jim's challenge? This was the challenge: "Can you, Robert, describe your work on dolphin communication in terms so simple that a kindergarten class can understand it?" He had asked me that question one night over dinner. I readily accepted the gauntlet Jim had thrown down for me, but with some trepidation.

I began by asking the class, "How many of you have seen pictures of your mommy's baby while it was still inside her?" Several hands went up.

I pulled out several sonograms and held one out for the class to see. It was a black and white picture of a six-month old fetus. When they saw the photo, several more hands went up. I passed the photo around. The children gathered around the table where the photo was being inspected, eager to see the photo of gray and white masses that seemed to be a baby.

"Look! There's its hands," one little redheaded boy said. He reminded me of myself at that age. I must have been his size when I saw my first dinosaur picture book.

"What a funny head!" another said, laughing. "It doesn't have any clothes on," a blonde girl said, bashfully.

When they settled down, I continued, "Humans have known for a long time that dolphins use sound waves to navigate in the darkness of the sea, but it was only recently that we found out that they create pictures from the sounds that they emit."

I hoped I was using simple enough words for the kids. "Pictures like the one you have on the table there. That picture was made by sending sounds into the mother's tummy and creating a picture, a computer image, from the waves that bounce back.

"How many of you have ever stood in front of a wall or cliff and yelled and your voice bounced back at you?" A couple of hands went up. "Anyone knows what that's called?"

"An echo?" the redheaded boy offered.

"Yes, an echo is right," I smiled, these kids were really interested in this stuff. "Scientists call locating an object by bouncing sound waves off it by the fancy name, echo-location. What my project team has discovered is that dolphins can see as well as you or I can see by use by bouncing sound waves off their surroundings. They convert the echoes of the sounds into pictures like the one you have looked at of the unborn baby."

"Do dolphins see in black and white" a small towheaded boy who was holding the sonogram asked.

"Good question. No, they see in full color just like we do with our eyes. They also see much clearer pictures that the sonogram you're holding." I pulled out several full color photos of the same six-month fetus I had brought with me. These pictures were made with ISC's special phizualization equipment used for dolphin communication.

The children ooohed and aaahed when I showed them the full color pictures of the same fetus. In these pictures the detail was very sharp, the skin was pink flesh colored (although transparent), the eyes were blue in the frontal shots, and except for the transparency of its skin, looked as though the photos had been taken of the baby in its bassinet.

"Wow, look at that! You can even see it's fingernails," a little boy in the front row blurted out.

"This photo was made with our new dolphin eyes machine," I said. "With it we can take pictures like this of the inside of humans and animals in more detail than ever before. This picture was made with the equipment that will allow us to talk with the dolphins."

"Dolphins can talk?" a girl in a bright blue pinafore asked, "My daddy told me they only chirp and whistle."

"Your daddy is right. To us humans dolphin speech sounds like chirps and whistles," I answered her question, choosing my words carefully, "but to other dolphins, these chirps and whistles are turned into beautiful color pictures like the one you are looking at. Here are some more." I pulled out a stack of 8x10 color prints and placed them on the table for the kindergartners to look at more closely.

"Here's one of Nimrod and Demeter, our favorite dolphin couple. Nimrod is the slightly larger one with the racing stripes over the top of his head. Also notice the notch on top edge of his dorsal fin. They are both Atlantic dolphins, about six feet long and weigh about 300 to 400 pounds."

Pointing to the larger dolphin I said, "If you look at his stomach here, you will notice that Nimrod has just finished eating because his stomach is full of partially digested fish. Demeter's stomach is empty because she had just been let into the tank and had not yet been fed when this photo was taken. Just like sonograms let the doctor see what's inside your mommy's tummy, dolphins can see inside of each other's tummy.

"A dolphin might greet another dolphin by saying, 'I see you've just had a large meal of herring. How did they taste?' or 'I see your sinus cavities are all stopped up. Do you have a cold?' What humans would have to guess about when they meet another human, dolphins can see directly. We might say to an expectant mother, 'Are you going to have a baby?' But dolphins might say, 'I see you're going to have a boy baby. He sure looks healthy.'"

"Do dolphins talk like we do, Dr. Mornay?" Margaret asked for her class.

"No, in fact, dolphins don't talk at all. They make sounds but they don't talk. With the sounds dolphins create pictures like these to communicate with each other. Dolphins speak, all right, but they speak in pictures, not words." At that point I stopped and looked around. I asked the teacher, "Do you have a book handy that you've used in this class, Miss Todd?"

