The Dolphin Institute (TDI), founded in 1993, is a Hawai’i-based not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the study and preservation of dolphins and whales, and to the education of people whose attitudes and activities affect the survival and well-being of these animals.
TDI was formed to support and enhance programs of the world-renowned dolphin and whale research center, the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory (KBMML), located in Honolulu. KBMML was founded in 1969 by University of Hawaii professor Dr. Louis M. Herman, who served as its Director until KBMML’s closing in 2004 [click here to read Lou Herman’s anthology of the early history of KBMML].
At KBMML, Lou Herman set out on a mission to describe what he called the “cognitive characteristics” of the bottlenose dolphin, including its abilities, specializations and limitations. For over thirty years, KBMML pioneered studies of the sensory abilities, cognition, and language skills of its resident dolphins. These studies revealed how dolphins perceive their world through vision, hearing, and echolocation; the depth and breadth of their intellectual potential; and the mechanisms and processes that contribute to their social life and social world. Between 1969 and 2004, KBMML was home to seven of the world’s most educated dolphins. Groundbreaking discoveries included: their abilities for vocal and behavioral imitation, “imaging” of objects through echolocation, interpretation of television displays and scenes, understanding of human pointing and gazing cues, demonstrations of self-awareness, and the understanding of semantics and syntax within a sound-based language and a gestural-based language.
In 1976, Lou Herman pioneered the scientific study of humpback whales in Hawaiian waters with the first aerial surveys of the species. The humpback whale project he established continued every year since, making it one of the longest continuous studies of humpback whales in the world. Annual field research provided new information on humpback whale distribution, demographics, migration, social behavior, reproductive strategies, habitat use, and communication. Each of these areas is vital to ensuring the protection of this iconic species. In 1980, Lou and several of his graduate students also initiated studies of humpback whales in their feeding grounds in Southeast Alaska. These studies continued through 1987 and revealed the close relationship of individual whales to Hawaii and Southeast Alaska, long-term associations of individual humpbacks to the same groups cooperatively feeding on schools of herring, female reproductive patterns, and the effects of vessel traffic on whale behavior.
From 1969-2004, KBMML and TDI researchers were prolific in communicating their findings on dolphins and whales to the public through scientific publications and presentations and invited addresses at scientific meetings and community events. Over 100 scientific journal articles, book chapters, reports, graduate student theses, and dissertations were produced on dolphin cognition [click here for a list of dolphin publications] and humpback whale behavior [click here for a list of whale publications]. This record of accomplishment established KBMML as a world leader in marine mammal science. Many of these findings were also featured by the media locally, nationally, and internationally in venues such as IMAX films, television documentaries, radio broadcasts, magazine and newspaper articles, popular books, internet articles and podcasts [click here for a list of some of these media presentations].
KBMML and TDI researchers and staff also established a solid foundation of education at all levels. This included: establishing a higher education program enabling over 40 graduate students from the University of Hawaii and abroad to earn their masters and doctoral degrees focusing on marine mammal science; pioneering an internship program enabling undergraduates from Hawaii and abroad to apprentice with well seasoned researchers in dolphin or whale studies; developing unique participant programs that enabled individuals from across the world to participate in its research studies with dolphins and whales; establishing school visitor programs allowing thousands of Hawaii’s elementary and high school students to witness first hand KBMML and TDI’s research accomplishments with dolphins; initiating outreach programs to local schools; and developing a “Dream-a-Dolphin” program to allow special-needs children to meet and communicate with a dolphin.
In 2004, after the last of the dolphins passed away, KBMML closed its facility at Kewalo Basin. From 1969-2004, TDI and KBMML’s research with the laboratory’s resident dolphins Nana, Puka, Kea, Akeakamai, Phoenix, Elele, and Hiapo enlightened the scientific and world communities about the sensory abilities, intelligence, communication and behavior of bottlenose dolphins. Findings from studies with these dolphins continue to act as a guide for many dolphin field researchers in their attempts to try and understand the behaviors and social interactions of wild bottlenose dolphins. They also inspire comparative psychologists and biologists in their studies of other large brained species with complex social systems. The legacy of these dolphins (i.e., a world well educated in the intellectual abilities and behavioral nature of dolphins, and much more appreciative of the need to protect them and their fragile marine habitats), is everlasting.
In 2004, TDI established a Marine Mammal Research and Education Center at Ko Olina on the west shores of Oahu near the city of Kapolei, on invitation and with support from the Ko Olina Resort Group. While at Ko Olina from 2004-2007, TDI expanded its field studies to the leeward shores of Oahu, studying wild spinner dolphins and humpback whales, as well other dolphin species opportunistically. New education programs were also established, including a high school internship program that provided unique opportunities to students in leeward Oahu to gain experience and skills in studies of dolphins and whales.
During this time, TDI also expanded its humpback whale work on Maui. From 2004-2006, TDI joined forces with other research groups from across the North Pacific in what at the time was the largest collaborative whale study in the world. Termed SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of North Pacific Humpbacks), the goal was to establish updated population numbers, determine genetic stock structure, and track migratory trends of this endangered population, which was the last to be protected by the International Whaling Commission from commercial whaling in 1966. TDI’s role in SPLASH was to gather data on humpbacks from waters off west Maui, which contain one of the largest densities of humpbacks in Hawaii. Also, between 2004-2006, TDI received a prestigious research grant from the National Fish and Wildlife foundation to conduct shore-based surveys of the waters between Maui and Molokai to map out the presence, distribution and movement patterns of humpback whale adults and calves, as well as to develop and test a whale mapping system that would enable vessels to view in real time whales in the vicinity to help avoid collisions. Finally, in 2005, TDI partnered with National Geographic to deploy “Crittercam” (an animal-borne video and data logging tool) on humpback whales for the first time in their breeding grounds. Lead by TDI’s Elia Herman, this was a landmark study investigating sustained underwater behaviors and social interactions of humpback whales during activities related to mating. This work was featured National Geographic’s television documentary “Humpbacks: Inside the Pod.”
