Diving into the Depths of Dolphin Communication

An article written for an online course on Animal Behaviour I am doing at the moment: 


“Hello”, “Alright Mate”, “Good to see you”; all ways in which we as humans often greet each other.  Depending upon how well we know someone, who they are and of course the situations we are in, our vocalisations vary.  As the foundation of human language, learnt vocalisation comes so naturally to us that it is sometimes peculiar to think that it’s not a common occurrence within the animal kingdom.


The majority of animal species use innate vocalisation in order to convey alerts of danger and other happenings. This means it is ‘genetic’behaviour which accompanies being a member of that particular animal group. A meerkat, for example, knows to be aware of the danger of a snake and to alert others of it’s presence; it does not need to first encounter one to know that it poses a significant threat .There are some species, however, who exhibit behavioural traits that have been shown to have been learnt by a particular animal with the bottle nosed dolphin being an ideal example.


In a recent paper published in PNAS, King and Janik focused upon dolphins to examine how the concept of a ‘signature whistle’is exhibited and it’s uses within their lives. A ‘signature whistle’is an aspect of communication created by an individual as a juvenile made up of various vocalisations they encounter. Once formed it is then used as a way of informing others who they are and as a greeting when meeting new individuals becoming a vital aspect of their vocalisation repertoire.With this in mind, it could be thought of as perhaps a human like vocalisation almost akin to they way we  greet others as individuals with their own names.


In order test whether the ‘signature whistle’acts in this way, King and Janik focused upon wild bottle nosed dolphins off the East coast of Scotland.  Their whistles were recorded before being  copied and played back to them or they were played unfamiliar and familiar dolphins’vocalisations. From June to August 2001 and May to September 2010, recordings were taken at a depth of 2 metres before being analysed and recorded as synthetic vocalisations. One playback was then played back to each dolphin pod with the boat engine off and when the animals were either socialising or exhibiting non polarised behaviour. This was perhaps due to the fact that as with any species, the likelihood of responding to being called is somewhat diminished when an individual is focused upon something else.


The responses to the stimuli revealed that the signature whistle could indeed be classified as a way of dolphins greeting specific individuals. Out of 12 dolphins, 8 responded with the same vocal pattern upon hearing their own call whereas only 2 responded to the familiar pattern and there were 0 responses to the unfamiliar calls. This suggests that, much like human patterns of behaviour, the dolphins responded when they were addressed or another individual recognised the call of a dolphin it knew and so responded to it.


King and Janik’s results, however, are not unique as such behaviour has been observed in birds who also have exhibited copying certain sounds to address each other.  Nevertheless, the results are certain to raise the question of why individual dolphins produce a ‘signature whistle’. It could be that not unlike other mammals, they are trying to contact a particular dolphin or maintain a level of understanding within the group structure. This is something which can clearly be observed amongst people indicating a succinct similarity between both species. Either way, it is likely to be a question at the forefront of many behaviourist’s minds and only further exploration of the secretive life of cetaceans can reveal the answer.  

South Lakes Wild Animal Park: The Ultimate Interactive Experience

After looking back at my posts, I’ve realised that I never actually talked about my filming at ‘South Lakes Wild Animal Park’ back in May 2013 so that’s what this post it about.

I first approached the zoo just before Easter last year after deciding that I desperately needed some more experience in filming animals. If I’m going to film animals in the wild then

having a go at filming animals closer to home seems like a good way to practice and gather some more skills in that particular area. When they got back to me, I was told that the zoo would like a short promotional video about the hand feeding elements and after having visited the zoo in the past, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do what I enjoy and get up close to some of the animals at the same time. The only problem at this stage was the fact that, as the name suggests, the zoo is in the South Lakes in Cumbria whilst I was down in Wales in Cardiff but luckily I was off back home for a bit the next month and so it all seemed to come together quite well.

That was until I checked the weather reports. Oh dear. It had been quite nice leading up to the filming; all the pre-production planning was done and I was looking forward to getting back out and doing some filming but the weather didn’t think so. It was going to rain. I worried quite a bit beforehand as my camera isn’t very waterproof and my cover can get in the way but there was no point worrying about it; it’s always best to just get on with things instead of dwelling too much on what could go wrong. So we set off hoping for the best and looking forward to the day’s filming.

