It isn’t groundbreaking news that dolphins are smart. ‘How smart’ has always been the question. After all, it’s not like we can give them a written test.
Their cognitive abilities are part of ongoing research. For example, a recent study by Georgetown University revealed that dolphins have the longest lasting memory of any non-human species, including elephants.
They use sound pitches to recognize each other and can remember the whistles of acquaintances from decades earlier.
We should also remember that dolphins aren’t newly smart. They’ve been clever for, at least, thousands of years.
Combine this with their affable, curious nature, high energy, and the result is many historic interactions with humans.
One dolphin, in particular, may have the title of ‘most heroic sea mammal’.
Dangerous nautical journeys in the 19th century
The French Pass is located on the islands of Pelorus Sound, New Zealand. It is surely beautiful on the eyes:
But for hundreds of years, it was one of the most dangerous passes in the world. Its fast currents and sharp rocks sank ship after ship, taking sailors with them.
Entering this pass was necessary for many routes and was a nerve-rattling leg of the journey for most sailors.
All until a strange dolphin started arriving.
They called him Pelorus Jack. Accounts of his efforts began in 1905. A ship reported seeing a dolphin signaling to them just as the ship was entering the dangerous pass.
He was waving his fin and squealing. Then, the ship followed the dolphin safely through and into open waters.
What’s remarkable is that the dolphin not only learned ships could sink, but that sinking was dangerous to humans.
Even further, it cared enough to stop these disasters from happening. Speculation is that he saw several ships sink in the region and adapted.
Pelorus Jack typically met ships at the entrance.
He was particularly keen to help larger ships, as he was a fan of doing periodic surfing sessions on the boat's wake:
This was especially helpful because those larger ships were the most at risk of sinking.
After guiding each ship, Pelorus Jack milled around the entrance to the bay, feeding on nearby fish.
They suspect he was an orphan, which might explain his unusual behavior, as well as his being the only Risso dolphin in the region.
Pelorus Jack was nearly killed
For years he continued helping ships and became a local legend.
Sailors commonly referred to him as ‘Jack’ for short and several sailor songs have been written about him.
Word spread that ships should follow the solitary dolphin that approached their ship at the entrance. And so they did almost without fail.
In return, sailors often threw food over the ledges to thank him, for which he complied. It was a fair tradeoff for a man’s life.
Then, human beings, in their typical propensity for being jerks, nearly put an end to all this.
Specifically, there was one bad incident involving a crew member aboard the USS Penguin.
In the hopes of eating the dolphin, he grabbed a rifle and popped a shot, missing. As he reloaded his gun, the captain's wife came running over and stopped him.
Months later a law was passed to protect Pelorus Jack from being hunted.
Despite the aggression towards him, Jack was unaffected. He returned to guiding ships through the pass.
But not the USS Penguin. In 1909 that same ship crashed into the rocks in the nearby Cooke Strait. It was New Zealand's largest maritime disaster of the 20th century, costing 75 lives.
The conclusion of his legacy
Historians believe Jack saved hundreds, if not thousands of sailors.
He eventually became a huge star. Over the years, many from around the world came to see him, including Mark Twain and Frank T. Bullen.
Fortunately, Jack was never killed by a sailor. He eventually vanished in 1920.
The presumption is that he died of natural causes. But as with many things in history, and nature, we’ll never know the full story.
We’ll also probably never fully understand aquatic intelligence.
Their circumstances, communication style, and lack of hands have made their development particularly unique and unrelatable.
Yet it would be hard to argue dolphins don’t have some level of compassion and understanding towards the world around them.
In tales of old, the ocean was often pitted as a monster that man must face and tame.
Consequently, anything within the ocean was stigmatized as beastly and worthy of slaying.
Pelorus Jack was an early ambassador against that stigma, de-objectifying a beautiful and majestic animal, all while exemplifying his species’ elusive brilliance.
And for that, we salute you, Pelorus Jack.