Ask a Scientist: Swimming with Solitary Dolphins - What you need to know

Have you heard of ‘Zafar’, the solitary and, apparently pretty horny, dolphin in France?

Quite recently, this single male bottlenose dolphin has become a serious safety issue for local swimmers, although he has been interacting with people in a friendly manner before…

Solitary dolphins are found all around the globe and while dolphins are pretty social creatures, they are coping with their fate of being an ‘outcast’ by seeking the company of people. And yes, people love it! Because honestly, when do you have the opportunity to swim with a wild dolphin that is showing interest in you, right? It’s a matter of fact that most people want to interact with dolphins and while encounters in the wild with dolphin pods are usually quite brief, solitary dolphins tend to hang around, which make them so attractive to swimmers. Unfortunately, this comes with a downside, which can be witnessed in France at the moment: A dolphin being a dolphin. Which means it behaves like a wild animal. What many don’t know (and probably don’t want to) is, that dolphins are highly sexual mammals. Just like primates, and of course us, dolphins are the only species that has sex because they enjoy it. In a dolphin pod during socialising, mating can often be witnessed. Year round! Male dolphins also do rape! Often even in groups.

So, when a solitary dolphin gets used to people, he or she becomes habituated. Researchers have found that dolphins at some stage treat people like conspecifics, which again can be witnessed now with Zafar and which puts people in danger.

In the past, solitary dolphins were found to drag people underwater or several hundreds of meters offshore and prevented that people can swim back to the beach. A female bottlenose dolphin called Pita directed problematic behaviour towards swimmers (pushing and bumping against swimmers’ bodies with rostrum and body, positioning herself between boat or dock when swimmers were about to exit water and forcefully pushing them away). She was also found to slap her fluke on water surface near swimmers and rubbing genitals against swimmers and boats (so sexual behaviours are NOT a male dolphin issue!).

However, people were not always respectful either. Some were chasing her, grabbing her pectoral and dorsal fin and touching sensitive body areas, with Pita becoming more aggressive during these encounters.

It may look like common sense, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to refrain from any physical contact with these individuals (and other wildlife as well!). Yes, dolphins are extremely touchy and receptive for it. But they better don’t change their mind! All documented aggressive acts shown by female sociable dolphin in the Red Sea followed physical contact or attempted contact by the swimmer. So it’s advised to keep your hands to yourself. All. The. Time.

The problem with sociable dolphins is really, that people have biased perceptions of dolphins in general which leads to the issue that they are not respected as wild animals. They are perceived as always friendly, always smiley, which is why I want to inform that in fact they are bastards! Bastard-coated bastards with bastard-filling! (Okay, I was able to sneak a Scrubs quote into my blog post – mission accomplished!).

I’ve written a commentary for our local newspaper when we had two solitary dolphins in the Baltic sea in 2017 and people were pilgrimaging to the bay to have look and to interact with them. In the article the researcher that got asked about them gave, in my opinion, unsatisfying responses. None of them were critical but rather encouraging, which is quite irresponsible.

People have certain expectations when they want to swim with dolphins. What they don’t expect is, that the animals will act like a sex offender. In the end it is just their nature and it’s our very own responsibility – don’t blame the animal for its instincts. Ask yourself: Would you try to run with a solitary wolf, too? No difference.

My advice? For your own safety, stay out of the water. If you really must swim with dolphins, book a tour with a responsible tour operator who will be able to take care of your personal health and safety during your encounter that will be more enjoyable for you.

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