• April 29, 2015

A Photographer Shows Us Just How Smart Dolphins Are

Becky Harlan

“It’s Time for a Conversation,” a feature story exploring dolphin intelligence in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine, presented photographer Brian Skerry and senior natural history editor Kathy Moran with an interesting problem: How do you show how smart a dolphin is? I recently sat down with Kathy and we talked about what it was like to work on this story with Brian—who shares his own experience in the video above.

Picture of dusky dolphins herding anchovies into balls
Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) in Golfo Nuevo, Peninsula Valdes, Argentina
Click or hover for full caption.
All Photographs by Brian Skerry

BECKY HARLAN: What was the toughest part about working on “It’s Time for a Conversation”?

KATHY MORAN: When you’re trying to do a story on animal cognition, the challenge is making interesting images that show the behavior. It’s easy to go and make beautiful photographs of dolphins. And if you were simply doing a story on spinners or bottlenose, lots of beautiful images might add up to a great photo essay. But when something like cognition becomes the framework that the visuals have to hang off of, then that behavior is absolutely critical to the storytelling.

The other thing that was really challenging is that you’re working with researchers who are passionate about only working with wild animals … and yet one of the reasons we know how smart [dolphins are] is the work that’s been done with captive animals. It was a delicate dance trying to be respectful to both sides of the equation. Brian really bridged that gap in a very creative and respectful way.

Picture of three spinner dolphins in bright blue water photographed in the waters of Kona, Hawaii
Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) in the waters off Kona, Hawaii
Click or hover for full caption.

BECKY: How did you and Brian get to a place where you all were making the images you wanted?

KATHY: Brian spent weeks and weeks and weeks learning as much as he possibly could about these species, interviewing scientists, and trying to really figure out what he could bring to the story that was going to be different than what anyone else had done in the past. He worked so incredibly hard, but he just had these moments in the sea where everything came together. Spinners playing with leaves, bottlenose corralling fish, duskies eating from a bait ball—these are things that you hope you’re going to see, but it just takes hard hard work and lots of luck. That aerial image looking down on the dolphins doing mud rings around the fish, I don’t think anyone has ever made a still image of that behavior before.

Picture from above of dolphins in Crystal River, Florida engaging in a special behavior where they create a circle of mud to trap fish
Bottlenose dolphins engage in mud-ring feeding behavior in Florida Bay.
Click or hover for full caption.

BECKY: You and Brian have worked on over ten stories together. What do you like about working with him?

KATHY: He’s talented, he’s curious, he’s one of the most hardworking partners I’ve ever done a story with. He really puts the effort into doing his homework. His style is absolutely beautiful—the way he brings light and motion together so that you feel that in his images. The ocean is never static.

What I really respect about Brian is that his commitment to ocean conservation never ends with the publication of the story. He continues to help all of the scientists that he works with and he lectures tirelessly about the need for ocean conservation. One story flows right into the next for him because his commitment to the ocean is so powerful. He has created this dialogue between himself and the National Geographic audience that’s all about his love of the oceans and the need to conserve them. It’s really a never ending conversation.

Picture of spinner dolphins in the waters around Bimini in the Bahamas
Spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) in the waters around Bimini in the Bahamas
Click or hover for full caption.

See more photos and get the full story on dolphin intelligence in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic.

Explore Brian Skerry’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram. If you like what you see here, you can find other Proof posts about Skerry swimming with giants and finding the “Afghan girl” dolphin.

There are 28 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lane
    March 1, 2016

    Nice! Very helpful!

  2. ya mum
    January 25, 2016

    poop article

  3. sanlap biswas
    June 30, 2015

    Beautiful !!!

  4. Anne Hyatt Knott
    May 19, 2015

    People only care about dolphins or other creatures of land or sea as long as it doesn’t interfere with their chosen lifestyles. Human over-population has been the one most significant problem relating to pollution, species extinction, dwindling rain forest acreage, habitat loss, increased CO2 in the atmosphere and climate change since after WW2 and the baby boomer era when our population doubled in the years since 1960! But not a single politician or TV media journalist will touch it because they will lose votes or ratings. Come on people! Is it really such an inconvenience to have just one or two kids and to encourage others to do the same? I want there to be a healthy natural world for my grandchildren to enjoy and fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink. But hey, this comment probably won’t even be allowed to be posted. Too politically incorrect . . . .

  5. Ron C
    May 18, 2015

    JC, May 17 comment: Where did you see or hear the “one profanity”?
    I viewed the film and read the text twice and found nothing in the least profane, offensive or inappropriate.

