The seductive charms
of dolphins can leave burly men teary-eyed or make a hardened
cynic wonder at nature. Mysterious, playful, self-contained
and sociable, how do you interpret these graceful but elusive
masters of the sea?
Kate Duryea discovers the body language of
dolphins and what it means.
Ancient writers described the sirens of the sea, who proved an irresistable lure to land-hungry mariners. In modern times, dolphins command this same fascination.
New Age followers ascribe dolphins with near-magical intuitive powers, experienced yachtsmen stand in awe at their easy command of the current and even aloof sophisticates exclaim in excitement if a pod is spotted from the shore.
Guy Bedford, Sea World’s Head Marine Mammal Trainer, has worked with dolphins for more than 20 years. He’s had two seasons in sub-Antarctica, a season in Antarctica and closely observed marine creatures while working in the United States, Japan and China.
“I like working with marine animals,” explains Guy who is a keen surfer himself.
“Dolphins are animated, gregarious, amiable animals. They are strong and fast, they jump high and swim fast and they are athletic. I love to bring these natural characteristics under control and demonstrate them to the public.”
Guy has had more than a decade’s experience working closely with dolphins at Sea World. He’s a strong advocate of ensuring dolphins are stimulated by their surrounds. He likens them to a child’s frustrations if they are forced to sit still for a long time.
“It’s important for them to expend energy, otherwise they’re like kids stuck inside the house all day during rain.”
Guy says dolphins have distinctive personalities. “They’re constantly testing the boundaries in a captive environment,” he laughs. “They try it on all the time – they see if they can get away with a little less effort.”
While animal behaviourists are divided over the ‘intelligence’ of dolphins with some claiming they have the thought processes of a five-year-old, Guy likens them to excitable kids.
If they go quiet it normally means they’re unhappy. If they are active and vocalising, then all is well with the world.
So how do you interpret the body turning, the tail slapping and acrobatic behaviour of dolphins? Is it simply frolicking or are there sophisticated communication patterns going on? “When they’re happy they make chirping whistles and sometimes clicks,” notes Guy. “Jaw popping – shutting the jaw quickly – shows frustration or aggression with other animals.”
And when they’re really annoyed – you’ll hear a sound like an intense ‘raspberry’ – it’s rude but there’s no chance you won’t know they are very angry. Normally it’s directed at another animal.
Looking down at dolphins from a boat, if you see them exhaling bubbles around a metre below the surface then back off – this is exhibiting frustration at your proximity. The dolphin can also be frustrated at itself for missing a fish.
View a dolphin slapping or ‘lobbing’ its tail in succession and this is an attention-grabbing exercise. If the slaps are soft and gentle, the dolphin may be alerting other dolphins or trying to gain their attention. A single explosive slap – or a succession of much firmer slaps is a definite warning sign.
Guy and his team discovered a beautiful behaviour, which they have since been able to confirm happens naturally in the wild. “We used to see animals with a lighter patch of pigmentation on their flippers,” he explained.
For years, they thought this must be some byproduct of captivity.
However, eight years ago when out at sea, Guy noticed wild dolphins with the same markings. After hours of observation, he finally worked out the solution. Often two male dolphins will form close friendships – not sexual but rather companionable alliances throughout their lives, which may be a type of protection or sociability.
“They swim very close together with their flippers rubbing together – almost a type of a hand holding,” explains Guy. “The white patch on their flippers shows a high degree of social bonding and a very well adjusted animal.”
There are around eight species of dolphins found in Australian waters with both inshore and offshore species such as Bottlenose, Common Dolphins, Spotted and Spinner Dophins. While their average life expectancy is around 25 years, just like humans, some animals can die early and others live to 50.
“We’ve got animals at Sea World that are over 40 years old,” explains Guy.
Forget high-minded attributes of love ever- lasting. Dolphins are promiscuous – and next time you see a solo dolphin rubbing up against a buoy or moored boat you may find you’re interrupting an, er, private moment.
“They’re very sensual, tactile animals. There are suggestions that when they bowride a boat they are enjoying the sensation of being driven along and tickled – that’s why they can swim upside down on stern waves.”
Guy says some behaviourists also believe bowriding is associated with a dolphin’s competitive streak.
“They are very easily excited and are very competitive. They race to see who is strongest, who is fastest, who can jump higher and they like to race the boat.”
As mammals, dolphins give live births and nurse young for at least two years. Females mature sexually at six to nine years, males at 10 to 12 years.
While the females tend to have a long association with their mothers, the males are kicked out of the pods in adolescence (around four years) and hang around with their other mates – and they say humans aren’t close to dolphins!
Their sensory capacities far outweigh humans – dolphins can ‘out see’ and ‘out hear’ humans with some estimates that dolphins have 30 times better hearing than humans. And like many marine creatures, they have a sophisticated method of echo location underwater for orientation.
Anyone who has spent time on a boat will know a dolphin’s superb swimming expertise. An adult can reach speeds of 33 knots (60kph) for an extended period of time. The deepest they’ve been trained to dive is 1500 metres below the sea surface.
“An average dolphin breathes once every 20 seconds, if they are chased they will breathe more regularly. However, they would definitely need to come up for air after 10 to 12 minutes, even if they were hiding from danger.”
With skin the consistency of a peeled, hard-boiled egg, dolphins scratch easily. And that shy, playful look that they appear to cast at a human with a tilt of the head – a dolphin’s peripheral vision simply means it must tip its head to view you from the water.
Guy dismisses some of the more fanciful attributes humans link to dolphins, but he does concede there have been recorded cases where dolphins have assisted humans back to land. “They have very strong maternal instincts in relation to the protection of the group,” he said.
Ensure that your interactions with dolphins do not harm these superb marine creatures. Boat owners must abide by current dolphin and whale watching regulations. Here are some pointers:
• Boat skippers are obliged by law to not approach within 100m of a whale or dolphin or within 300m if three or more other vessels are within 300m of the mammal.
• Boat skippers must not approach a whale or dolphin head on, nor herd or chase or prevent their free movement in the water.
• A boat owner must not separate a group of whales or dolphins or come between a mother a calf.
• Swimmers and divers cannot approach within 300m.
• Don’t feed or throw rubbish into the water or make a noise likely to disrupt or attract the mammals.
• Aircraft must stay above 300m and helicopters cannot be used for whale or dolphin spotting.
Some of the leaping behaviour is simply a type of scouting exercise, they leap out of the water to view further afield over the water. Naturally, the mammals also swim in synchronisation. Pods can range from a couple of dolphins up to 1000 – and they will generally break into groups of five or six to swim in synchronisation.
Scientists believe dolphins naturally will break for air in the back of a swell, then dive under the oncoming wave. That’s why you can see the magical symmetry of their movements at sea.
Guy says there is no immediate danger to dolphin numbers in Australia – though they are still hunted in some parts of the world.
Dolphins can be found in both brackish and clear water – some species such as the Irrawaddy Estaurine dolphin actually prefers brackish water to hunt for schooling or bottom-dwelling fish.
“I think a lack of dolphins in a waterway would not be a good sign,” Guy notes.
Guy admits that he has his favourites in the Sea World population of 29 dolphins and 32 sea lions. Some are shy, some are cheeky and some show some spunk.
“But we have to treat them all the same or one would feel neglected.”
Sea World has introduced a Day Interactive Program – a full day program to give participants a close and personal understanding of dolphins. For details contact the Gold Coast theme park on: www.seaworld.com.au