The filming itself went well and it was nice to get up close to and take part in some of the hand feeding with the animals as well. The giraffes in particular were a highlight as their inquisitiveness led to some good shots along with the curiosity of the lemurs who made sure that there was definitely an entertainment aspect to the film! Likewise, the penguins wereScreen Shot 2014-03-17 at 17.34.08also incredibly entertaining and one in particular to a shine to my camera and tried to have a little nibble before wandering off to be fed some more fish along with his friends. It was definitely nice to be able to see such well looked after animals and see other people learning so much about the conservation projects needed to save so many of the species.

During the day, as expected, it did rain quite a bit so it was a case of getting all the outside shots sorted in the odd dry patch and pretty much fitting in around the weather. It was a bit annoying at times as I needed to get shots of the visitors walking around the park which was a little bit hard when people were running for cover every 10 minutes but I think we got there in the end! Filming isn’t always straight forward and if it is, expect something to go wrong in post-production!

Overall, I have to say that although it was challenging at times, this particular promotional film has to be one of my favourite projects. Being able to interact with the animals whilst also maintaining professionalism was a valuable lesson and one that I know will be incredible useful in the future. I have heard a lot of people talking about zoos and saying that they are cruel places and yes I agree that some of they are but this one definitely isn’t. The animals are free to wander in huge enclosures and with the expansion of the park, even bigger spaces to roam around and they aren’t forced into the hand feeding activities; they can come and go as they wish. If they were herded in and forced to interact with the visitors then I wouldn’t have filmed there but that really wasn’t the case. My only complaint is that it would have been nice to have taken some more photographs as well as filming, the big cats were the perfect subjects, but I suppose that’s for another visit!

Here is the final promotional film:

Eye To Eye: Animal Encounters at the Zoo

As I’ve mentioned before, many people think that photography at zoos is an “easy” way of photographing exotic and interesting animal species and yet when it comes to it, it’s really not easy at all. Like in the wild, the animals movements can be unpredictable and smears on glass and fine wire fences can prove to be a real problem at times, especially when there are a lot of visitors eager to get up close to themselves. However, it is also a very satisfying experience and the perfect way to practice animal photography on a smaller scale.  People may judge the very nature of the genre yet if natural history filmmakers use zoos to obtain difficult shots or sequences they couldn’t in the wild, why can’t photographers? For me, zoo photography allows me to get up close to animals I couldn’t normally see without paying a fortune to travel the world and so providing that the animals are well cared for and there are conservation programmes in place, zoos are a photography paradise.

The following gallery was created to showcase the connection made between the person and the animal, through a long stare or fleeting glance. In my opinion, the inquisitiveness of each one highlights the individual personalities and really illustrates the idea that humans are just a single part of a huge, interwoven and global natural web.


Do Natural History Films Really Make A Difference To Natural History Issues?

As the tension builds in the stadium and the roar of the crowd intensifies, the huge whale is catapults it’s trainer out of the water with a few flicks of it’s powerful fluke before they both crash back down with a splash. To some this is the icing on top of a great holiday, seeing a killer whale up so close and interacting with them.  To others it simply shows how low we have sunk in the name of entertainment and after typing ‘SeaWorld’ into the news, it is clear they are not alone with numerous articles asking them to retire it’s orcas into sea pens. But what is it that has sparked this public outcry? A film called Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

Mother Gorilla
Conservation films can make a huge difference to the issues they talk about.

