Ask a Scientist: Dolphins will be Dolphins, right?

Swimming with dolphins is incredibly popular and part of many people’s bucket lists. When it comes to ‘life goals’ this activity is pretty likely to get mentioned. Being provided with animals in human care as well as in the wild, today it is easier than ever to get this wish fulfilled which constitutes a million-dollar industry. If you could fulfil one of your ultimate dreams in life for a couple of hundred dollars only, you’d go for it, right? However, swimming with dolphins is a pretty broad term. Again, it highly depends whether you plan to do this in a controlled environment in a well-run facility or in the open ocean. And in fact, it also depends on the dolphin species you want to encounter.

Hang on. It’s just a dolphin…dolphins will be dolphins, right? Not really, as there are significant differences among species. Most people probably think of the common bottlenose dolphin, as it’s well-known by most people due to TV shows like ‘Flipper’ and its wide distribution in dolphinaria. But in general, there are at least 28 dolphin species involved in in-water interactions worldwide. So it’s quite likely you’re not encountering bottlenose dolphins when you’re planning your dolphin experience, at least when it comes to the wild. It also could be, but not limited to spinner, common, dusky, Amazon river, rough-toothed, Hector’s or Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. Plus, larger individuals such as beluga, pilot, false killer and killer whales. And why exactly is it important to consider the dolphin species beforehand?

Well, there are significant differences in interaction times with humans and how responsive these species are to human presence. Ideally, you don’t just want to see the tip of a fin from afar but wanting to gain a closer look instead. At this stage I have to tell you, that prolonged interactions like the ones you find on Instagram and Co. are incredibly rare, no matter which species you’re targeting. Most of the time, the animals are minding their own business. Which is not you. Sorry.

While bottlenose and dusky dolphins are known to be quite engaging with people, species such as common and spinner dolphins are less suitable for these types of interactions. Common dolphins just don’t seem to enjoy the presence of people most of the time and are generally shyer when they detect humans in their habitat. While this is not the case with spinner dolphins, a species highly popular for swimming programmes, they aren’t suitable either. Why?

The spinner dolphin has a diurnal lifestyle, which means that these animals are travelling offshore over night time to feed and then seek secluded coastal bays in the morning to rest. This is usually when the dolphin watchers arrive, well-rested from their night sleep in their resorts and ready to get their dolphin dream fulfilled. They come with up to 40 boats at once (as seen in Mauritius), often chasing a small group of dolphins, that got disrupted in their sleep. Usually, the dolphins provide you with behavioural clues how they feel about your presence and it’s important to take these into consideration before entering the water. If you witness any prolonged dives, abrupt changes in direction, tail slaps and dolphins popping their heads out of the water it is the sign for you to back off, because the animals are highly stressed! They don’t want you to be close! Approaching them anyway is not only a question of ignoring animal welfare, but it is also unlikely you’ll have an enjoyable encounter.

Yes, dolphins are pretty fast and yes, if they don’t want to interact, they can always swim away. But this always means effort and spending energy, which they need for raising their young as well as for their own survival. Of course, this also applies to all other species, but with spinner dolphins it’s most severe. And me personally I don’t think that these animals should be targeted for large-scale swim-with programmes due to the reasons I’ve just mentioned. But unfortunately, spinner dolphins are pretty accessible due to their coastal habitats located in highly frequented, tropical tourism destinations. However, just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. In the end it is your choice whether you want to contribute to this.

The operations with the Duskies in Kaikoura have a distinctive advantage, which is the sheer size of the population. In a group of 800 individuals, there will always be animals who are keen to interact with people. And those who don’t want to, can blend in with the pod feeling safe. Same as most humans (except for me, because I’m an introvert) dolphins feel safer in crowds, aka their pods. The larger, the better. Juveniles might be more interactive than adults, as the exploration of novel objects is part of their development. Smaller dolphin species, such as Hector’s dolphins, were found to be more cautious than larger ones. However, I came across extremely cautious killer whales, a species that shouldn’t be cautious about anything because they are top predators. But apparently skinny girls freak them out…which is fair enough. I sometimes do think the same. Here I have to mention that this is all not universal as every population in a given location is totally different. Niuean spinner dolphins apparently are super relaxed around people and somewhere some bottlenose dolphins might not be too keen about people close to them. It all depends on different factors.

So as you can see, there is a bit of science behind this #mustdo and a few things you should think of beforehand. It is worthwhile to inform yourself about the code of conduct of a tour operator (e.g.  when swims are operated when calves are present, you should look for another one…) as well as the species targeted. It is also important to note at this stage, that encountering wildlife in its natural habitat always has an impact and always is disruptive. The only question is how significant these impacts are. The unpopular truth is, that these encounters are incredibly selfish. It’s us who’ll get the benefits, may it be enjoyment, fulfilment or spiritual enlightening. Or the likes on Facebook, Insta and Co.

What’s in for the animals? Maybe even less than we think.

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