In the Adult Swim TV showRick & Morty,an allusion is madeto a point in the future when humans have gone extinct and the dolphin ‘people’ have taken over. But is this just science fiction gone wild, or is there some merit to imagining a future full of hyper-intelligent dolphins?
In this article, we’ll dive into all things dolphins: from a look at their evolution, intellectual capabilities and conservation status, to their role as adolphin spirit animal,animal totem, and symbol in mythology and folklore from AncientGreeceto Native America.
Table of Contents
- What are dolphins?
- Dolphin Symbolism in Different Cultures
What are dolphins?
Dolphins are aquatic mammals found all over the world, from the cold waters of the north and south to the balmy tropics and warm climes of the Mediterranean and Caribbean. They are found in rivers, seas and oceans, and have developed a more-than-special relationship with humans over the millennia.
These creatures are specially-adapted to the sea, but with the ability to hear and see both above and below water. They havetorpedo-shaped bodiesand bulbous heads with limbs adapted as flippers, a tail fin, long snouts with a single row of razor-sharp teeth (like those ofsharks), and eyes on the side of their heads.
Dolphins are highly communicative animals (as we’ll come to find out more about in a moment), which use a series of ‘clicks’ for echo location.Their anatomy has evolved very intricately for this precise function, so much so that dolphins have been known to survive in the wild even if blind.
There are currently40 species of dolphins surviving either in the wild or in captivity, though there were once many, many more. Some aquaticmammalscommonly thought of as whales – such as the killer whale, or orca – are in fact dolphins.
Here isa short list of some dolphins:
- Common bottlenose dolphin
- Long-beaked common dolphin
- Short-beaked dolphin
- Clymene dolphins
- Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin
- Chinesewhite dolphin(AKA Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin)
- Rough-toothed dolphin
- Pantropical spotted dolphin
- Atlantic spotted dolphin
- Spinner dolphin
- Striped dolphin
- Peale’s dolphin
- Chilean dolphin
- Maui’s dolphin
- Melon-headed whale
- Orca (killer whale)
- False killer whale
- Pygmy killer whale
- Dusky dolphins
- Australian snubfin dolphin
- Amazon river dolphin
- Indus river dolphin
- Ganges river dolphin
- Commerson’s dolphin
- La Plata dolphin
We know thatdolphins are incredibly intelligent.
Thanks to many decades (nay, centuries!) of study and human fascination with the family Delphinidae, we know that dolphins can useteamworkto solve puzzles, communicate complex concepts, understand emotion and need in other non-dolphin species (like humans), obey instruction and respond to visual and auditory stimuli with trained behaviors.
Perhaps most interestingly, we also know that dolphins aresome of the only animals which apparently have sex for pleasure. Thisplayfulnessis exhibited elsewhere, too,in games played by young dolphins(such as tag, and wave surfing) and adults alike.
Dolphins are so intelligent that in much mythology and folklore, as well as modern symbolism, they play a highly-revered role.
Tragically, the dolphin family Delphinidae is one of the most endangered of all animal families on earth right now.
Pollution by plastics, dolphin hunting by the Japanese and Chinese (among others), habitat destruction and overfishing (dolphins are often accidentally caught in nets and drowned, or injured by fishing vessels), all continue to put many species of dolphin at risk of extinction.
In the wild, dolphins are also naturally at risk of predation from some of the largersharkspecies. Today, the Amazon river dolphin is one of the species most at risk of extinction, with species like Baiji, the Yangtze dolphin already functionally extinct.
Dolphin Significance & Symbolism
For as long as humans have been around, we’ve been making up stories about thevirtueandcourageof these magicalsea creatures. Astribesor civilizations, we’ve interacted with dolphins as food, medicine, gods and deities, or aswater spiritssent to us forguidance.
Now it’s time to take a look at dolphins as beings of thespirit world, and what their place in mythology – as well as in real-life accounts of quite staggering feats – means to humanity.