This period also provided an opportunity to return to Alaska to once again conduct research on humpback whales in their feeding grounds. In 2007, TDI’s Adam Pack was invited to lead a “focus on whales” research trip to the waters of Southeast Alaska. These were the very same waters as those in which humpbacks were studied by the KBMML from 1980-1987. Adam has continued this work each summer since then. This continues to be an incredible opportunity to examine long-term fidelity of those humpbacks first surveyed by KBMML to the same feeding grounds over a 20-year period, and to explore long-term relationships and behavior between humpbacks in cooperative feeding groups.
In 2008, Dr. Adam Pack joined the University of Hawaii at Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island as an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Biology. There, he established a marine mammal laboratory that expanded TDI’s whale and dolphin work into waters off the east side of Hawaii Island, co-founded a multi-species bioacoustics laboratory, ascended the ranks of Associate and Full Professor and became Chair of the Psychology Department.
During this time, TDI researchers continued to publish new studies on humpback whales and synthesize years of laboratory work with dolphins. Some notable publications included pioneering studies in 2009 and 2012 on humpback whale female body size in competitive groups, mother-calf pods, and male-female dyads, both lead by Adam Pack, as well as landmark articles on long-term resightings of humpback whales in Hawaiian waters (2011) and the sexual maturity and behavior roles of singers (2013), both led by Lou Herman. There were also a number of papers co-authored by TDI researchers that included trans-continental collaborative efforts. These included partnerships with researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to determine the microbiome present in humpback whale skin; with researchers from Edinburgh University to establish that females with calves segregate into shallow waters in Hawaii to avoid male harassment; and with researchers from NOAA and other NGO organizations in Hawaii to model and predict habitats for Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Additionally, in 2015, both Lou Herman and Adam Pack published chapters on their collaborative work on dolphin sensory processes, cognitive abilities and language skills in a new book entitled: Dolphin Communication and Cognition: Past, Present, and Future. In 2014, in collaboration with scientists and students from University of Hawaii at Manoa, TDI also launched a study to investigate vocal communication in mother-calf pairs and in non-calf male-female dyads.
During this time, TDI continued to be extremely active in conservation work. From 1996-2011, Lou Herman served on the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC), including 10 years as Conservation Chair. In 2011, Adam Pack began a six-year term as the elected Chair of Council, and in the same yar Elia Herman joined the Sanctuary as the State of Hawaii Co-Manager.
On August 3, 2016, after nearly 50 years of conducting groundbreaking studies of dolphins and whales, establishing the world’s premier laboratory focusing on investigations of dolphin sensory perception, cognition and language abilities, and pioneering the scientific study of humpback whales in Hawaiian waters, TDI’s co-founder and President Lou Herman passed away. Lou Herman changed the world’s understanding forever of dolphin intelligence and established one of the longest continuous scientific studies of humpback whales in the world. Throughout his long celebrated career he produced over 150 publications on dolphins and whales, educated and mentored scores of graduate students in marine mammal science, established an international internship program that created many generations of future marine mammal researchers, policy makers, veterinarians and educators, and was featured in numerous magazine article, radio broadcasts, podcasts, television documentaries, and movies bringing dolphins and whales to a worldwide audience and promoting their protection and conservation. Amazingly, in the final months of his life, Lou produced a solo seminal publication synthesizing all studies of humpback whale song. After his passing, Lou’s family and TDI’s Adam Pack worked together with the International Society for Marine Mammalogy, of which Lou was a charter member, to establish the “Louis M. Herman Research Scholarship”, a biennial award of $5,000 to support an outstanding graduate research project in the areas that were the focus of Lou’s pioneering work. Please click here for more information on the scholarship and how you can contribute.
In 2016, in the true spirit of Lou Herman’s traits of resiliency and relentless drive to pursue the understanding of whales and dolphins, TDI moved its operations fully to Hilo. In 2017-2018, new papers on how a humpback whale mother’s habitat use changes as her calf ages and grows were published and new research focusing on humpback whale singers (one of Lou Herman’s favorite topics) was established to investigate whether the body size and testosterone levels of singers are correlated with the acoustic characteristics of their song. Educational endeavors were also expanded with Adam Pack taking on new graduate students, who are working on humpback whale genetics, on non-song humpback whale vocalizations, and on describing the dolphin and whale species off Hilo. In 2017, Adam Pack was invited to present a keynote address at the 2nd World Congress on Humpback Whales in Reunion Island, and also to give a tribute to Lou Herman, who had presented an invited keynote address in 2015 at the 1st World Congress on Humpback Whales in Madagascar. Also, in 2017, Adam Pack was awarded the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents Excellence in Teaching Medal.
The history of TDI and its predecessor is long and rich. In honor of Lou Herman, in 2018, we rededicated ourselves to TDI’s mission to scientifically investigate the behavior of whales and dolphins, and to pay it forward to future generations by continuing to provide the knowledge, skills, experiences, and training necessary to protect these wonderful marine mammals and their marine habitat. We look forward to updating you on our progress.