"Yes, here's one. It's a picture book about dinosaurs," Margaret said, as she handed me the brightly colored book.

When I opened the book and I was transported back to his pre-school days when I first encountered dinosaurs in picture books. "How many of you like looking at books with lots of pictures, like this one?" All the hands went up.

"Well, you'd like talking to dolphins, because when they talk, they create pictures like the ones in this book. Instead of talking using words, they talk in pictures. They create television shows with their mouths when they talk to each other." I took a breather to gauge how well my young audience was absorbing this material.

"How do they do that?" came a question from the girl at the front of the table that had been waving her hand in the air.

"That's a good question," I said, "but to answer that question, let's look at how you learned to speak." I picked up the apple from Margaret's desk and held it in the air.

"At some point in your life your mother may have held an object like this in front of your eyes and said the word, 'apple.' After several times of doing this, she could say the word 'apple' without holding up an apple and you could see an apple in your mind, even if you didn't know yet that it was something good to eat. Then one day after you had discovered it was something good to eat, you said the word 'apple' and she gave you one."

"I like apples," the redheaded boy said.

"I like them, too," I said smiling. "Now dolphins don't eat apples, so their mommy probably did a similar thing with fish instead of apples. She showed her baby dolphin a fish. To show her new baby a fish, she had to bounce some sound waves off the fish, so both she and the baby could see the fish. The baby dolphin had to learn how to make the sounds that will enable him to see fish. Sounds like the doctor bounced off your mother's tummy so he could see the baby inside it."

"Like this one?" the blue pinafore held up one of the sonograms.

"Yes, exactly. Now comes the important part: The baby dolphin heard the sounds its mother made reflected off the fish and created a visual image, a picture, of the fish in its head, just like you did of the apple when your mother showed the apple to you."

"Dolphins see fish when they hear sounds? Is that what you're saying?" Margaret asked.

"Yes, exactly so, and because they create pictures from the sounds they hear, dolphins can speak pictures."

"But how?" Margaret was more puzzled than their her young charges.

"Dolphins learn how to imitate sounds that reflect off of the objects they see with their ears. When they re-create these sounds, they and other dolphins within hearing distance are able to see the objects and scene being talked about even thought it's not there. Just like a like newsreel clip from television or the movies."

"Like when you asked us yesterday if someone would bring an apple to class today, Miss Todd?" the blond boy at the back of the table asked.

"I think so, Charlie," Margaret said. "Is that so, Dr. Mornay?"

"Yes, indeed. Most people can picture an apple when someone says 'apple.' We create images when someone says, 'apple.' We create pictures with sounds just as dolphins do, but dolphins do it more directly. When a dolphin wants to describe to a fellow dolphin how to get to a good fishing spot, he simply repeats from memory the sounds he heard on the way to the fishing spot and his friend sees a movie clip of the trip there. This is a very direct method of communication much simpler that human speech."

"I would like to see like a dolphin," the blond boy said eagerly. "Can I?"

"You can," I said, unpacking my computer gear. In a few minutes I set up the demonstration the ISC Project Team had prepared for me, and placed the eyephones on Charlie, who sat in rapt attention as the dolphin demonstration began.

The class followed on the computer's video monitor in front of the classroom. They looked at a large screen TV, but what Charlie was seeing was an image that surrounded him, filling his entire visual field. He saw two dolphins swimming around him, chasing and eating fish. The eyephones had motion detectors built-in that fed signals back to the computer. When he moved his head to the left, the image on the computer screen moved to the right. This created the illusion that Charlie's visual field did not move, but was really out there. To Charlie it was reality.

Charlie was experiencing virtual reality. In another sense, Charlie was seeing the computer-generated world the way both humans and dolphins see in their real world, but they do not realize that they are constructing the image like a computer does. They think the world is out there and they just see it. Mornay thought to himself that this assumption was the toughest obstacle to getting people to understand how dolphins communicate with each other.

Charlie didn't need any explanation at all; he was enraptured. As the class watched on the monitor, he was in the pool swimming with these two beautiful dolphin creatures. "Nimrod is the larger of the two Pacific dolphins," the narrator began his running commentary on what Charlie was experiencing.

Suddenly Charlie squealed with delight as on the video monitor Nimrod disappeared and was replaced by the image of a human hunter with a bow and arrow. It seemed quite strange to Margaret, but not to Charlie.