1. Tales of dolphins as helpers
Roman writer and historian Pliny the Elder tells manytales of dolphins, some mythical and some apparently true. In one of these true stories, a dolphin living in the saltwater Lucrine Lake was fed everyday by a boy walking around the lake to school. The dolphin, in exchange for bread, would carry the boy on its back across the lake to and from school every day. When the boy died of an illness, the dolphin was said to have died from sorrow a few days later.
Throughout much of human history, those who lived on the sea or by the coast spoke of how dolphins seemed to know when human beings were in trouble. Whenever a lone fisherman would find himself lost at sea, or a child started drowning offshore, or if a merchant’s vessel found itself in dangerously-shallow waters, there would be the chance that a dolphin (or pod of dolphins) would come to the rescue.
Accurate or not, there have been far too many (truly countless) stories of dolphins helping people – often by saving them fromdrowning– to ignore the reality: dolphins areprotectorsand saviors of humankind. TheUS military even trains dolphinsto help find or rescue trapped ordrowningsoldiers.
As recently as the mid-2000s, we have a score of stories ofsailors, scuba divers, and surfers who suddenly found themselves either shipwrecked or attacked bysharks,only to be rescued in the nick of timeby a pod of dolphins who either drew the attention of rescue boats tot hedrowninghumans, or encircled the humans to protect them from thesharks.
No wonder the sight of a dolphin is often associated withhealing,harmony,rebirth,reincarnationand that of a helpfulspirit guide. It’s for this reason that if you have adolphin dream, you are likely processing the recent memory of someone helping you out of a tricky (or even life-threatening) situation.
Adolphin dreamof extreme vividness may even presage events yet to come. Perhaps it will be you who is the savior to a friend, sibling, parent or colleague.
2. A good omen for sailors
In a similar vein to dolphins rescuing thedrowning, or warding offsharksfrom vulnerable humans lost at sea, the appearance of pods of dolphins close to a ship has always been deemed asign of good luck.
This isn’t a product ofsailors’ superstition, however. Dolphins are expert swimmers and navigators, using their echolocation to draw a mental map of the sea floor, as well as any obstacles lying ahead. Thus, a pod of dolphins by one’s boat indicated that the waters were deep enough to sail in, and the weather was to be fine.
There have beennumerous stories ofsailorsusing theirintuitionand following pods of dolphinsto safe harbour, or through treacherous stretches of coastal waters (such as with Perilous Jack in Tasmania of the 19th Century) to safety.
Think about it, dolphins literally use sonar to navigate. By the luck of evolution, they have been endowed withextremely capablesonar systems. So sensitive are they to soundwaves from their clicks bouncing off objects that they can effectively map out the changing geography beneath the waves in real-time.
Having dolphins swimming by your boat, therefore, meant that you absolutelyknewthe area you were sailing in was safe. And if you weren’t sure about the reef, or depth of seabed, and dolphins veered off course, then you might think to follow them – thus saving not only your own life, but the life of your crew.
Dolphin Symbolism in Different Cultures
1. Dolphins in Hinduism
In India, the River Ganges is considered sacred and holy by the dominant religion there: Hinduism. For that reason, it is considered beneficial to bathe and wash one’s clothes in the waters of the Ganges.
But in the Ganges also lives another: the Ganges River dolphin. This river dolphinhas long been associated with Ganga, the goddess of the holy river, and is in Hindu mythology deemed to be Goddess Ganga’s vahana (mythical mount) the Makara.
Unfortunately,today the Ganges River dolphin is listed as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN. Studies show there are less than 3,500 of these dolphins left alive in the wild. The Indian government is attempting to promote dolphin conservation by invoking the ancient Hindu texts, and references to the holiness of dolphins mentioned above.
2. Dolphins in Ancient Greek mythology
Dolphins feature prominently and frequently inAncient Greekmythology. They were the sea god Poseidon’s divine messengers, and helpers of humankind. The Greeks were always happy to see dolphins, because they were signs ofpositive thingslike fair weather and safe passage at sea.
