So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the southeast United States. Among the many victims of the carnage was the Marine Life Oceanarium, a small aquarium and theme park in Gulfport, Mississippi. The Oceanarium was destroyed beyond repair, leaving many of the animals homeless. That included the eight bottlenose dolphins who lived there, and unfortunately, they weren’t evacuated beforehand. Instead, they ended up stranded in the Gulf of Mexico, at risk from shark attacks, sewage, and other dangers. To make matter worse, rescue teams weren’t able to get into the area because of similar dangers.

But don’t worry, they were all rescued a few weeks after. And they probably have one of their own — a dolphin named Kelly — to thank for that.

Dolphins are particularly smart, at least as non-humans go. Kelly demonstrated that during her time at the Oceanarium. There, trainers wanted the dolphins to keep their pools clean. You can’t just tell a dolphin to do household chores, though; you need to teach them to do so. Typically, and this situation is no different, one does that via a reward system. In this case, the dolphins were rewarded with some fish for picking up trash that visitors may have accidentally (we hope) let slip into the water and, similarly, for removing birds which flew into their tanks.

But Kelly had an angle. At first, she would retrieve any garbage and hand it off to a trainer, who in turn would reward her with some fish, just like the other dolphins. After a while, though, Kelly found a way to take advantage of the incentives laid before her by her trainers. When passersby dropped trash into the water, Kelly hid it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. When a trainer came by, Kelly would go retrieve the paper — but not all of it. She’d tear off a small piece, get her fish, go back to get another piece, get another fish, etc. Kelly had learned to game the system.

And she had the ability to impart some of her wisdom on others. The trainers also rewarded Kelly and her fellow bottlenoses for rescuing birds which found its way in her pool — and again, in exchange for a bounty of fish. The Guardian explained:

One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting [became] a hot game among the dolphins.

It’s likely that Kelly used these leadership skills to protect her fellow dolphins after Katrina. Per Hakai Magazine, “researchers who later reviewed the accounts of the recapture, noted that Kelly and [her fellow dolphin,] Jill, ever the leaders, constantly positioned themselves four or five meters behind the others, watching for sharks and any other dangers.” Kelly kept them safe by keeping them contained — the octet strayed less than a kilometer from the site of the Oceanarium ruins.

With the Oceanarium closed, Kelly needed a new home. In 2006, she was relocated to the Bahamas — a featured attraction at Dolphin Cay at the Atlantis resort.

Bonus fact: The dolphin above has a human-given name, Kelly, but she also probably has a dolphin-given one, too. And she probably gave it to herself. According to a 2013 study, “bottlenose dolphins develop their own unique identity signal, the signature whistle.” When another dolphin mimics that whistle, most other dolphins ignore it. But, per the study, the original dolphin “respond[s] to hearing a copy of their own signature whistle by calling back,” much like us humans would if someone called out our name.​

From the Archives: Stop the Bop: A creative Hurricane Katrina fundraiser.