When it comes to discussing the effect films have on conservation issues, we must first look at the term ‘conservation’ itself. As a word with so many connotations of nature attached to it, it is only natural to expect it to feature in the majority of nature programming and yet this is not the case. There seems to be a consensus that issues like poaching, captivity and deforestation are just too difficult for the general public to be subjected to and so to include them in many programmes would be risking the viewing figures the broadcasters so desperately crave. Yes, viewing figures are the lifeblood of programmes desperate to survive in the multichannel environment but in saving them are we not effectively killing the wildlife we exploit to create them? Wildlife documentaries owe nature for their success and so it is vital that we give them something in return. It seems that the documentaries that do so are an endangered species in themselves. Perhaps it is fear of failure that forces filmmakers into accepting the broadcaster’s wishes and from the perspective of an aspiring filmmaker, I understand the reasons behind this. Nevertheless, with a vast number of issues directly due to human involvement it is up to us to help nature recover before we lose some species altogether.

With this in mind, however, when natural history documentaries do choose to centre themselves around a certain issue, the resulting effect can be huge. Take for instance Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s recent film Blackfish; a documentary showing the truth behind SeaWorld’s infamous ‘Shamu’ killer whale show. Since it’s screenings and the DVD  release, there has been a public outcry. The combination of actuality footage filmed by members of the public, horror stories of attacks on trainers and interviews with former SeaWorld trainers created a graphic and heartbreaking image of life as a killer whale performer and seemed to tug at the heartstrings of the viewers. Thousands of people have taken to social media sites to voice their opinions and show their support for various captivity campaigns, myself included.  The real question is though, would the film have created such debate and support without the use of the internet and of course social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? Blackfish would most certainly have raised eyebrows and got people talking but without it’s online presence connecting people and wildlife organisations globally, there is a high possibility that the message would not have been received by a so many. Similarly, the graphic imagery of blood stained water littered with the bodies of dolphins shown in The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos) prompted it’s shocked viewers to take action with letters to authoritative bodies to help end the annual Taiji dolphin drive and campaigns are still ongoing. Ultimately it seems that when combined, film and the internet contribute hugely to the tackling of conservation issues by not only raising awareness but also providing a way to be involved as well.

On the other hand, sometimes the inclusion of environmental concerns can cause unintentional problems for the ecosystems they are trying to save and the BBC’s blue chip series Frozen

With more children disconnecting themselves from nature, film can play a vital role in reconnecting them.
With more children disconnecting themselves from nature, film can play a vital role in reconnecting them.

Planet is a prime example of this. Throughout the series, there was a distinct undertone of climate change and global warming warnings conveyed via stunning cinematography and sweeping music to encourage viewers to take action and help to save the planet. However, soon after the series was broadcast it was reported that travel agents had seen a surge in the number of people wanting to visit the frozen plains of Antarctica (The Telegraph, 2011). Arguably this led to people disturbing the native wildlife, disrupting their breeding cycles and impacted upon their survival rates and so contributing to their problems as opposed to helping end them.

Finally, it is important to mention that films which don’t have a direct focus upon natural issues can still have a positive effect upon them. With the RSPB revealing that “children have less contact with nature than ever before” (2013), sometimes a good wildlife documentary is all it takes to reconnect them and inspire them to get involved themselves. For me, watching The Blue Planet (BBC) as a child chartered the path of my life and directed me towards wildlife filmmaking and so I strongly believe documentaries can make a significant difference. Of course it is important that these programmes are appropriate; the graphic nature of a film like The Cove would not have the desired effect as would the BBC’s Deadly 60 but by inspiring children we may produce a new generation of conservationists and that’s definitely something to aim for.

To conclude, natural history issues can be aided by natural history issues but perhaps not without some assistance from other media forms. Whilst many documentaries are providing viewers with information on issues they may not necessarily be aware of, like captivity in Blackfish, it is these platforms which allow their voices to be heard and help to really make a difference.  All in all, the film form is a powerful thing and so if it can be used to change opinions, it can be used to change the world.


Starmer-Smith, C. (2011). Frozen Planet: The Lure of the Antarctic The Telegraph. Available: Last accessed 24th Nov 2013.

Johnson, W. (2013). ‘Disconnected children’ mean nature is at risk. Available: Last accessed 26th Nov 2013.

Blackfish (2013) Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite [DVD] United Kingdom: Dogwoof

The Cove (2009) Directed by Louie Psihoyos [DVD] United Kingdom: Diamond Docs

The Blue Planet. BBC (2001) Television

‘Winter’ (2011) Frozen Planet. BBC One, 23 November 2011. Television.