In oneGreek myth, the godDionysuswas taken captive by a group of Etruscan pirates. Using his divine powers,Dionysusscared the pirates into jumping overboard, where he then transformed them into dolphins so that they might spend the rest of their lives aiding (rather than menacing) othersailorsand seamen.
The Greek godsAphroditeandApolloconsidered dolphins sacred, andAphroditewas often depicted alongside them.
3. Orcas in Native American mythology
Orcas, though named ‘killer whales’, are in fact dolphins (the largest dolphins on earth).
ManyNative American tribes– particularly those of the Pacific Northwest – considered orcas sacred beings.
Some, like the Tlingit, evenforsook hunting themfor this reason. They were deemed, for obvious reasons, symbols of strength and power – so much so that sighting one was deemed a very serious and important omen.
To theKwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (or Kwakiutl) First Nations people of Vancouver and British Columbia, Canada, they believed that thesoulsof their dead marine hunters would return as killer whales. As such, killing an orca required special rituals to ensure itssoulcould then once more be reborn as a human.
4. Dolphins in Celtic culture
For the ancient Celts, living on the turbulent shores of the Atlantic in places like modern-day Ireland, Scotland, and Wales,dolphins were symbols ofgood luckandprosperity. Sighting a pod of dolphins indicated the arrival (or at least the approach) of good weather and the passing of a storm. A large pod of dolphins meant sizeable fishing grounds, which was always a good sign to people who lived largely off what they could hunt and fish from shore and sea.
5. The Dolphin of France
The title given to the heir apparent to the French throne for much of French history was the ‘Dauphin’, whichquite literally means ‘The Dolphin’. Thus, the French prince first in line to the throne was always known as ‘The Dolphin of France.’ His heraldryfeatured two dolphinsbeside two Fleur de Lys (fictional flowers reserved for use exclusively by the French monarchy and, interestingly, Jehanne d’Arc).
6. Baiji, Goddess of the Yangtze River
The beautiful white river dolphin of China’s main artery, theYangtze River, is now presumed extinct.
And yet, in the times before industrialization and the pollution which has accompanied it,baiji – as it was known – was adolphin totem animalto the local Chinese; one which acted as areminderof the story of a young girl preyed upon by a sleazy step-father, who was saved by diving into the Yangtze and transforming into a dolphin.
Until its extinction, baiji was considered aprotectorof fisherman and ‘TheGoddessof the Yangtze’.
If ever you find yourself lost at sea or straying into treacherous waters, cast your mind back to the humble dolphin: a wildly intelligent, playful and compassionatecreaturewhose ancestors decided they’d had enough of land.
Throughout human history, these gentle giants have quietly guidedsailorsto safety, protected thedrowningand warded off hungrysharksfrom vulnerable people.
They love to laugh, live in big communities, and are always looking for ways to help the animals around them.
Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the dolphin; perhaps, after all they’ve done to protect us, we should start trying to better protect them…
Dolphin symbolism and meanings include help, guidance, messages, intelligence, fun, joyfulness, freedom, teamwork, transformation, and psychic abilities. Dolphins live in every ocean on Earth as well as some rivers. So, they are subjects in the mythology and folklore of coastal peoples around the world.What does a dolphin symbolize in love? ›
Their playful and joyful nature also lend to Dolphin meaning associated with youthfulness and harmony, love and the connection with our Inner Child. Dolphin symbolism and meaning centers around: Happiness.What does a dolphin mean personality? ›
DOLPHIN: Kindness, Peace, Harmony
Dolphin types are highly sensitive and have an innate dislike for unpleasantness of any kind, often going out of their way to avoid situations that might bring them into conflict with others and choosing to avoid potential disputes in favour of keeping the peace.