"Here Nimrod introduces himself to us as the 'Hunter,' which is what 'Nimrod' means in Hebrew. It is a very old name, first encountered in the bible as the name of Noah's grandson. Now watch as Demeter introduces herself."

The smaller of the two dolphins swam over and magically transformed herself into a beautiful woman walking through a field of waving, golden wheat.

"Demeter was the Greek goddess of grain, of cereals. Dolphins use pictorial names, somewhat like our American Indians with names like Dancing Bear, or Flying Eagle, except dolphins can speak the moving pictures that are their given names. They also have a remarkable knowledge of Greek mythology for some reason we have yet to discover. Nimrod was named after the grandson of Noah of the Bible, and he has already told us some stories that date from biblical times. His name means Great Hunter and he seems to be one from the stories of his exploits we seen so far."

Meanwhile Charlie was oblivious to the words of the narrator. He was watching Nimrod and Demeter cavort as they caught and ate fish. This was so unlike watching dolphins at the local oceanarium in Long Beach, which Charlie had done before. Here was Charlie in the pool with the dolphins through the magic of virtual reality.

When Nimrod ate a fish Charlie could see the pieces of the fish traveling down Nimrod's throat into his stomach where there were pieces being digested.

"Here Dr. Mornay asks a question in dolphin language. He asks Nimrod to describe what he knows about fish dolphin called mahi-mahi; it is a true fish, not a mammal. It is famous for the rapid color changes in its bright blue and gold coloration when it dies. Dolphins love to eat mahi-mahi and will dive to great depths in the Pacific Ocean to locate them. The way Dr. Mornay asks the question is to create a picture of the mahi-mahi in pink. Since pink is an unusual color underwater, dolphins have evolved into using that shades of that color to indicate a question.

"It is like our use of a rising tone or inflection in our voice to indicate that we are asking a question. Since dolphins create pictures from tones, they change the color of the portions of the picture they are asking a question about. There's the pink mahi-mahi now in the left side of the picture. Think of it as Dr. Mornay asking the question, "Mahi-mahi?" to Nimrod.

"Charlie, get ready for a wild ride. Nimrod's answer will take you and us to the depths of the ocean. Here we go."

The narrator's voice disappeared just as a collective gasp echoed through the classroom, followed closely by a chorus of oohs. Charlie kept mumbling, "Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy."

The scene had changed instantaneously from the tank with Nimrod and Demeter to a breath-taking dive into the depths of the sea. With blinding speed Charlie, who is seeing the world through Nimrod's view, is enjoying this ride on an underwater roller coaster.

The narrator's voice returned, "You will notice how bright the scene is as you near the bottom of the ocean. Dolphins see by creating images from reflected sound waves, so it is as easy for them to see in total darkness as it is in the light. Thus it is always daylight for dolphins. There is the school of mahi-mahi below. Let's watch as Nimrod chooses his lunch snack."

Charlie squealed in delight. Charlie had become Nimrod. He circled the school of blunt nosed fish with the pointed tails looking for a tasty morsel. Picking out his prey he dove suddenly into the middle of the school. As the larger mahi-mahi scattered, a blue and yellow fish filled Charlie's vision and he chortled as the fish was chopped to pieces. The scene faded slowly like a movie fade-out and suddenly Charlie was back in the pool looking at Nimrod and Demeter.

"Nimrod has finished answering Dr. Mornay's question, now. You are back in the pool. Dolphins answer questions by telling stories, just as humans often do, but with this big difference, dolphins tell stories by creating a brief motion picture, a news reel clip, by way of an answer to the question.

"The trip you have just taken to the bottom of the Pacific on the nose of Nimrod was created by Nimrod's voice. He spoke the images you saw, by a process that Dr. Mornay calls spizualization, a compound word made from the two words, speak and visualize."

At this point I turned off the computer and lifted the eyephones from Charlie. The demonstration was becoming a bit too technical for the kindergarten class, I thought, and I had another appointment so I said goodby to the class. As I told Margaret goodbye Charlie led the kindergarten class in an enthusiastic round of applause.

After school let out, Margaret helped me carry my computer gear out to his car. As we reached the car, she said, "Thanks, Robert. It was so kind of you to come today. The kids thoroughly enjoyed the show and so did I. I have never seen Charlie so enthusiastic about anything before."

[End of Kindergarten Chapter 7. To Read Next Chapter Click Book Jacket at Right:]

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