Deadly 60. BBC (2011) Television

Photography At The Zoo: Take 2

Bitten by the bug of zoo photography (again!), last week we headed to Bristol Zoo to have another go. With such a wide variety of animals and a completely different way of showing them, it was a lot of fun trying to capture them in the best way possible. The glass, at times, proved to be a bit of an issue as it was a very sunny day and so there tended to quite a lot of reflection but the animals were all active and playful which made it all the more interesting. The lions in particular were some of my favourites as I’d visited last year when they were only tiny so it was nice to see them growing up and still so much trouble!

After last week’s post, I’ve had a few people commenting and saying that zoo photography really isn’t an achievement because you know where the animals are and so the mystery is taken out of it. Whilst I do agree with this, I think that as with anything it is important to improve your skills and practicing to get better and so for exotic wild animals there is no better place than a zoo or safari park to do so when it’s hard to travel abroad. As long as the animals are cared for well and there aren’t any welfare issues then zoos can be the perfect place to prepare yourself and learn more about your own style of photography.

Capturing Captivity

After being provided with a couple of tickets to Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm in Bristol in exchange for some marketing photographs, we headed back there on Thursday to try and obtain some better shots of the lions. It was a particularly chilly day so armed with hats and gloves we set off towards the big cats to have a little look at them first and to prepare a bit. Straight away one of the females walked over and seemed to know we needed to take photos of her, slowly walking to her sister, yawning and turning to face us. I had thought it would take a lot longer to get such good images and so I was pleased that we were then able to have a look around at the other animals as well including my favourites, the giraffes, and the magnificent tigers.

A lot of people have been saying that zoo photography is a cheating version of wildlife photography but I couldn’t disagree more. Yes the animals may be easier to spot but the majority of the time you have to be very patient and work around a number of obstacles in order to get a vaguely decent image. It’s a perfect opportunity to ‘rehearse’ your photography skills on wild animals that you wouldn’t normally be able to see and whilst I strongly oppose zoos where the animals are kept in terrible conditions and are quite clearly miserable, I find them extremely useful places for photography and expanding my knowledge and skills. Whilst researching this particular genre, I also came across a number of articles that pretty much said that unless you are able to make it look like the animal is in it’s natural environment, then you are taking an amateur approach. I think whilst this can be the case, showing some of the background can add a lot to a photograph like the cage and a big cat- it adds a lot to the mood and contrasting ideologies present in the images. I’ve chosen to use this method as well as trying to eliminate it too as I am very interested in showing the truth through my work as well as the contrasting ideas of freedom combined with captivity.

Barking on the Beach

Going to the beach is always fun but it’s always a lot better when there’s entertainment; in this case it came in the form of three dogs. Whilst it was extremely cold and windy at times, they all seemed to enjoy themselves, especially JJ who loved splashing around in the sea and it gave me the opportunity to practise a little more pet photography (which is always good!).

Rosie Bear: Photo Shoot

Noodles the hamster
The practice shoot with Noodles

I recently bought a photography studio set up so that I could expand my pet photography portfolio. After having a little practice with my hamster Noodles, I decided to have another go with a bigger pet, my sister’s pet pomeranian Rosie Bear and below are the finished images. Luckily, she’s a very photogenic and patient little dog so it’s always nice to photograph her even if she just wanted to ‘dance’ most of the time!

Pigeon (Camera) Shooting

When you say the word pigeon, most people will screw their noses up and mutter the word ‘vermin’; understandable really as there are countless tales of how they spread diseases. However, after spending quite a lot of time watching them eating seed and scraps on the roof outside my flat (we even named one Bertie), it struck me how interesting these birds actually are. Every night at the same time they would swoop down from the trees in their little groups and wait expectantly for food- so reliable you could set the clocks by them! After a while it was easy to see their little personalities shine through and although I know these birds do spread a lot of disease and over populated, they really are a very intriguing species.

