photo: The Whale and Dolphin People Project

Dolphins are cute. Whales are appealing. Together, the two are irresistible.

This picture showed up on the Facebook page for The Whale and Dolphin People Project, an unconventional group that aims to be “a game-changer campaign to stop the killing of whales & dolphins by changing their status from animal to people.”

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The caption beneath the picture explains what may be going on:

It was taken by Lori Mazzuca in Hawaii. She said that the dolphin and humpback whale were playing gently together. The game seemed to be about how long the dolphin could stay atop the whale’s head while the whale swam. When the dolphin finally slipped off it joined another dolphin and they began to leap with joy.

Slightly suspicious of Photoshopping, I asked around among some whale and dolphin experts. Without a video, it’s impossible to know what these two animals were thinking, the scientists said.

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But the picture is real enough to be believable.

“Both dolphins and humpback whales can be extremely playful with each other and other species,” said Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist and dolphin researcher at Hunter College in New York. “It is very possible that this is play, but without seeing it first hand I really don’t know.”

“Based on the description, I believe play would be the best explanation,” agreed Ken Ramirez, vice president of animal care and training at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. “If this were a video, there would be far more information to allow for better interpretation. But it is believed that the “surfing” or bow riding that dolphins exhibit in front of boats may have had its genesis in riding in front or in the wake of big whales.”

“What we may be seeing here is that type of surfing, but in this case the whale chose to give the dolphin a different type of ride.”