Our Friend, the Bottlenose Dolphin
Author: Craig Hysell
In November, 2004, 47 year-old Rob Howes was in the ocean, overseeing a lifeguard training exercise a hundred meters off the New Zealand shoreline. The water was clear and the sun was out. For all intents and purposes, it was a beautiful day for a swim.
That all changed when Howes noticed a shadow cruise by him slowly in the water. A big shadow. He froze. The dread inched up his body with tingling sharpness. Howes, his teenage daughter and two other teenage girls were suddenly being stalked by a great white shark.
Howes fought the rising panic in his chest. The prospect of being eaten alive was only slightly less horrifying than watching helplessly as the same thing happened to his daughter. He had no radio and he hadn’t told the girls yet—if they began to panic the situation would only get worse. The shark circled again. It was ten feet long.
The shore was three football fields away and, what was worse, the swimmers were separating. They were now in pairs of two with about thirty feet of water between each other. The shark seemed to be picking which group it would be: a monster playing a twisted schoolyard match of eeny, meeny, miny, moe. But Howes and the shark weren’t the only ones in the game.
Like a cavalry riding to the rescue, a pod of bottlenose dolphins suddenly sped out of the depths and surrounded the lifeguards. The dolphins were noticeably agitated, slapping the water with their tails and making lots of clicking noises. They herded the swimmers into a tight group and, for the next forty minutes, kept the shark at bay. They only left once Howes and the girls reached the shore—once everyone was safe.
Three weeks later, Howes told the world his story. It took him that long to come to terms with what had happened.
The bottlenose dolphin is one of the most common and well-known dolphins in the world. These curious, intelligent and yes, even altruistic mammals permeate the shoreline, tidal creeks and salt water marshes that surround Hilton Head Island. They are abundant, fascinating and often magical to behold—even going so far as to, at times, act as healers. Michael Reveley, a research professor with the University of Leicester, searched for proof of one such instance.
In 2005, his team of scientists studied the effect of swimming with dolphins on 15 depressed people over two weeks in Honduras. They found that, “dolphins’ aesthetic value, and the emotions raised by the interaction may have healing properties,” going so far as to speculate that, “the ultrasound emitted by their echolocation system may have a beneficial effect.” (Dolphins use echolocation—a pulse of clicking sounds—to find their food. The echo gets louder as the food gets closer, and they can even form an echoic image of the object.) All 15 people showed marked improvement.
That doesn’t mean you should jump off your boat and into the next pod of dolphins that cruise by if you’re having a bad day. Actually, you get killed doing that.
Pods are typically made up of females and their young. By startling the group with such antics, people are mistakenly thought to be threatening the calves. The mothers merely feel the need to protect their young. A dolphin’s elongated lower and upper jaws form a solid snout called a rostrum. When they are working hard, dolphins can achieve swim speeds of over 20 miles per hour. A few people have died from the internal injuries pursuant to agitating a pod of dolphins and receiving what amounts to repeated 20 mph, head-butts from a group of 400-pound moms for their mistake.
Nevertheless, when treated properly, dolphins are playful, enjoyable and maybe even mystical. If you have ever shared a look with a dolphin you immediately know that they swim in intelligence as much as they do the sea. In Western Australia, for instance, female dolphins use “tools.” They attach marine sponges to their rostrum to protect it while they search the sandy bottoms. In Laguna, Brazil, pods of dolphins will drive fish toward fishermen waiting on the shore with their nets. A dolphin will roll over to signal the men to cast their nets, the dolphins then feed on the escaping fish. This process has been recorded since 1847.
Adult bottlenose dolphins range anywhere from six to 13 feet in length. And they can weigh as much as 1,400 pounds. Males are usually a bit longer and much heavier. They average eight feet and over 500 pounds. They also usually cruise alone or in groups of two or three. Females live about 40 years (10 years longer than the boys) and “mother” their calves for six years.
Complex social hierarchies have also been observed in pods, further demonstrating their high level of intelligence. Males compete aggressively for rank. Sex can be forceful as it can be used for pleasure and maintaining social order—humans, primates and dolphins (and maybe dogs) are the only mammals in the world known to use sex for something other than purely reproduction. Communication is made up of whistles, squeaks and body language. Bottlenose dolphins produce about 30 identifiable sounds from six air sacs near their blowhole, and each animal has a distinct, signature whistle. What is even more fascinating is that, perhaps, they speak a universal language as well.
In March of 2008, two pygmy sperm whales became stranded on Mahia Beach in New Zealand. Rescuers could not get the female and her calf back into the water. As the whales were about to be euthanized, Moko, a bottlenose dolphin who frequented the area, swam up. Rescuers noted that Moko “seemed to communicate with the whales” and then led them 200 meters along a sandbar to the open sea. But why would Moko do that? Perhaps we should ask why not.
Even when it’s bad out there for us—for instance, when there’s a war, the economy is lagging, gas prices are soaring and Britney Spears is still “big news”—human’s still can be seen helping one another merely for the sake of helping. But altruism isn’t necessarily a human trait as much as it is a trait of intelligence. Dolphins, primates, even dogs oftentimes carry a moral sense. So what else do we share with bottlenose dolphins?
Dolphins also have an internal body temperature of 98 degrees; pregnancies (which take 12 months instead of 9… imagine that ladies) are sometimes assisted by a mid-wife; mothers raise their calves, teaching them what they need to know to survive; and dolphins also need air. They can hold their breath for about 20 minutes and, in what takes approximately .3 seconds, can exchange 80 percent or more of their lung air with each breath. (Humans average an exchange of 17 percent with each breath.)
It’s hard to measure why most humans take such a liking to dolphins. It could be because we share certain traits; it could be that dolphins are usually curious and often playful; it could be that, behind those big, intelligent eyes rounding their way through the sea, we can be reminded of who we should be as people by an animal that doesn’t share this land, but shares our world.
Or it could be more subversive and, for a moment, we can be reminded how beautiful and fragile life can be.
In 1955, in the town of Opononi, New Zealand, a bottlenose dolphin seemed to befriend the people of Hokianga Harbor. Opo would perform stunts for the locals in exchange for food and loved to swim with the children. In 1956 she was accidentally killed by fishermen mining the area with explosives. She was buried with full Maori honors and a statue of her was raised in her honor.
Of all the shared experiences we have with intelligent life, only humans are known to abjectly destroy what they love.
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