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Morgrim // author
Mimosa // category
2056-04-12 23:46:09 // time
Zoey Rios: Our next guest is Sandra Mina, writer and producer of the recent documentary ‘Delphin’, that compares and contrasts human and dolphin language and culture. Sandra, welcome to the show.

Sandra Mina: Thank you for having me, Zoey.

Zoey Rios: I know this must be a common question, but why ‘Delphin’ as the title of your documentary?

Sandra Mina: Delphin is the greek word for dolphin and it’s also the name of an immortal dolphin from greek mythology, one of the servants of Poseidon. When the god of the ocean wanted to marry Amphitrite he sent Delphin as an envoy to speak with her and convince her to meet with him, and afterwards placed Delphin in the stars as the constellation Delphinus as a reward for his eloquence. I speak about him in the introduction as a reminder that talking dolphins is hardly a modern idea but unlike most we’re lucky enough that this one is real.

Zoey Rios: And is the term ‘delphum’ for the dolphin language taken from that?

Sandra Mina: Delphum is formally the catch-all term for all the cetacean languages. In practice, it generally refers to the rather mangled hybrid language most humans use to communicate with dolphins. Each of the dolphin species studied so far - bottlenose, common and spotted dolphins - has their own unique language variant and there are also regional ‘accents’ and words in populations from different oceans. But they’re closer to each other than expected so it’s thought there must be interspecies communication to some degree in the wild, even if it’s only basic information like warning of mutual predators. As a rule of thumb it’s much easier for a common dolphin to grasp bottlenose than english, or a human to learn any form of delphum, so for now the focus is on better understanding the structure as a whole than the individual variation.

Zoey Rios: So what inspired you to make a documentary on dolphin linguistics? You’re clearly passionate but that seems like an unusual topic for a filmmaker to get involved with.

Sandra Mina: Well, a colleague of mine was talking about doing some camera work for the Cetacean Communications Project, and how one of the underwater scenes was actually filmed by a dolphin holding a camera in their mouth. And that there was a researcher leaning over the side of the boat humming and waving their arms and playing recordings to the dolphin but they weren’t acting like a trainer, they were acting like one of our directors. He could scarcely believe it. And I thought to myself, “Everybody thinks whalesong is just noises on relaxation tapes. They don’t want to believe it’s communication we can share.” Which is sad because the idea of talking to alien creatures is so cool.

Zoey Rios: Alien creatures? But they’re from Earth.

Sandra Mina: Yes, but their culture and interactions with the world are completely different to ours. They have similar size and sound based languages and have been known to us for millennia and we still think they’re dumb animals because they don’t build cities. If we can’t learn to understand their culture, which is comprehensible but still alien from our own, we’ll never manage any actual extraterrestrials.

Zoey Rios: Douglas Adams famously wrote: “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.” Is that accurate?

Sandra Mina: Partially. Many of the dolphins I’ve spoken with pity humans because humans need help to do ‘easy’ things like catch fish or dive or talk to each other from a long way away. So there’s a perception that we use technology as a crutch to make up for our weaknesses. They don’t see this as a bad thing - dolphins in the wild have been observed using tools and don’t have qualms using technology adapted to them - but there is a perception that some of the things humans are fond of are silly. Like money. They have trouble grasping the abstraction of exchanging currency.

Zoey Rios: One of the signs that first alerted researchers to dolphin intelligence was bartering with fish. How can they do that and not understand money?

Sandra Mina: Instead of using objects of value for barter or currency like humans do, they seem to exchange favours and have a good memory for who owes them how much. So a dolphin might share fish with a podmate as a thank you for the other dolphin previously helping them with babysitting. The trouble is abstracting a level above that, of transferring favours from one person to another. The CCP phrase for money is ‘favour stones’, meaning a physical IOU that can be traded. Culturally it’s quite similar to some very early human societies just transitioning from hunter-gathers to farming. They just haven’t had the same push humans did before now.

Zoey Rios: Before now?

Sandra Mina: There are some people wondering if increased interactions with humans and greater exposure to our culture through a lowered language barrier might make their own more complicated. Only time will tell. Admittedly that’s a question beyond my ability to address within the film.

Zoey Rios: Turning back to the documentary, in the end credits you've dedicated this film to Malaka and all the other victims of the Tidefire attack. But it was widely reported that Hakumele, the first Citizen dolphin, was a victim too. Is there any reason she's not mentioned?

Sandra Mina: We actually had some disagreement about her. It's true that she fell into a coma a day after the terrorist attack and never recovered from it, but nobody is quite sure what caused it. So while it's unlikely it COULD be her illness was something natural with terribly bad timing, or that she was the victim of another group entirely. She's been honoured in other places and here we wanted to focus purely on those murdered defending their home.

Zoey Rios: Strong words.

Sandra Mina: A group of terrorists attempted to sink an island home to tens of thousands of humans because they thought a country shouldn't exist. Even if you disagree with that nation no reasonable person can justify that genocide. 'Murder' is the only word for it.

Zoey Rios: So what are your future plans? Are there any more dolphin films in the works?

Sandra Mina: Not yet. At some point in the future I’d love to do more though. A documentary on human and dolphin diplomats adapting to each other’s society would be interesting but I think more needs to be learned first.

Zoey Rios: Well I for one look forward to watching it. Sandra, thank you for your time, and good luck in your future work.