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The world of dolphins and their marine friends

THE BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN: Biology and Conservation

By John E. Reynolds III, Randall S. Wells and Samantha D. Eide

University Press of Florida, $34.95


By Richard O'Barry with Keith Coulbourn

Renaissance Books, $23.95

LADS BEFORE THE WIND: Diary of a Dolphin Trainer

By Karen Pryor

Sunshine Books, $16.95

SWIMMING WITH GIANTS: My Encounters with Whales, Dolphins and Seals

By Anne Collet (translated from French by Gayle Wurst)

Milkweed Editions, $22


For ages, dolphins have fascinated humans.

Ancient Greeks portrayed them in their art and built elaborate legends around them. Modern folks, like us, visit them in theme parks and performing dolphin shows, or simply stand on beaches and strain to see a dorsal fin gliding through the waves.

Why do we find these ocean-going mammals so alluring?

Perhaps because they're like us, says Sarasota scientist Randall Wells.

"Dolphins possess . . long life spans, intricate social dynamics, prolonged parental care, delayed onset of sexual maturity, and cognitive abilities that our species tends to admire in itself," writes Wells, director of marine mammal research at Mote Marine Laboratory.

For 30 years, Wells has studied resident dolphins in and around Sarasota Bay. His is the longest-running research on wild bottlenose dolphins in the world. His new book, which he co-authored with Eckerd College marine science professor John Reynolds and University of South Florida graduate student Samantha Eide, is a modern manifesto for Tursiops truncatus, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. It's also one of several dolphin books _ a pod! _ recently released.

The Bottlenose Dolphin, copiously annotated and boasting a 29-page bibliography, is classic science, an exhaustive look at dolphin anatomy, behavior and intelligence. If you're willing to wade through language that's often clinical and dry, you'll find fascinating details about dolphins and their habits.

New Age dolphin lovers, however, should look elsewhere: "This book is not designed to perpetuate myths or to further mystical views of dolphins," the authors write.

They know, however, that many dolphin fans are not scientists; they're animal activists who oppose captivity. So Wells et al tackle that debate in the first chapter. Currently there are about 650 captive dolphins in facilities around the world. Some perform several times daily, some are part of swim-with-dolphin programs, others are simply on display. All live in environments that are a far cry from the open ocean.

Releasing them would not necessarily be a great and noble thing, the authors write. The former captives might not find a pod to accept them. They might be vulnerable to predators. They might starve because they've lost their hunting skills. They might spread disease to populations of wild dolphins.

Give me a break!, protests Richard O'Barry, a longtime dolphin advocate who lives in Miami and travels all over the world leading campaigns on behalf of captive dolphins. In To Free a Dolphin, his second book, O'Barry once again takes on what he calls the "colossal perfidy" of the captive-dolphin industry. It's a sin to keep dolphins in captivity, O'Barry writes, and it's a lie to say that the educational benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

"When I see a captive dolphin perform, I see a hungry dolphin desperately doing what he must in order to live. I also see people cheering and children clapping their hands and laughing about it."

O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer at Miami Seaquarium and trainer of TV's Flipper, has spent 30 years working off his guilt. On Earth Day 1970, he cut the fence of an underwater dolphin pen in the Bahamas and launched a new career as a self-styled crusader for dolphin freedom. In the last decade or so he has worked on several projects to "un-train" captive dolphins so they could be returned to the wild, with varying success.

To Free a Dolphin, though, is more about humans than animals. It's the sad story of a promising effort gone sour, a project in the Keys to rehabilitate several captive dolphins that instead degenerated into power struggles and squabbling among the people involved. O'Barry, one of the main players in the drama, calls it "the tragicomic events at Sugarloaf."

In 1999, he and another man were convicted of transporting and releasing two dolphins without a federal permit. The fine was $40,000.

O'Barry seems sobered by the experience. He admits he and the others were "wrapped up in our own self interests" and says government agents "had the impossible task of administering a law that didn't cover the subject (of releasing captive dolphins)."

Even though he vows to keep working on behalf of captive dolphins, O'Barry admits he is tired of the fight. "I do it now because the alternative, apathy and guilt, is unacceptable."

Like O'Barry, Karen Pryor was a dolphin trainer in the 1960s, when she and her husband opened a marine park in Hawaii. With little experience and no scientific background, Pryor trained a variety of marine mammals using standard "operant conditioning" _ rewarding desirable behaviors. Unlike O'Barry, Pryor seems to feel no guilt over her past actions.

In this expanded edition of her 1975 book Lads Before the Wind, Pryor tells how she managed to coax her performing dolphins to do a variety of things they didn't really want to do: jump over bars; wear blindfolds and retrieve objects; play water polo; and wear leis while "dancing the hula" (propelling themselves vertically in the water).

This is old-school captive dolphin stuff, and Pryor doesn't shrink from the details, describing "collecting" trips to capture wild dolphins (prior to the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which now regulates such activity). Animals often languished or got sick in captivity; those that refused to eat were force-fed, a job requiring several strong men. Once Pryor poured a quart of gin down the throat of a recalcitrant pilot whale.

Stupid mistakes were made, and Pryor admits them openly. One of her employees dropped a rope in a dolphin tank, and the animal became entangled in it overnight and drowned. Another time, she and her staff placed a small spinner dolphin in a tank with a pigmy killer whale they thought was lonely. The whale did what predators naturally do: It terrorized the spinner, chasing it in frantic circles as it whistled in alarm.

It was all worth it, Pryor maintains, citing a classic argument in favor of dolphin captivity: education.

". . . The keeping and display of porpoises in oceanariums has helped to awaken the public to the value of these animals. Conservation begins with understanding, and understanding can begin with personal contact: a child in the audience catching a ball that a porpoise threw, a governor or senator stroking Makua's ample belly."

Pryor eventually became a respected marine mammal expert. New chapters in the book describe her research of the Brazilian dolphins that assist fishermen by driving prey into their nets. She also served as a government consultant, diving among dolphins caught in giant tuna fishing nets in the Pacific.

French marine biologist Anne Collet has swum with dolphins, too. And sperm whales, and right whales. She also has watched elephant seals mating in the Antarctic and listened to beluga whales vocalizing off the coast of Norway.

In Swimming with Giants, a collection of engaging essays translated from French, Collet describes the highlights of a 30-year career spent in the watery world of marine mammals. Like Wells, she is a scientist, not a sentimentalist.

"I don't believe that whales and dolphins are sacred," she writes. "Such worship comes from ignorance or, worse, stupidity."

But she does hold dear the animals she observes. And she can't help but wonder what they're thinking. Over and over, as she recounts her underwater adventures, as she describes the unblinking, massive eye of a whale looking at her, she asks: Who is watching whom?

In a brilliant chapter that perfectly blends science and storytelling, Collet describes how cetaceans evolved from a prehistoric, hooved, wolf-life animal that caught its food in the mud shallows and eventually entered the water, 50-million years ago.

Collet's epilogue is an impassioned plea for marine mammals and the human-generated threats they face: pollution; overfishing and heavy sea traffic. Her argument sets forth why we should care about dolphins _ and, by extension, why we should bother to read any of these new books.

"When dolphins, seals and whales are in danger, so are all the flora and fauna in the ocean. And when the ocean is threatened, the planet is threatened _ and this, of course, includes Homo sapiens."

Jeanne Malmgren is a Times staff writer.