Dolphins evolved from a land-based animal around 50 million years ago (Greek name for ‘fish with a womb’). Intelligent and playful, there are 38 species of dolphins globally, with 7 species seen around our coasts. They have eyesight 10 times better than us, but they can’t smell. Their threats are pollution, fishing waste and hunting.
There are quite a few places where you may see dolphins. However like all of the bigger marine creatures, you are more likely to see them circling the coasts in Scotland and Wales, than England (though they are pretty common in Northumberland and Southwest England). Bottlenose dolphins are the most common, as their thick blubber can insulate them well, although Risso’s dolphins (often with scars from playing and fighting) are also common. You may also see white-beaked and Atlantic white-sided dolphins, which come up more frequently for air, and striped dolphins, who like to leap out of the water. Harbour porpoises (they have triangular fins) are common in Scotland and North Wales.
The most common species is the bottlenose dolphin, which lives worldwide, porpoises are similar but with slight differences in body shape, face and fin. They eat fish, squid and crustaceans and swallow their food, using one stomach to store food and the other for digestion. Porpoises are found in mostly harbour areas and have super hearing to echo-locate their food. They are less social than dolphins.
Highly intelligent, dolphins have excellent memories and have hearing so good, that even when blind, they can still live fulfilling lives, in the pod. They spend most of their day swimming, coming up for air every 15 minutes or so, and sort of stay in a ‘semi-awake’ state most of the time, closing down one part of their brain, so the other can look out for predators. Dolphins can live for up to 50 years in the wild, and live in pods that look after each other when sick, and communicate through a flurry of different clicking and whistling sounds – they even have names for each other. Highly social, sometimes you may get up to 1000 dolphins in one pod, and apart from humans, sharks their only enemies.
The main risk to dolphins is from a few countries that hunt them for food (Japan, Peru, the Faroe Islands and Soloman Islands). In fact, many other countries do better than us and the US, having declared dolphins ‘non-human persons’, do not allow them to to live miserable lives in aquariums.
- If you eat fish, eat sustainable seafood to avoid by-catch (creatures caught up in nets – this kills hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other creatures every year). Operation Dolphin Bycatch is a campaign to highlight the killing of 6000 dolphins yearly on France’s west coast by industrial trawlers and fishing vessels (more than the combined massacres by hunters on the Faroe Islands and Japan’s Taiji Cove). Dolphins are very friendly and tend to travel alongside the boats, then die in the nets or get wounds inflicted on them.
- Responsible Travel has info on how to responsibly watch dolphins. Because dolphins are so friendly, it’s important to only watch dolphins without touching, cuddling or kissing them. Boat skippers should not practice ‘leapfrogging’ where boats speed up to overtake dolphins, so they catch up. This involves revving engines, not supported dolphin welfare experts.
If you find an injured dolphin or porpoise:
- Support the animal in an upright position, dig trenches under the pectoral fins
- Cover with wet sheets, towels (or seaweed) and douse with water.
- Do NOT cover (or let water in) the blowhole. This is like our nostrils.
- Take ID features to give injury details, and count breaths from the blowhole, and keep away from the tail, which could injure. Also note where the creature is (sand, shade, sun) and the weather.
- Do NOT release the animal back, until the rescue team has arrived. You can support a smaller dolphin/porpoise in water, but keep the blowhole above water at all times (use a tarpaulin, don’t drag or lift by the fins or tail).
If you take your children to Florida, boycott commercial orca & dolphin venues like SeaWorld. It may look fun to a child, but the truth is quite heart-breaking. There are still around 3000 dolphins in ‘marine zoos’ worldwide, so never visit to support this industry, purely done for profit. The tiny tanks at Seaworld are very traumatic for dolphins (often captured from the wild where they swim up to 40 miles a day). Dolphins navigate using echolocation, and in a pool the reverberations from their sonar, bounce off the walls, causing great distress.
World Animal Protection says we should never pay to swim with dolphins. This sounds lovely – an autistic child gets peace by swimming with these beautiful beings. But the reality is very different. Dolphins cannot move their facial muscles, so always appear to be smiling, even when they are upset or depressed. Just like orcas, they often get sunburn on their backs, as the water is too shallow, especially in hot countries like Florida. For people to suggest that children should swim with dolphins is not even safe: they are wild creatures and quite able to harm a child, just like a lion. They kill sharks in the wild, so why would you put your child in a lagoon to swim with one? The chemicals used to keep their skin safe for humans can harm them, even causing blindness.
Dolphins that can no longer live in the wild can live in big ‘sea pens’, which at least gives them the space and company of other dolphins. Wild dolphins also are able to eat live fish (they are fed dead fish in aquariums), often training for 12 hours without a break. Many dolphins have died early at SeaWorld and one was so stressed, it bit a little girl.
Dolphin Rescue is the true story of Tom and Misha, when they were caught from the wild in the Aegean Sea, at just 6 years old. After living for 5 years in a small dolphinarium on the Mediterranean Coast, they were taken to live in a small crumbling pool in Southern Turkey. Born Free decided to rescue them, and had to teach them how to avoid sharks and catch fish. After 2 years of careful preparation, the gate to their sea pen was opened, and the two dolphins swam to freedom. When done properly, it shows it can be done.
Rescues like this are always done with marine biologists and experts. In this case, the rehab took 20 months to ensure the dolphins were fit and healthy, had good echolocation and were trained in lost fishing skills. Satellite tags showed that within 6 hours of freedom, they were eating wild fish and swimming with another dolphin. Misha was spotted 2 years after his release. One thing to be proud of is that the UK does not have any ‘show dolphins’ due to campaigns. However, we still have oceanariums where dolphins live in tiny tanks, compared to wild habitats.
In New Zealand, four swimmers were enjoying the ocean, when some dolphins appeared out of nowhere. They began to ‘herd’ the swimmers in tight circles. They did not know why, until they suddenly spotted a 10ft great white shark heading towards them. Realising the dolphins were trying to protect them, the dolphins kept vigil for 40 minutes until the shark lost interest, so they could swim back to shore. One lifeguard observed that the dolphins were ‘slapping their tails’ on the water, to keep the humans in place.
In LA, a group of bottlenose dolphins were feeding in a circle near the shore. Being watched by marine biologist Maddalena Bearzi, one of the dolphins suddenly changed direction, and started swimming out to deeper waters. One minute later, all the others followed. Experience told them that this was very unusual, as they would never suddenly leave their usual foraging ground. The dolphins increased their speed, so the researchers safely followed behind in their boat, until 3 miles offshore, the group stopped, to form a ring around a ‘dark object’. It was a fully clothed hypothermic girl of around 18, who did not understand English. At the ER, it came about that she was a German who had left a suicide note. The dolphins had realised from 3 miles away, and swam to save her life.