Thursday, September 6, 2012


Dolphin Way: Rise of the Guardians
By Mark Caney

Book trailer: See the book trailer here!

Sometimes I have to give information about my novel to book review sites or web distribution sites, and one of the first questions is, “what genre is this book in?” I always struggle with that one, for as far as I know, it really does not fit into any existing category. I usually end up compromising on ‘Fantasy’ but that does not really sit comfortably with me. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a well written fantasy book, but to me, they are set in worlds that are just that — pure fantasy.

Dolphin Way is set in a world that actually exists right alongside our own. And if you want to go out and find the creatures that populate the book you can go ahead and try, because they exist too. And they are as intelligent as they seem in the book, and they do communicate at a very high level and they have a society and culture. So what you are reading might just not be fiction…

Let me try to convince you that dolphins have an intelligence that is comparable to ours, but one that is clearly different. This is fundamental to the book as in the novel they communicate as well as we do – but they have a totally different value system.

Few would argue that dolphins are intelligent. Exactly how intelligent is another matter. The issue is made more complex as humans tend to measure intelligence against their own understanding of it.

Although it may not be directly meaningful, in terms of brain size, the bottlenose dolphin brain averages 1.6 kg in size, by comparison, the average human brain weighs about 1.35 kg and a chimpanzee’s brain weighs 0.4 kg. A more useful measure is to compare actual brain size with that expected for the species body size. This known as the "Encephalization Quotient" (EQ) and is the ratio of brain size relative to body size. By this measure, brains with EQs larger than 1 are bigger than the expected size, while those with EQs less than 1 are smaller. Humans have the highest EQ at 7.4, but bottlenose dolphins have EQs of 5.3, significantly higher than all other animals. This figure may be also be distorted by environmental demands; a dolphin needs much more blubber than a human just to maintain body temperature, so the ratio may be somewhat skewed and the dolphin EQ is effectively lowered from a real comparison point – in other words this would suggest they should have an even larger relative brain size.

Research suggests that bottlenose dolphins are self-aware, a trait which is considered to be a sign of highly-developed, abstract thinking. One such indicator is that they have been shown to be able to recognise themselves in a mirror, a behaviour that until recently has only been recorded in humans and great apes. Interestingly, unlike most animals, they are also interested in television. Whereas chimps only learned to respond appropriately to television after a long period of training, dolphins respond appropriately to the images from the first time they were exposed.
Dolphins frequently play with things they find in their environment and have been even been seen to use them as tools. In Australia, bottlenose dolphins take marine sponges that they break off the seafloor and wear them over their closed rostrum as protection while they probe into the seabed for fish. There is evidence to suggest that they pass this skill on from one individual to another.

Dolphins do not only respond to the basic needs of their lives; they are extremely playful, for example, producing underwater bubble rings, which they can do in either the horizontal or vertical plane. They mainly do this by either swimming repeatedly in a circle and then injecting air into the helical vortex currents formed or by rapid exhalation of a burst of air into the water and allowing it to rise to the surface in a ring. They frequently then spend time examining their creation both visually and with sonar.
In one experiment, two dolphins were rewarded whenever they came up with a new behaviour, for example a physical action that they would not normally perform such as a kind of tail slap on the surface. It took them a while to work out what was required of them before they realised, but then they started to offer all kinds of novel behaviours, to the point where the trial was stopped because their behaviours became too complex to make further positive reinforcement meaningful. When the experiment was repeated with humans, it took the volunteers roughly the same length amount of time to grasp what they were being asked to do, although they did not then continue on to create the range of behaviours the dolphins did.

Another example of interesting behaviour suggesting intelligence concerns a dolphin named Kelly at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi. The dolphins there are trained to collect any rubbish that inadvertently falls into their pens and then give it to a trainer the next time they see one. They are then rewarded with a fish. Kelly worked out that the size of the piece of rubbish does not affect the reward. So instead of handing over a piece of litter immediately, she stores it under a rock in the tank and tears it into small pieces and hands them back one at a time. This strategy suggests that Kelly has a sense of future and is prepared to delay gratification. She has also in a way turned the tables — she has effectively trained the humans to do what she wants.

