Earthwatch at the University of Hawaii

In 1987, Kitty and I had the privilege through Earthwatch of working with scientists and graduate students at the University of Hawaii for one month. They had taught two female bottlenose dolphins sign language! Akeakamai, Ake, and Phoenix had been in captivity for eight years and were temporarily living in the Monk seal tank at the Waikiki Aquarium in downtown Honolulu.

The last two dolphins that the USA allowed to be captured from the wild were Elele, a young female, and Hiapo, a young male. They had just been captured from Ake and Phoenix’s same group of dolphins off the coast of Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico just in case this group had their own dialect. Elele and Hiapo’s temporary home in Hawaii was at Sea Life Park located on the east end of the island in a private tank away from the public. Two new bigger tanks were being constructed to contain all 4 dolphins at Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory (KBMML).

Kitty and I lived at Lincoln Hall, the grad school dorm. Breakfast was at Gateway Cafeteria, and we were allowed to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our lunch before riding the public bus to our fun job at the Aquarium that started at 7:30 am.

On our first day, we met Dave Weller and Mark Zitco, who would go on to work with dolphins for the rest of their careers. My time working with them set the stage for my lifelong interest in trying to help dolphins.

Dave in 1998 completed his PhD at Texas A&M under Bernd Würsig for his study of behavioral ecology and population dynamics of coastal and offshore bottlenose dolphins off California. He was the first leader of a U.S.-Russian team studying gray whales off Siberia since 1997. Mark got his doctoral degree and in 1996 accepted a civilian position to head up the Navy’s dolphin and sea lion training and care program in San Diego to this day.

On our first day, Dave and Mark already had the outside aquarium tank drained with Ake and Phoenix dry on rubber mats at the other end. With all of us in old bathing suits because it was a messy job, we scrubbed the walls and floor of the tank free of algae and excrement before refilling it to Ake and Phoenix’s delight. I have done many similar scrub downs under water on the bottoms of my sailboats with the help of SCUBA gear. 

I practiced my sign language as I ate my sandwich for lunch. It was then time for me to help feed one of the two dolphins as we trained them. 

Read more about the sign Language project in Penns new Book