Dolphins Guide Scientists to Rescue Suicidal Girl

Bottlenose dolphin school foraging along the Los Angeles coastline. (Photograph by Maddalena Bearzi, Ocean Conservation Society, under NOAA permit)

One day, my research team and I were following a school of bottlenose dolphins near shore as we do on a regular basis in the waters off Los Angeles, California. We just wrapped up our photo-identification work and were moving on to take video of dolphin social interactions and enter data on behavior.

The dolphins were still feeding in circle near shore, when suddenly, one individual changed direction heading out toward deeper water. A minute later, the rest of the school turned to follow. We were so accustomed to tracking these coastal metropolitan dolphins back and forth within a few hundred meters of the beach, that seeing them abruptly leave a foraging ground and change direction came as a surprise to the research team. I decided to follow them.

The dolphins increased their speed, still heading offshore as I pushed the throttle ahead to keep pace while one of my researchers recorded this hasty change in behavior on the sighting form. Somewhere near three miles offshore the dolphin group stopped, forming a sort of ring around a dark object in the water.

“Someone’s in the water!” yelled my assistant, standing up and pointing at the seemingly lifeless body of a girl. For a moment, we were silent. Then, slowly, I maneuvered the boat closer. The girl was pallid and blonde and appeared to be fully clothed. As the boat neared, she feebly turned her head toward us, half-raising her hand as a weak sign for help.

I cut the engine and called the lifeguards on the VHF radio. They told us not to do anything until they arrived on site but it was our unanimous feeling that if we didn’t act immediately, the girl would die. We decided to ignore lifeguard’s instructions, instead pulling the frail and hypothermic body on board. I called the lifeguards back and informed them that she was alive and that we had her aboard and we were heading back to Marina del Rey, the closest harbor, as quickly as possible.

“She is cyanotic,” said one of my researchers, also a lifeguard, after a cursory examination. “She has severe hypothermia. We need to get her warm!” We managed to get some of her wet garments off and wrap her in a blanket. We took turns keeping her warm by huddling with her under the blanket.

The girl was around eighteen and probably foreign because we couldn’t seem to communicate. We tried speaking French, Italian, and Spanish to no avail and she was barely able to speak but none of us could understand what she was saying. I couldn’t avoid noticing a plastic bag tied around her neck. It was sealed and seemed to contain her passport and a folded handwritten note. Somewhere near the harbor, we met up with the lifeguard rescue boat. We handed her off to them and followed them back to port.

A couple of hours later, we were all waiting outside the emergency room at the Marina del Rey hospital. The ER doctor came out to talk with us. The girl, it seems, would pull through, and he thanked us for our quick action. He tells us the girl was vacationing in L.A. from Germany and, as the letter found in her plastic bag explained, she was attempting suicide. If we hadn’t found her, if the dolphins hadn’t led us offshore when they did, to that specific place, she would have died.

Busy as we were trying to save the girl, we completely lost track of the dolphins. What might they have done with her if we hadn’t been there? Might they have tried to save her? There are many anecdotal accounts of dolphins saving humans from death and disaster, either by guiding them to shore, fending off sharks or helping them to remain afloat until help arrives.

Many scientists think dolphins do not, in fact, save humans because there is not enough hard scientific evidence to support these stories. But that day I witnessed coastal bottlenose dolphins suddenly leave their feeding activities and head offshore. And in doing so, they led us to save a dying girl, some three miles offshore. Coincidence?

This article has been adapted from the book Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

Maddalena Bearzi has studied the ecology and conservation of marine mammals for over twenty-five years. She is President and Co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Co-author of Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins (Harvard University Press, 2008; paperback 2010). She also works as a photo-journalist and blogger for several publications. Her most recent book is Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist (Chicago University Press, 2012).

  • Gina Harden

    This is such an amazing story! I wish I was a witness. 3 miles off-shore is a l-o-n-g way.

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE !!! Are there still people that think that Humans are the only sentient beings on this planet?
    I personally believe that there are many “Animals” that have the ability to feel sadness, Joy, Worry, Depression, Remorse and most of all Empathy! There are many stories about Dolphins, Elephants, Simians and some Birds that have shown many different feelings. We should be listening much more closely to them all, Who knows, We may learn something from them.

  • Janet

    Awesome story! I have heard these animals are smart. It fascinates me that another species can react like that. We know they think, they feel, they KNOW. Amazing. Thank you for sharing this story!

  • Jeff Pinkerton

    Yet one more story that makes me wonder when we will actually have real animal rights, meaning we no longer believe we have the right to keep animals in captivity for entertainment, kill them for sport, or obliterate their habit for our gain. Let’s start by shutting down Seaworlds everywhere.

  • lwagenseil

    They need to be treated like our good friends.

