Why it’s time to be
as savvy as a dolphin
Delphine Dépy Carron, Spring 2021
Ask any scientist studying dolphins for two key characteristics of the species and they are likely to cite intelligence and friendliness. And while these qualities are substantiated, most people would probably agree on another descriptor—dolphins are savvy. As any reader of the cult novel: “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” will know, it was the dolphins who were smart enough to depart Planet Earth just before it was demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass—and they did so in style with the witty, immortal line: “so long and thanks for all the fish.”
Let’s face it, there are times when we need smart and friendly company to take us away from the more serious stuff, like a health or climate crisis. More than this, we long to connect with others, at a deeper level, to make sense of our lives and purpose. As a neuroscientist and in my work using animals for assisted coaching I have been fortunate enough to spend time with dolphins and see the remarkable “mirror effect” they create when faced with people who are at a crossroads or needing to rethink their future. Before the pandemic, my coaching partner Yann Sonneck and I regularly conducted week-long coaching courses which include swimming with dolphins off the coast of Egypt. It has been heart-warming to see the shift in thinking for our participants as they both lose and find themselves in the water with these wonderful mammals close at hand.
Many people come to us because they are struggling with a career crisis, bereavement or other personal trauma. They could be looking for answers to specific problems or they may simply feel stuck and exhausted. But they all have one thing in common: a need to reconnect with themselves. Take Jon, who came to us in his mid-50s feeling deeply unhappy, but afraid to give up his well-paid job in the finance industry. Contact with the dolphins helped Jon to remember what was important to him. Following the coaching programme he returned to his job, negotiated an exit and found the courage to focus on a new career helping others.
Coaching through the alpha waves
Let me take you away from lockdown for a moment and imagine the scene: a boat is anchored in the turquoise waters off the Sataya Reef, Egypt and a group of people are being introduced to a new daily pattern—encounters with dolphins, sharing experiences and enjoying individual and group coaching sessions to discuss what they have learned—when topics often emerge that resonate across the whole group.
No two meetings with the dolphins are the same. But there is always a sense that something special is going to happen. In the crystal clear waters, we often spot the dolphins from a long way off, a grey mass slipping through the sea toward us—and they’re fast! The pod can be large—anything from seven, 15 or even 100 dolphins—and they are curious and ready for fun. We hear them, too. An unforgettable combination of clicks and whistles that we know to be their unique communications.
Dolphins fish in the deep ocean at night, but in the daytime they come into the calm water of the bay, play and mate. And they seem to like to socialise with whoever is around at the time. Suddenly, one might dart beside you, taking you unaware. That’s not only their way of seeking a connection, but also how they assess who you are. It’s a little like being scanned at the airport! In fact, research has shown that dolphins echolocate on objects, humans and other life forms both above and below water—in other words, they “see” through echolocation in a functionally similar way to how they see through vision.
@HiMage / Thomas Carron
It’s a powerful feeling. You know you are with a highly intelligent animal who is entirely at ease in its own environment. Water is their world and even if you swim well, you feel clumsy in the water beside them. Their fluid movements and their expression seem to say “come join us You can lose all sense of time and distance and it is as soothing as a deep meditation. Many of our group say it is like a kind of dance, synchronised movements, relaxing and improving their state of mind. In fact, studies have shown that the alpha bandwidth—in essence, your brain waves—is associated with relaxation and memory consolidation. As our nervous system co-regulates with the dolphins, our level of consciousness changes, our raw emotions are released to enable us to find the natural rhythm of our lives once again.
Welcomed and belonging
Surrounded by warm waters, it is possible we are reminded of our experiences in our mother’s womb and even before, tapping into the evolutionary development of our species. Primitive emotions are heightened by how the dolphins welcome us. It is a powerful experience for many people who have spent their lives feeling that they do not belong, perhaps because of a difficult start in life or subsequent circumstances. Dolphins are naturally astute—they even sleep with one eye closed and the other open without waking themselves—and they can sense our sadness and fear.
Any encounter with dolphins connects us to what is really essential. During the pandemic, so many of us have been reminded of how we try to control the pattern of our lives. And how we are always searching for more—we expect things to happen when and how we want them to. With some groups of participants they have even felt offended that the dolphins have not arrived when we are ready for them! But these are creatures whose agenda is not under our control. They decide to come and they decide when to leave.
Life can be simple and rewarding—but we need to control less and be flexible enough to accept more. In difficult times, try adopting these three dolphin behaviours to slip through the waters of adversity:
Gentleness: When swimming together, dolphin mothers often steer their babies in between humans and themselves. It is an act of gentleness that helps little dolphins familiarize themselves with humans. Certainly, we can see the difference consideration and gentleness can make either in our own lives and communities. Try being deliberately kind and gentle with others—and also with yourself.
Playfulness: Dolphins know how to enjoy themselves and when they meet our participants in the water, they often roll over and display their bellies, inviting invite us to play with them. We should remember that play enables us to fail, learn and try again. Use play as a means to innovate and strengthen your relationships with others and be creative.
Fierceness: Despite their friendly, smiley faces, dolphins are wild creatures and this is apparent when they are hunting for food. Here they are more like warriors, displaying the courage and strength to survive. Taking new ideas and making them work requires a kind of fierceness that will ride out the storms of disappointment, giving your ideas resilience and longevity. Find your inner warrior to take your ideas forward.
These three complementary energies can help when you are facing a crisis, starting out on a new project, or trying to find a way to solve an existing impasse. Through their behaviour and attitude, dolphins show people the way. Being close to this active, welcoming mammal is such a contrast to the demands of our daily lives. And through these moments of simple interaction, we can learn to reconnect with ourselves and dull the noise of the stories we tell ourselves.
Once the lockdowns have lifted, come and swim and synchronize with these extraordinary creatures. You’ll not only realise why everyone thinks they’re savvy, but also remember how you can be more savvy, too.
 Kassewitz et al., J Marine Sci Res Dev 2016, 6:4 DOI; 10.4172/2155-9910.1000202; “A Phenomenon Discovered While Imaging Dolphin Echolocation Sounds”
 Klimesch et al., 1994; Hari and Salmelin, 1997; Bas¸ar et al., 1999; Nunez and Srinivasan, 2006 taken from A Critical Analysis on Characterizing the Meditation Experience Through the Electroencephalogram, August 2020, Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.
Neuroscientist and executive coach, Delphine Dépy Carron, has been helping leaders, intrapreneurs, teams and organizations to reinvent themselves for more than 20 years. Studying intelligence, she discovered how animal intelligence can be a powerful source of inspiration and development for humans. She is regularly asked to help organizations develop emotional intelligence, leadership, relational intelligence, and creativity. Her programs involve working with horses or dolphins to accelerate awareness and promote sustainable behavioural change. Delphine is also a horse coaching trainer at HEC Paris School of Coaching.