It is probable that dolphin intelligence would have developed somewhat differently to humans. Humans tend to manipulate their environment in order to meet their needs, and based on the simple fact that they have hands, can change things and are able to create complex aids to communication, ranging from the simple written word to the sophisticated electronics. Without the ability or need to manipulate their environment, dolphins must focus their considerable intelligence on other concerns that are relevant to their lives, and may well have specific developed talents presently beyond our understanding.

I became particularly fascinated with dolphins after an extraordinary encounter one summer night in the warm tropical waters of the Red Sea. I was camping on the desert shoreline with some friends next to a mirror calm sea. The low but perfectly full moon lay a silver path to the beach. The water was warm and inviting so it seemed a shame not to go in. We had no underwater lamp, but the sandy bottom reflected the moonlight, making it unnecessary.

Soon a large grey shape shot out of the dark and stopped just in front of me - a big female bottlenose dolphin.

The dolphin seemed delighted to see us, and swam round and round us. She kept out of reach at first, but as she gained confidence came closer with each circuit until we could brush her side with our fingertips as she passed.

She continued to swim with us like that for about half an hour or so, allowing us to stroke her occasionally. To my surprise she seemed to spend more time with me. Eventually the others left the water leaving the dolphin and I alone. She seemed to feel more relaxed now. We swam parallel almost touching for a long time. She liked to dive down and stand on her nose and seemed to find it hilarious when I copied her. Eventually she let me gently rub and scratch her belly and sides and obviously enjoyed it immensely. She would even ‘hug’ me with her pectoral fins and we took turns rolling up to the surface to breathe.

For more than an hour we played at the surface in the moonlight in almost constant physical contact. It was extraordinary to have such close encounter with this wild creature. Eventually cold forced me to leave the water but I was left with a deep impression of a very intelligent and affectionate being, and the next day at sunrise I was back in to play with her again.

The book is a novel set in the world of dolphins. We know dolphins have social structures and a sophisticated language. It’s logical to assume they have a culture too, and in the book it is a sophisticated one; but not one based on the manipulation of physical things and written histories. The dolphins can’t do either of those things — nor do they need to. They have developed a way of recording their histories and collective wisdom however, by specially trained individuals — the Starwriters — memorising huge amounts of information precisely. They do this by listening to subliminal locking songs while watching unique astronomical events, for example the passage of a planet through a constellation. The data can subsequently be accessed by the Starwriters observing the same precise event while hearing the same song.

The dolphins also have their own belief system known as the Way. This is a code of behaviour they have followed for a million years, something between a religion and a philosophy. An essential tenant of the Way is that the dolphins live in harmony with Ocean, their name for planet Earth. This has worked perfectly for many millennia but recently the balances have changed. Human activity is dramatically altering their world. The seas are filled with the confusing sounds of boat engines and sonar. The fish they eat, and the sea itself, are becoming contaminated. Their young are still-born more often, they develop strange illnesses, they strand in large numbers. In particular, they are suffering due to dramatic overfishing of their food supplies by man.

The book explores what happens to a group of them when these factors finally cause a group of dolphins to break away from their traditional values. Calling themselves the Guardians, they advocate a dark path totally contrary to the high values of the Way.

The book’s hero, a young male named Touches The Sky, is caught up in the conflict spawned by the Guardians, not least because the female he loves develops an obsession for the ruthless Guardian leader.

Sky has to face his own self doubts and the worst punishment his clan can inflict before he is unwillingly forced into a situation where he alone can stop the disintegration of the dolphin culture and save the one he loves.

Dolphin Way is set in a world that is rich in detail, content and history. The reader may chose to accept the reality of that world, as they might when reading books such as those by J R R Tolkien or J K Rowling. But as I said earlier, the world of Dolphin Way has one key difference over traditional fantasy books.

As well as being intended as an enjoyable novel, Dolphin Way is meant to make people aware of the threats affecting the marine world in general and dolphins in particular. My hope is that people will ask themselves: “Could we really be sharing this planet with another sophisticated culture like this?” If they are shown the beauty and wonder of the dolphins’ world they will want to conserve it.

If you would like to give Dolphin Way a try, you can download the opening chapters for free from the website.

Mark Caney

Dolphin Way: Rise of the Guardians

ISBN: 978-1-90549-223-7
Release date: 4 July 2011
Publisher: AquaPress
Author: Mark Caney
Website: Dolphin Way Site
Facebook: Dolphin Way Facebook

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