  • Sherri

    I believe I am alive today because of a dolphin. I was swimming with three or four dolphins just off the coast of Honduras. The undertow pulled me down. The dolphin came to me, pushed me to my feet, and provided support until my feet were firmly planted. I was terrified, amazed and oh so grateful!

  • Jordan

    Beautiful story! These animals are so smart, I am glad you let us know about this encounter!

  • Julie Havinga

    What a brilliant read and one very lucky woman. Those dolphins showed them what had been found and allowed them to help.

  • Richard

    Fascinating. But it’s a pod of dolphins, not a “school” (dolphins aren’t fish). I’d think professional dolphin researchers would know that.

  • Mary Chivers-Harkins

    I was in a small yacht off the rocky north coast of Spain when fog rolled in. Dolphins led us to the port entrance. They are always considered good luck in the sailing community, so this amazing story just reinforces that\\1

  • BigCat

    We should return the favor, and outlaw killing dolphins.

  • Joao T

    There are countless stories of dolphins saving people…. countless, how can they say there aren’t!!! ???????????

  • glenda

    Dolphins saved the lives of my friend, his wife and their 4 teenage children, who were sailing around the world. My friends got caught in an incredible storm off the coast of New Zealand, the worst swells they had ever seen just pummeling their 45 foot sailboat. The father feared his dream for adventure had killed his family! He was certain they would all perish. In the depth of dispair, the family sees that the boat was suddenly surrounded by a huge pod of dolphins, who led the sailors to calmer waters. Without the guidance ofn the dolphins, the family may not have found the way to calmer seas. Incredible.

  • Xiccarph

    Lifeguards told them not to do anything until they arrived??? Really? When they are miles away? Is this really the SOP upon finding a person floating /drowning in a middle of nowhere ocean/lake/river?

  • Harold

    So NOW we will have all the ARA’s commenting.

    My wife uses apples with the tuna-fish, I prefer my tuna-fish sandwiches w/o apples. Hate to hear the apple-scream!!!

  • anita willemse

    the majority of the people do not want to see the feelings of the animals because they think to have the right to do with them whatever they want. Eat them captive them and of all most earn a lot of money by using them in any way. so sad so sad. animals shouls have rights like humans!

  • John Humkey

    Am I the only person that wonders . . . how did the dolphins know there was a human in distress 3 miles away? The story sounds like they were 3 miles away, for quite some time. Could they hear a flailing person in distress that far? Had they seen the girl earlier? We may never know, but . . . that’d be a pretty darn interesting part of the story.

  • Timothy Dennison

    But if they surrounded the girl, waiting for her to die, before ripping her apart and eating her, we would never know, or hear about it. We only hear the stories of survival because the people who are killed by dolphins cannot speak for themselves. I don’t believe what I just wrote. But I want to keep an open mind too. Since the Japanese harvest them, I imagine the dolphins in that area are not very happy with humans

  • Laurette Schoeman

    Why is there always some fool making stupid comments when animals are involved? Harold!

  • Steve Fenster, DVM

    Mediocre minds relegate animals to some sort of second class in creation. Being limited, not aided by strict objectivity they are blind to the fact that sentient beings such a dolphins (and other pinnapeds), pachyderms, canines, felines and hominids all have the capacity of empathy and many other higher functions, such as love.
    The dolphins were probably aware of the girl from auditory input as their enormous brains are about 70% devoted with respect to function to hearing (echolocation, language, etc).
    I know this will anger such people and they will react with an air of superior distain. Let me aggravate them further in stating that all such beings share these commonalities in no small part because they have the same Designer.

  • Lisa

    What a beautiful story…so glad this young person was given another chance to embrace life, to live and tell the story how “coincidences” saved her from suicide. Animals heal and help more than we do. I am a nurse and I have seen the loneliness of the patients that we are trying to make better with our science. Some of that science is very valuable, but even more valuable is when a patient is given the opportunity in the hospital environment to feel the unconditional love in a session of pet therapy. I have to say… those dolphins are probably “aware” that they are watched/observed every day and even though many think it impossible, they probably knew they would be followed out three miles. “Hey one of your kind is out here in trouble.” Some people will never believe these things until they experience them. It is a grace to be part of that kind of rescue!

  • Moniq Vervoort

    Last week we had a babystep victory,
    As both Netherlands and Germany got a representative of Animal Rights Parties elected into the European Parliament each!

  • Ed Pfaff

    Anyone who does not realize Dolphins are intelligent has no concept of what Intelligence is. They are As Aware as Humans, Have LANGUAGE and have COMMUNITY, Pods are nothing more or less than Family Units, in the ways Humans Look at what makes up a Family.
    Maybe one day Scientists will catch up with what the Rest of us Plebes Already KNOW

  • Andy Leung

    “The marine mammal researcher Toni Frohoff, director of TerraMar Research in California, reported an incident in which dolphins suddenly fled the scene as soon as a shark was spotted, leaving her to fend for herself. There’s even a news report from 2007 of an intoxicated man who was attacked by a group of bottlenose dolphins after falling into the Black Sea in Ukraine. The animals allegedly tried to drown him, prompting the Russian news agency Interfax to declare that they ‘lack the reputation of friendliness and love of humans enjoyed by dolphins in wealthy nations’.”

