Why Don’t Dolphins And Whales Fight Back?

September 1, 2015 Laura Bridgeman

Each year in Taiji, Japan, the unthinkable happens: wild dolphins are rounded up, sold into captivity and killed.

The international community has long known about the hunts and continues to rally for change. What remains unknown is why dolphins never fight back against their human tormentors.

Exploring this question raises others. What causes captive orcas and belugas to show such restraint toward their captors? Why did the great whale nations rarely attack the hunters who lanced them by the millions? Why don’t dolphins and whales fight back? These questions bear asking, as we continue to learn more about who these beings really are and how we ought to be treating them.


Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society 

Dolphins Avoid Harming Taiji Hunters

The Taiji hunts are brutal. After a harrowing chase from the open ocean, the dolphins are corralled into the now-infamous cove. Human divers jump into the water and begin separating the dolphins, tossing babies away from their mothers. ‘Show quality’ dolphins are selected and placed in separate tanks, to be trained and eventually shipped to aquariums around the world.

Then, the slaughter begins. The dolphins are dragged by their tails and tied to a submerged pole. A metal spike is driven into the head of each dolphin, one by one. Imagine for a moment what that would be like. Perhaps your daughter is tied next to you. She looks you in the eye as the spike severs her spine. Her tail thrashes wildly. You know you are next.

Now imagine the dolphins who are huddled together just outside of the killing area, swimming among the human divers in the water. By virtue of their incredible sonar abilities, the dolphins clearly witness the deaths of their kin. Make no mistake: they hear the whistles of agony. They see who is doing the killing. They are aware.

It is most astonishing, then, that the dolphins do not fight back. They are more than capable of doing so. A dolphin’s tail, called the ‘business end’ by those in the captivity industry, is not to be underestimated. Biologist Kathleen Dudzinski recalls an incident when she was helping to restrain a captive dolphin who was pinned to the floor, receiving fluids. Dudzinski knelt on the dolphin’s tail, with one knee on each side of the fluke. Suddenly, the dolphin lifted Dudzinski’s entire body a foot off the ground and held her there, perfectly balanced. “As never before, I understood the power of the dolphin tail,” she said.


Photo credit: Huang-Ju Chen

There can be no doubt that a dolphin can easliy kill a human being with one swipe of her tail. The human divers in Taiji are presumably never injured, or else they would not so willingly dive into the chaos with no protection. It only requires watching a few moments of the chaos to realize that not only are the dolphins not attacking the humans, but they are intentionally avoiding causing them harm.

Whales Don’t Fight Back Either

The Taiji dolphins are not the only ones who seem to avoid causing us harm. There are numerous incidents from the captivity industry where cetaceans could easily have killed the humans, but choose not to. Mary Winters, a former SeaWorld employee, describes being held down at the bottom of the pool by a beluga whale. He could have crushed or drowned her. Instead, he allowed her to go to the surface before she even ran out of air.

While they did occasionally attack whaling boats, the great whales – the humpbacks, greys, blues and the like – are equally inexplicably benevolent towards humans. Commercial whaling saw the decimation of vast nations of whales, and in the cruellest of ways. It was not uncommon for a whale to take many hours to die once harpooned. One observer noted that one whale, after being stabbed at for over 23 hours, “never once turned on his attackers”. Often the harpooned whale’s companions would gather around, helping it breathe, rather than fleeing for their own lives. This was much to the delight of the whalers who were able to harpoon an entire pod at their leisure, laughing at their ‘stupidity’ all the while.

Despite the fact that whaling continues to this day, whales are benign and even friendly toward us. In the San Ignacio lagoon in Baja California, grey whales approach tour boats to show off their newborns. This is incredible when you consider that, not even 100 years ago – which is living memory for these greys – vessels that look awfully similar to tourist boats were murdering pregnant whales and their babies in that very lagoon.

If this is forgiveness, it is of a magnitude that should leave us in awe.

A Dolphin’s Benevolent Brain

Where does all of this this unwarranted benevolence come from? I’ve previously suggested that the dolphin brain structure provides some clues. Biologist Denise Herzing notes that the size of the limbic structure in the dolphin brain, which handles emotional processing, may indicate that dolphins “may have more of a ‘global connection’ to [emotional] information“. This could mean that they are more emotional than humans, and their emotions could feature more prominently throughout their thought processes.

 The cerebral coretex, responsible for ‘rational’ thought in humans, is much larger and more complex in the dolphin brain. It is also rife with neocortical associational neurons, which Stephen Bunnell explains are linked to emotional and impulse control, a sense of humor, and keeping irritability in check.

Together, these parts of the brain seem to indicate that dolphins are more emotional than we are, they have greater emotional intelligence and are more in control of their emotions. This could be what prevents them from lashing out in times of such duress. Perhaps they have such mastery over their fear that they can make a calm, collected exit from this planet when we demand they do so.

A Life Without Fear

Members of the cetacean order include the biggest animals ever to grace this planet. But why would a species evolve such large, energy-intensive bodies, with equally enormous brains to match?

“With size comes tranquility,” says Roger Payne in his book Among Whales. “As the largest animal, you could afford to be gentle, to view life without fear, to play in the dark, to sleep soundly anywhere, and greet the world in peace.”

It could be that cetaceans have evolved in order to live without fear. Who wouldn’t want to live such a life? If this is the case, it is no wonder that they are utterly at a loss when faced with the rapacious cruelty of humanity. Our violence could be so alien to them that they are simply unable to respond.

Dolphins and whales have been known to fend off attacks from orcas and sharks. But they were able to evolve strategies for dealing with these predators over time. Our human brand of greed-driven cruelty, which seems to know no bounds, has not afforded them the same luxury.

What Do They Think Of Us?

Perhaps the cetacean’s benevolence towards us is a culturally learned strategy. Cetacean scientist John Lilly suggested that they could recognize humans as being “the most dangerous animal on this planet,” and if they attacked us unprovoked, we would “wipe them off the face of the earth.” Given our track record with nonhuman animals that dare attack us, Lilly could be onto something. Shark culls are common. Earlier this month, a mother bear who killed a human was ‘euthanized’ and her babies sold to a zoo.

Cetacean’s recognition of humanity’s deadly force is not such a far-fetched idea. For beings that can communicate across oceans and who are sensitive to their environment, the whales likely recognize human impacts to many forms of life. The seismic blasting of oil exploration, naval excersizes, and the constant drone of propellers could provide all-too-constant reminders of our destructive might. Perhaps they developed a strategy to treat us with kid gloves long ago.

All the science and speculation in the world may never discover the truth. What is plainly evident is the fact that we systematically use, abuse and destroy beings who are benign and treat us with kindness.

It is a great mystery why dolphins and whales don’t fight back. Greater still is why we fight them in the first place.