Justin Li

Week of 2007-11-05


This week has not been quite as exciting as the last, with trips to the Shedd and what not. I did have a midterm for stats, for which I didn't study too much, and didn't get too bad a grade. My psych midterm I had a while back turned out okay, too, although slightly less "okay" than my stats one.

So I guess my most interesting thing for the week was my teleconference with the clients for our interactive oceanarium project. I've mentioned dolphins in relation to this project several times, but I never explained what it is. I thought now would be a good time to talk about a more, shall we say, exciting part of my life.

Our task for this quarter and the next is to design something which will allow humans to interact, in some way, with captive dolphins and whales in an aquarium. The original idea was to have a remote controlled submarine that the aquarium personnel can control, and perhaps given to visitors under supervision. That was what we started off with, and we got to do a lot of research, as well as observe dolphins and beluga whales.

I'll tell you one thing: I have gone whale spotting before, in Alaska and Australia, but I have not been too close to a whale. You're on a boat, after all, and the whale can easily rock the boat by charging it. And there's probably some international law about approaching whales. So the closest you ever get is maybe 100 metres, probably more than that. At an aquarium though, that's different. I got within ten feet of the beluga whales, and I can tell you it's pretty amazing. The whales themselves are longer than that distance, and they weight at least five times more than I do. Belugas are cute though; their skin/blubber looks really soft. It is, essentially, a giant stuffed toy.

The dolphins (specifically, Pacific white-sided dolphins) are another story. They are much more athletic than the beluga whales, very quickly swimming circles around their tank, occasionally breaking the surface for a breathe then diving down again. I was surprised by how fast they were; standing on the other side of the 3 inch thick class, they just zoomed by so quickly I can't follow them with a video camera. The dolphins also looked cooler, with the white stripes along their gray body.

Seeing the animals was a nice experience, but I also got the impression that the tank was not nearly large enough. Even though it is much bigger than regulation standards, the dolphins were still simply doing circles around the tank. There was occasional variations, like sinking deeper or doing a wider circle, but it was still laps around the pool. I feel sorry for the beluga whales, whose tank is really small. It's kind of boring too, being surrounded by walls and glass for 24 hours a day.

To help make the whales' and dolphins' lives better, our project is to make "toys" for them, so to speak. There is a lot of potential in toys which take advantage of their sense of echolocation, and it's strange that not many toys have been designed that way before. Ideally, it would be cool if the toys could allow the dolphins to interact with humans as well. There is a sense of this new device allowing people to really feel that dolphins are intelligent, that dolphins are sentient. I don't know how well this goal will be fulfilled, but for someone interested in the phenomenon of intelligence in general, it is fascinating to be learning so much about another intelligent species.

As I've said in one of my speeches, it's like working on a Facebook to connect dolphins and humans.