    People have selective vision when it comes to cute animals.

  • chayo Chardova

    That show us that sometimes creatures of Nature have more heart and humanity for everyone then humans unfortunely.

  • El Gato

    How much time was wasted transferring the victim to the “Life Guard” boat when she could have been taken directly to aid in the rescuers’ boat. Unless that boat had facilities not mentioned.
    Oh, BTW Dolphins eat fish.

  • Jeffrey

    Of course humans are that stupid! No scientific proof, they claim! They can’t imagine in their wildest imagination that animals have feelings, intelligence, or even wisdom! That’s because US Courts regard animals as material property, and they have no legal value whatsoever! Material can not think, feel hurt, love, pain, or even die! Arrogant & stupid humans!

  • Sinnister

    There is no question in my cynical mind of the intelligence of these creatures.
    That said, it’s a charming story and I wish I could believe it.

  • Marianne

    Timothy Dennison, I can’t believe what you just wrote too but it made me laugh like a lunatic!

  • Jim

    Too many people underestimate animals and their intelligence and depth.

  • Nikola Jakuš

    An incredible story…yes animasl have emotions compassion and intelligence only thing animals, like dolphins for example, do not have is same language as humans do and that is a lot, language shapes our thoughts, worldwiev and stance towards other living beings. Doplphins can be more intelligent than humans but they can not express themselves towards humans in the way that humans would fully understand and so it seems they are less intelligent.
    Also level of technological advancment is not a sign of intelligence… doplphins are happily swiming, eating, having sex and all other stuff that composes life for hundreds of years and i am sure they are quite fine with that.
    I am sure that a lot lesser percent of dolphin population on earth is huungry, cold and sick than human population on earth, so it makes you wonder what has applied intelligence, i.e. technology brought to humans in comparison with dolphins for example.
    Maybe its a better thing to evolve in some kind of water mamals and be at peace than all that what humans have achewed.
    Also they dont need facebook and internet because you can swim where ever you want, and some othar sea faring mammals, like whales, could communicate at such distances that its like natural social network…

    About a few comments i saw that there are observations of dolphins not helping people.
    Animals have character as well, there are good ones and there are assholes. And if the man is drunk ( i saw something in the comments here about a man in Ukraine ) i think not a lot of animals would help him, its noticable with dogs and cats and all other animals ( even human animals too), drunk people put everybody off and its like they have giant neon sign “steer clear” especially if you have more acute senses ( like smell and souch) than humans do.
    I personally dont feel comfortable around drunk people and would not jump into water after someone druk, dont see reason whay would dolphin try to save someone in that “weird” and inbalanced mental and emotional state…and that stuff could be sensed and it is apparent.

  • tali hudek

    “school” of dolphin???? Dolphins are not fish. Dolphins stay together and in travel in Pods!!!

  • cookie

    what really happens with animals is that God allows animals to react to the prompting of angels to come to the aid of humans. Animals are creatures of God and humans, through Christ life and redemption on the cross, have become children of God. there is a distinction. God has given humans do inion over animals. god made animals for humans , not humans for animals. sometimes humans get that reversed!

  • Donna

    Dolphins have a long history of being used for military intelligence work, as they have proven to communicate and move in other dimensions. Humans also have the ability, as we have sonar… sadly very much under-used. There is much evidence on both.

  • Khoos

    Dolphins and whales (and many more animals) are spiritually more advance than humans. Their psychic ability is highly advance and they are mentally experiencing several dimensions at the same time. Their ability to capture our aura and vibrations is great… this is why they could easily detect the suicidal girl :).
    We humans have lots to learn and develop. The heart center is the key ;0

  • Melinda

    God. He talks to dolphins too. We are all his creatures. Humans are the ones who think we are superior

  • P Preston Warren

    Many years ago, when I was very pregnant with my first child, Iw as floating with friends in inner tubes off a dock jutting into Tampa Bay. A typical summer thunder storm raced ashore. My friends quickly swam to the dock. I was VERY pregnant and struggling to get to the dock and lightning was popping very close. A school of dolphins appeared and surrounded me. I was terrified, but rather than cause harm, the dolphins gently nudged my inner tube, with me tucked inside, up to the dock while my stunned friends watched from these shire. As soon as I could get hold of the ladder , the dolphins swam off. I have no idea if I was in real danger from the storm, but I feel like the dolphins sensed distress and came to my aide. That incident remains one if the most remarkable memories of my life and I believe was an act of kindness on the part if the dolphins.