  6. JC
    May 17, 2015

    Kids need these for education, but I will not send due to the one profanity…why is this necessary or useful…do it elsewhere if you must, but not on a site used to education kids to the wonders and problems of nature.

  7. JR
    May 17, 2015

    I personally think the dolphins intelligence has been displayed well! While humans are arguing over words- dolphins are out swimming having fun. Who is truly the smarter? lol Well done humans. Way to rise above.

  8. DC
    May 12, 2015

    flying panda your comments are complete BS. Humans and many other predators routinely kill others of their own species and similar species, monkeys, bears, birds, etc. Murder is a legal term is therefore only found in the Human species. No animals murder each other, they simply kill. Dolphins are highly intelligent, highly evolved apex predators. That you cannot fathom this simple truth does not surprise me.

  9. ashish swaroop
    May 12, 2015

    please see this dolphin rare pic dying due to plastics because of our human behaviour

  10. Tony
    May 6, 2015

    Right to the point,,,great

  11. flying panda
    May 3, 2015

    What is with all this “god is great” “nature is perfect” tripe going on here in the comments section? Dolphins are the only species who MURDER other animals of their species …. just because. And if you’re a porpoise who got lost and encountered a dolphin pod you are a dead porpoise as dolphins are speciest as f***. Yes they’re incredible animals but their intelligence gives them many of the uglier aspects we arrogantly call human nature as well. Nature is beautiful bit it’s also red in tooth and claw. Where is god when a parasite digs it’s way into a lambs brain causing a horrible early death? Reality check here people. The dolphins don’t smile at you because they’re a pure reflection of universal joy. It’s just the way their murderous jaws evolved.

  12. marianne martino
    May 2, 2015

    I love dolphins and my doter loves them to she is going to be a merine byoligest

  13. Lilly Charleton
    May 2, 2015

    I was horrified to see National Geographic promoting dolphin captivity and promoting Dolphin Discovery. Dolphin Discovery has captured and enslaved hundreds of dolphins and has been proven to be treating them very poorly. Dolphins do not belong in captivity, scientific evidence suggests that they suffer anxiety, stress and premature death in captivity and can not carry out their natural behaviours. Dolphin Discovery is not a centre for marine mammal research, it’s an entertainment company that exploits dolphins to make money. Very disappointed in National Geographic for siding with such businesses

  14. MG Alfeel
    May 2, 2015

    amazing shots i want to see them for real

  15. Isabel Gutiérrez Flores
    April 30, 2015

    I have always liked dolphins, and, the more I see them, and the more I learn about them, the more I fall in love with them. They are beautiful, playful, intelligent, sociable, helpful, graceful… ahhh! If human beings were more like dolphins, our world would be a lot better.

  16. Zethu Mthiyane ,
    April 30, 2015

    God is is the greatest creator, dolphins are amazing

  17. nimra mubashir
    April 30, 2015

    Nature is just beyond perfection!! Perfect clicks of dolphins

  18. Rod Ismay
    April 30, 2015

    Thank you for the info and the wonderful photos

  19. Jeanette Morenski
    April 30, 2015

    Living on the east coast of Florida I am very fortunate to see dolphins quite often. No matter how many times I see them, I am always amazed and awe struck at their beauty and intelligence. As Eduardo commented, we have so much to learn from them.

  20. Mick
    April 30, 2015

    Great Article. Such an interesting and challenging line of study. Imagine what we could share.

  21. alan
    April 30, 2015

    I like the article

  22. ernesto paulero
    April 29, 2015

    como me gustria que nuestra sociedad se esforzara por entender el mensaje que los animales intentan difundir solo actuando normalmente y asi enteder que es el amor por la vida y el equilibrio!!

  23. Furie
    April 29, 2015

    Because the Dolphins have been living here alot longer than the humans have, did you ever ask them to show you the most wondered place on Earth… ” show us where Atlantis is….” you might be surprised by their answer… enjoy…

  24. susan Freeman
    April 29, 2015

    Could you post the link to the video? I can’t access it in the article.

  25. Donna
    April 29, 2015

    Incredible shots! Good article in the May 2015 Nat Geo.

  26. marouane fakir
    April 29, 2015

    I think the Dolphins intelligent creatures and are only found in zenith-place.blogspot.com

    ..how Great is our God

  27. Eduardo
    April 29, 2015

    We can’t imagine the things we need to learn from them including their love to life

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