To be honest with you all (I am pretending that many people read this blog), I never really liked dolphins until a couple of years back. Growing up I always saw them as a species that was hogging all the love and grant money that should have been dispersed amongst a wealth of other marine species. As I became more involved in ethical tourism however, I learnt more and more about dolphins because of their involvement in marine parks and I came to realise the reason for their adoration. Firstly it is important to mention that dolphins are so intelligent that in India, they are regarded as non-human persons. They have self awareness, meaning they can recognise themselves in mirrors as well as having a complex language that contains specific name calls for each individual in the pod. That’s right folks, dolphins have named each other just as we have.
Dolphins are not built for a life in captivity for many reasons, the first being that to get into a captive lifestyle they first have to be herded into a small cove and become captured whilst the rest of their pod is mass slaughtered in front of them, hence the name for the alert “The red cove.” If you want to know more about this trade or the dolphin meat trade, I urge you to watch the documentary “The cove” or to know more about other cetaceans in captivity, I’d also recommend watching “Blackfish.” A small disclaimer though, you will feel very depressed after watching both of these movies. Orcas, or Killer Whales as they are otherwise known, are actually more closely related to dolphins than to whales and have half of their brain solely designated to emotions which is significantly larger than the designated emotion-producing space for humans. This makes it all the more depressing when a mother and her calf are separated for capture and the mothers are left to send long ranging calls through a small pool to try and locate their lost baby. One thing I didn’t know until watching these documentaries is that every breath a dolphin takes is on purpose and very controlled as they are air breathing mammals who live in the water. If a dolphin is unhappy in a captive environment and has had enough, they can end their life with one final breath then and there.
Dolphins have fission-fusion social groups which means that they are always popping in and out of pods which is great for mixing genes amongst populations but is impossible to uphold when you live with two other dolphins in a swimming pool. Dolphins have been also known to gang-rape, play with their food and have sex for fun which I guess comes from their increased intelligence as these behaviours are not too far fetched from our own. For this reason, I never understood why they are considered to be a spiritual icon, as with any species, there are good dolphins and evil ones, the sunset diving ones and the gang rapists, and I think it is unfair to use both examples as a calming and spiritual omen. Their intelligence also brings about amazing hunting techniques such as herding fish and using sonar to locate prey in murky waters. Most dolphins have their neck fused to their spine so they cannot swim in tight circles and be at risk to breaking their necks, however an Amazonian river species of dolphin has the disconnect needed to curve around mangrove roots and hunt for fish in more complex environments.
I remember vividly a time when I was in year 7 and my mum was doing some surveys for her university project on a local dolphin charter boat. She offered to take me swimming with the dolphins instead of going to school one day, and to accompany her on the charter boat as she conducted her research. As it was also my birthday, I relished the opportunity to take the day off of school even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of dolphins at the time. The set up was very friendly to the local pods as the boat drove along the same stretch of ocean each day and it was the dolphin’s choice if they wanted to swim around us or not. There were four or so ropes tied to the back of the boat which we held on to as the boat pulled us along, with no contact allowed between ourselves and the dolphins unless they decided to touch the swimmers. As I looked down to the green/blue ocean dispersed with long, smooth grey mammals swimming below me I felt humbled in their presence. One swam so close to me it grazed up against my wetsuit and I felt like I was accepted in their company, with their presence being not at all threatening as I so previously thought they would be.
Seeing dolphins has been relatively easy for me since then, as I often spot them whilst walking along the beach, cruising on boats or walking along jetties and each time, I love watching them play and show new and fascinating behaviours. I think that there is a reason why there are so many marine biologists who focus on dolphins and that there is so much more to learn about them, however I do still believe that other species should be allocated some of the dolphin funds as well. I think that dolphins for me have been the spiders or snakes for other people, the un-liked creature that turns out to be fascinating the more you discover about them, and I am glad that I opened myself up to learning and discovering how dolphins are unique and important within their ecosystems. I hope to one day be able to see the pink dolphins of the amazon and other cetaceans such as the Narwhal or Orcas in the Arctic oceans, but until now I am happy to be surrounded by the simple old Bottlenoses on my walks through coastal South Australia.