They are socially skilled, intelligent, agile, joyful, and playful creatures that share many emotional similarities with humans. There is an impressive range of different species of dolphin and they all have their own unique identities and characteristics!Is a dolphin good luck? ›
Dolphins are considered a good luck symbol by many cultures. In ancient times, after spending months at sea, sailors saw the sight of dolphins swimming next to their ship as a sign that land was nearby. Since then dolphins have been seen as a good omen and a symbol of protection.Are dolphins positive? ›
Dolphins are altruistic animals. They are known to stay and help injured individuals, even helping them to the surface to breath. Their compassion also extends across the species-barrier. There are many accounts of dolphins helping humans and even whales.What is an animal that represents love? ›
These animals symbolize love: swans, penguins, doves, cows, flamingos, lovebirds, starfishes, horses, and dolphins. Many animals symbolize love. The symbolism depends on the culture, tradition, and iconography of different populations.Are dolphins romantic? ›
Perhaps their mating behaviour does not point to what we typically perceive as “love”, but the indication of dolphin friendship and affection certainly demonstrates a capacity for the emotion to some degree. In several surprising instances, dolphins have also shown loving emotions towards humans.Do dolphins have soulmates? ›
Dolphins are not monogamous animals and do not typically mate for life. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins live in what are called fission-fusion societies, where pods are constantly changing in size and numbers.Did a woman fall in love with a dolphin? ›
It's the story of Margaret Howe Lovatt, who in the 1960s took part in a NASA-funded research project, in which she developed an unusual relationship with a dolphin named Peter. A relationship that at times became sexual.
The pig is the archetypal symbol of plenty, healing, and shapeshifting.What animal symbolizes faith? ›
The fish is one of the earliest and most important of Christian symbols. The five letters of the word for fish in Greek form an acrostic, signifying Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior (see ichthus). The fish is used also as a symbol of Baptism and of Christ in the Eucharist.What animal means loyalty? ›
Loyalty is one of the most virtuous traits one can possess and is most strongly symbolized in the animal kingdom by the dog, elephant, wolf, eagle, and goose.Are dolphins faithful? ›
Dolphins are famous for being loyal to their friends, many dolphins stay in the group for a lifetime. They literally give friendship goals to the world.Do dolphins bond for life? ›
“It's a significant investment that starts when they're very young – and these relationships can last their entire lives.” Sometimes, especially when dolphin groups feel there is a risk to themselves, two second-order alliances will also come together to form a larger team.Why do dolphins protect humans? ›
Some scientists believe that dolphins instinctively come to the assistance of other injured dolphins and that it's a small step for them to help humans too. However dolphins obviously realise that humans aren't dolphins. Some scientists think dolphins help humans merely because they are curious.Are dolphins hypersexual? ›
The males will have anal sex, they'll insert their penises into each other's blowholes. Bottlenose dolphins are really hypersexual animals.Do dolphins remember you? ›
That wouldn't happen if you were a bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). The marine mammals can remember each other's signature contact whistles—calls that function as names—for more than 20 years, the longest social memory ever recorded for a nonhuman animal, according to a new study.Do dolphins get attached to humans? ›
There is no doubt that these animals are exhibiting inquisitive behaviour, which lends weight to the idea that dolphins do in fact seek out human contact with some regularity. One might go so far as to say it constitutes irrefutable evidence: apparently wild dolphins can have an affinity for humans.How do dolphins flirt? ›
The complex and strange behaviour includes posing with head and tail lifted from the water in what had been described as a banana position. Some males will also balance a sea sponge on their foreheads to attract females.
For instance, Jason Daley with the Smithsonian reported that after the death of a companion, captive bottlenose dolphins have been seen with depressive behaviors while lying on the bottom of the pool.How intelligent is a dolphin? ›
Research shows that dolphins mirror self-recognition, cultural learning, comprehension of symbol-based communication systems, and an understanding of abstract concepts — comparable to chimpanzees and other great apes.