The colloquium begins. The dolphins swirl in slow rings around the two subjects. The lead researcher points out their salient features. Breeding-age female; size and weight of a calf on the cusp of being weaned; grossly underdeveloped rostrum, typical of the species; no suprafacial sound-conducting fatty deposits, also typical. Elderly male; height of an undersized adult female dolphin; weight, owing to extreme stomachic protuberance, similar to young adult male dolphin; abdominal fatty deposit useless for echolocation; general health poor; species deficiencies pronounced.
In a hail of bubbles, two dolphins dive-bomb the subjects and pump air into their mouths. Despite hundreds of hours of training, their ability to store oxygen is inferior to a neonate’s. The subjects’ flippers flap uncontrollably. Their bright pebble eyes convulse. They have diminished sensory capacity, the researchers remind themselves. As many studies have attested, they hardly feel pain.
“Land pygmy echolocation: an impossible dream?” The title is a provocation. The dolphins flick their tails in anticipation. Those who have poured their life into the cause chatter angrily.
“In so many ways these little creatures are almost delphinoid,” the speaker recaps. “Their brains are large. They perform well in memory tests. The guttural noises they produce with their larynxes are clearly an attempt at communication. While nasal clicking is beyond them, they can be induced to make low-pitched sounds that enable them to recognise large, proximate objects. (Sea-snake skins were used to cover their eyes.) But between the ability to identify a coral reef and catch a speeding baitfish there stretches a huge, arguably unbridgeable gulf. It’s time we accepted the unpalatable truth: they are simply not designed to echolocate prey.”
“We, of course,” the speaker continues, “echolocate from infancy. It takes training, admittedly, but the basic skill is innate. And, what is equally concerning, we see no evidence they actually want to do it. With appropriate rewards, they will perform, as well as they can, at least some of the time. But do we ever see them initiating echolocation? No. That’s why we believe, with the greatest respect to the pioneers in the field, that the whole project is dead in the water.”
The subjects, gasping, receive another injection of air. The dolphins are glum. Was it all wasted effort?
“I think it’s been immensely valuable,” an earnest young male pipes up. “It helps us appreciate the miracle of echolocation. The fact that we perform this sophisticated operation every day of our lives, hundreds of times, without a second thought. It’s what makes us unique.”
Loud click-applause buoys him up. He executes a quadruple rostrum spin and races after a mackerel whose tiny form, half a mile away, crystallises in his mind, perfect in every detail.
Faye Brinsmead is a writer and lawyer living in Canberra, Australia. Her work has been published in typishly, Colloquy, Honi Soit and Tangent.