  • Betty Maestri Rodriguez

    Muchas gracias por comentar tan linda historia y ademas muy creíble, porque aunque los científicos no lo crean ellos los delfines poseen demasiada inteligencia.

  • Myles MacVane

    Remember this story when you read of humans slaughtering dolphins. Which is the least civilized animal: dolphin or Man?

  • Marjorie Caruso

    Time to stop slaughtering, imprisoning and experimenting on these wonderful creatures.

  • mm

    a male of 18 years old would have been called a young man, so this is a young woman, not a girl.

  • Janice Hutton

    We can learn so much from animals if only we would listen!

  • Thoughts from a GIRL

    To NN above who complains about how an 18 year old man would of been called a young man and how its not right this GIRL wasn’t called a young woman, listen for a second.

    I HATE being called a woman, or ma’am or madam. I want to be a GIRL> i want to be called MISS, or madamoiselle or anything NOT WOMAN. Woman is old. Woman is so demeaning. You don’t speak for ALL GIRLS in this world. SOME of us want to be referred to as GIRL, and SOME want to be called WOMAN> itshould be OUR CHOICES and that’s what woman’s rights should be about. WE HAVE the RIGHT To be called what WE ourselves WISH.

    TO force all girls to be called something they might not want to be called is JUST like the supposed “MEN” who are keeping them down

  • Raymond

    Bloody American court saying animals as physical commodity! These two legged demons are installing a software inside human brain to destroy this whole world and the cruel information is sporrulating very fast within so-called human society. Very unfortunate.

  • Douglas J. Bender

    One time, I was in great distress in deep water in the ocean off-shore. A dolphin noticed my distress, and immediately swam away at great speed. Soon, though, he returned, bringing with him a beautiful girl in a tiny bikini. No one can tell me that dolphins don’t understand humans.

  • DHE

    Sounds like they saved that girl from a feeding frenzy. I can still remember the evil look in Flipper’s eye, but obviously the story fooled a lot of people.

  • Gary

    My cat know’s when i’m worried about him.,he will be at the door within 5-minutes or so almost everytime!
    Humans are so arrogant it’s disgusting!

  • Ott Bott

    One time, at band camp…..

  • Wonderful site. Plenty of helpful information here. I am sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you in your sweat!

  • Robert

    Ohh my lordy. The comments on this article are just amazing. One girl talking about how dolphins and whales are more “spritually advanced” than humans. Or the one saying dolphins have psychic abilities. Uhhhhhh okayyy. A bunch others are complaining about being called a “woman”. If you can’t decide if you want to be called woman or girl, let’s go with female, happy? And then others are preaching about god. We are all god’s children blah blah…. This is a story about a female being essentially saved by dolphins. Can we just leave it at that?

    What is wrong with you people? You people seriously need to check yourselves into a mental institute.

    There have been numerous studies about dolphin intelligence. Results are, as suspected, they are highly intelligent and show empathy. Just as humans show empathy to some animals, dolphins do the same. The brain of a dolphin is typically twice to three times the size of a human’s brain.

    Thanks to all the people who made normal comments that actually made sense.

  • Rabbitnexus

    I’ve seen things in animals as simple as aquarium fish showing intelligence, empathy and understanding beyond levels most so-called animal behaviourists wouldn’t ascribe to Dolphins.

    As for dolphins, the delusional idiots are not even close to comprehending sentience in any species, including ourselves.

  • get3coffinsready

    Something odd here. How did one girl get so far offshore? Did no one see a boat? Why would she keep swimming for 3 miles and then decide that was the spot where she should stop? I love dolphins and agree they are highly intelligent, but there is something missing from this story. (I’ve lived near saltwater all my life and I don’t think I could swim 3 miles.)

  • EMS Guy

    To MM and Thoughts From a GIRL: As a 56 year old man, I care little about whether I am called man, male, guy, geezer, dude or whatever. You both miss the point of the story entirely and instead focus on a single word that, in the scheme of the story, is meaningless. It is an amazing story written by a woman, female, chick, ma’am or whatever scientist about an incredible incident that showed high intelligence and empathy often overlooked or dismissed by these dolphins, sea creatures, mammals, aquatic dwellers or whatever. It appears to show your over sensitivity to titles, especially when it is clear that no malice was intended by use of the term “girl.” Get over it and post an intelligent comment that is germane to the story instead of your own personal issues.

  • Michael Stone

    Angels.. Wonderful story.

  • Ted

    Humans are basically aquatic or at least quasi-aquatic mammals and there is a natural affinity and common history amongst aquatic mammals. Dolphins WILL try to save a human in trouble in the water.

  • nikkita

    btw a group of dolphins can be called a school or a pod…and i do believe animals feel compassion…

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