My latest gallery of photographs has been created in an attempt to showcase the pigeons’ personalities from their insufferable cocky attitudes to their inquisitiveness. After all,  they aren’t going anywhere fast so why not try and see them in a different, comical light?

The Plight of the Pilot Whales: Murder in the Faroe Islands

‘Blackfish’ highlighted the issue of captivity, ‘The Cove’ showed the brutality of the Taiji dolphin drive but to us here in Europe these can seem quite far away. However, on a small island above the UK equally horrifying events take place a lot closer to home; the annual grind of the Faroe Islands.

Dating back to the 16th century, the hunt sees over 800 pilot whales killed each year and with the current death toll standing at 901 and set to rise, it’s clear that this year is no different. Each hunt is conducted in a horrific and brutal manner that quite obviously causes the whales a lot of pain and yet still the Faroese defend their actions. Spotters are sent out to look for pods and once identified, the islanders are then informed and the whales are driven towards the shore where they are then beached. Those who don’t beach themselves are pulled ashore by their blowholes where they  join the others and are then killed via a cut to their spinal cords. Now it’s pretty clear the distress this would cause, after all think about how frightened you would be if you were gathered together, dragged around with a hook in your airways and then be sliced open. To think of a human being attacked in this manner is horrendous and yet when another mammal goes through it, there just isn’t the same reaction.

It’s a fact that culture and tradition make the world such a rich and exciting place, but perhaps there should be some restrictions when it comes to tradition and animals. The Faroese have practiced this form of hunting for hundreds of years and although it does unite a community, they are united by pain and suffering. Yes they uphold ancestral activities and yes they do come together, something that is often lost in the land of technology and social media, but shouldn’t there be a way of doing this without the inevitable agony?  And is the hunt even necessary anymore?

In the past, the Faroese hunted whales for food as the rough island terrain meant that they were unable to grow anything well but nowadays when the islands depend on fish imports, the whole process seems to be becoming less relevant to survival. Not only that, it has been proven that the meat itself contains a considerable amount of toxins including mercury which can then lead to various health problems from cancer to infertility. It’s recommended that less than 200g of whale meat a week should be consumed by men and that women and children should not eat any at all so surely if nothing else, this proves that the grind is no more a source of food than a cruel blood soaked tradition.

Another painful element of the drive is the fact that up until now anybody has been able to take part in the drive, even those who have no idea what to do. They may have been spectators in previous years and may have read about it but when it comes to doing it, they are simply not prepared. The average length of time it takes for a pilot whale to die is 30 seconds, a very long time when you’re in absolute agony and can last up to a few minutes. It’s inevitable that with inexperienced people, this time is most definitely going to increase and cause even more distress to the whales and their families who will most certainly be suffering near by. Thankfully, the Minister of Fisheries in the Faeroe Islands has now stated that as of May 2015, those taking part in the grind will now be required to take part in a course and obtain the pass certificate at the end of it. This may not necessarily be a ban on whale drives but there is the chance that it could be the start of their end. According to EarthRace representative Runi Nielson, “A large majority of the participants in the grinds who at the moment just show up and take part, will not bother to take these mandatory courses and by doing so will exclude themselves. The fewer people taking part, the less a part of the Faroese way of life the grinds will become.” Let’s just hope this is the case and that some time in the near future, there will be an end to the pain of the pilot whales.

It’s important to keep an open mind about issues and balance each side but it’s also important to know what is right and what is clearly wrong. To use that fact that the pilot whale is not an endangered species should not be a relevant argument; humans aren’t endangered species but if a group of people decided that they wanted to round up a few hundred families every year and kill them, there would definitely be a lot more to say about it. It’s not just pilot whales being affected by this either as it’s legal for them to kill white-sided dolphins, harbour porpoises and bottle nosed dolphins as well: in August this year 430 white sided dolphins were killed. More cetaceans who are subjected to torture. It’s time that this cruelty came to an end.

If this hasn’t managed to convince you of the plight of the pilot whales, take a look at this video and see the panic and pain they suffer for yourself.

Help to end the Faroe Island grinds by signing the petition here.