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At Hawaii's Sea Life Park on the windward shore of Oahu, in a small, quiet pool, there is a gentle, well-mannered bottlenose porpoise named Alice. Compared to most of the captive porpoises frolicking around in seaquariums today, Alice is a real dud. She does not play baseball or basketball, although a number of porpoises of her acquaintance are now going in for these grand American games in a big way. In a lagoon at Sea Life Park, just up the hill from Alice's pool, there is a troupe of theatrical porpoises that wind up each of their five shows a day by doing the hula. Alice, in contrast, never dances and it is doubtful that she could ever be persuaded to wriggle exotically in public.
Although she would be a disaster in any discoth�que, Alice is one of the pacesetters of the new generation of career porpoises that simply do not have time for trivia. After four or five years of proper schooling among her own kind in the Atlantic, Alice took specialized training under excellent human tutors at Marineland in Florida. Then, several years ago, she was flown, all expenses paid, to California, where she worked for a while for the Navy at the Point Mugu missile center. About a year ago she moved to Hawaii, where she is doing advanced research under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Norris, Professor of Zoology at UCLA. Although reserved, like any well-traveled porpoise, Alice is chatty and at times outspoken. At the mere drop of a dead smelt in her pool, she is apt to emit a great many sonic and ultrasonic squawks, blats, squeaks, barks and whistles, which probably carry a world of meaning to other porpoises but are largely wasted on Dr. Norris, whose ears and mind are not sophisticated enough for such gabble.
Despite the language barrier that separates them, Alice has been helping Dr. Norris to understand how porpoises use their ears as a second pair of eyes. The U.S. Navy wants to know and so do the National Institutes of Health, which have the interest of the nation's 400,000 blind at heart. Blind people today can guide themselves only by crudely rapping a cane on pavement, and even the most precise apparatus used by mariners is cumbersome and Neanderthal compared to the exquisite sonic system built into the porpoise Alice. By the use of man-made systems, a submarine can be spotted even when lying silent on the sea floor, but it cannot be identified or easily distinguished from the wreckage of a ship that sank in some forgotten year.
By contrast, when Alice is blindfolded, if a single BB shot is dropped into the pool she will know it. If a dead fish is thrown in, she can tell where it landed without seeing it and can recognize that it is worth eating. If two steel balls of about baseball size are silently lowered into her pool, Alice can locate both and distinguish between them even if there is no more than a quarter-inch difference in their diameters. In brief, by sound alone, she can not only find an object but also tell a great deal about its size, shape and composition.
Fishermen have suspected for some time that porpoises can reach beyond the limits of their eyes from the way they avoid fine-mesh nets in murky water. In the 1950s, in a painstaking series of tests, Dr. Winthrop Kellogg, a psychologist at Florida State University, tried to make porpoises run into submerged obstacles. He used sunken panels of transparent plastic and a maze of iron poles that barely allowed porpoises room to make a decent turn, but even when he shifted the obstacles about surreptitiously on dark, moonless nights in water of less than one-foot visibility the porpoises had no trouble staying clear.
Five years ago Dr. Norris and a research team of men and porpoises took up about where Dr. Kellogg left off. At present Norris is fairly certain that, by using its skull bones as reflectors and using special tissues as acoustical lenses, a porpoise puts out a broad band of frequencies of varying intensity in a wide arc forward of its head. While transmitting, the porpoise is also receiving and evaluating a hodgepodge of rebounding signals, so that at every moment it has a mental picture of what lies around it.
In his most recent tests with the porpoise Alice, Dr. Norris has discovered that the lower jaw of the bottlenose porpoise is a very important part of its ultrasonic receiving system. When Alice's lower jaw was covered with a foam-rubber guard that high-frequency sound could not penetrate, she had difficulty locating and identifying familiar objects. When wearing the soundproof chin guard, Alice increased the volume of her signals until the lower-frequency components could be heard by Dr. Norris above water—in effect, she yelled at the top of her lungs trying to overcome her ultrasonic blindness. In future tests Alice will wear ultrasonic "blinders" on other parts of her head and beak. By analyzing Alice in this way, piece by piece, cheek by jowl, Norris is inching toward the day when men may move in the dark as easily as porpoises have been doing for many millions of years.
Like the tribes of man on land, the various species of porpoises in the sea world differ greatly in their behavior and disposition. Last summer one of the pools at Sea Life Park was occupied by a rowdy career porpoise named Kai, a member of the species commonly called rough-tooth, or Steno. Although a Steno is a true porpoise, in body and soul it seems more to be some kind of archaic saurian renegade that has swum out of the dark ages, defying all the laws of evolution and battling all the way. Although Kai, the Steno, is only half Alice's age, he is already scarred from head to tail as if he had spent his finest hours brawling with a switchblade. While a gentle, bottlenose grande dame like Alice is often content to spend a lifetime in the quiet shallows of an estuary, a Steno like Kai prefers the wide, deep sea beyond the 1,000-fathom line. That is where the action is, and that is where Stenos really live it up.
Whenever a human approached his pool last summer, instead of merely rolling on the surface and flashing a big smile (as gentle Alice does), Kai often leaped six feet in the air. Then, instead of reentering the water as neatly as he left it, he would do a half twist and land fiat, thus (ha-ha!) drenching everyone within 15 feet. Often Kai would hang vertically, his tail on the surface, head down, as if fascinated by nothing at all on the pool bottom. Whenever a trainer slapped the water to advise Kai that it was time to work, if Kai was not of a mind to work he merely righted himself and slapped the water with his tail, signifying, "To hell with you." Then he would resume a vertical position and continue staring at the bottom. "Kai was a complete slob," Dr. Norris recalls. "He bit everybody until we convinced him that he could do important work."
By early last fall Kai had been so convinced that he could help the human cause that he would obediently follow a boat out into deep water, where, on cue, he would depress a lever on the side of the boat and start a clock that turned on a sonic transmitter attached to a hoop that dangled 100 feet or more below the surface. As soon as he heard the sound in the depths, Kai would swim down through the hoop, breaking a light beam and thereby stopping the clock.