No wild animal has a greater place in human hearts than the dolphin, long entrenched in cultures across the globe: from ancient Greek legends of dolphin messengers sending a love match for the god Poseidon to the all-wise dolphins in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who warn humans of impending doom. But where does this special bond come from? Perhaps we’re attracted to their playful behaviour, their seemingly ever-smiling faces or maybe even the kinship of shared behaviours – unlike almost all other wild animals, dolphins build friendships, play games and are self-aware.
Found throughout the world’s oceans, bar the chilly polar regions, there are many different types of dolphin. Most widely known are bottlenose dolphins, made famous by TV’s Flipper and their subsequent role in dolphinariums around the world.
However, there are nearly 40 different species of dolphin in our seas and five that live in rivers. Most are dolphin-shaped – a long, sleek body with a fluked tail and a dorsal fin – but there’s huge variation beyond that: from the bubblegum pink Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins off the coasts of Australia and Southern Asia to the ochre-yellow flash on the flanks of common dolphins which can form superpods of thousands out on the open seas.
Human interest in dolphins, and in wider marine conservation, has never been higher – but unfortunately never has the level of threat that many species and populations of dolphins now face around the world. From underwater noise to pollution, industrial fishing to boat disturbance, now is the time to take turn our admiration into action – and ensure that dolphins don’t become a feature only in stories. Here a few small changes that we all, no matter where we live, can make to bring huge benefits to dolphins – and other marine life – in our own seas and beyond.
The cost of a tuna sandwich
Every year, the UK consumes over half a billion tins of tuna chunks – as a nation it is our second favourite fish after salmon. Tuna also ranks as the second most consumed fish in the USA. But don’t be fooled by the “dolphin friendly” declarations on the tin, the majority of tinned tuna comes with a hidden cost: the slow agonising deaths of seabirds, sharks, turtles… and dolphins. Huge industrial vessels deploy Fish Aggregation Devices or FADs to attract the tuna – and their predators – which are then caught with large encircling nets called purse seines. These indiscriminately catch everything in their path – including dolphins.
Tuna steaks don’t fare much better in their sustainability. Usually taken from yellow-fin tuna caught using longlines – a long central line, often tens of miles long with as many as 30,000 baited hooks along its length; alongside seabirds, sharks, turtles and sometimes dolphins which fall prey to this offer of an easy meal.
Fortunately, there’s a sustainable solution on the shelves of your local supermarket: ‘Pole and Line’ caught tuna – which does exactly what it says on the tin. Individual fishermen catch tuna with a pole and line, meaning no accidental bycatch of other species which are all thrown back if caught. Even better, this method provides jobs for local fisherman in developing countries all around the world.
Action: Choose Pole & Line caught (skipjack) tuna for a more sustainable sandwich!
Wise Wildlife Watching
There’s not a lot more magical that watching wild dolphins bow ride and leap, so close that you can hear the sharp exhale as they break the water’s surface. A memory that will last a lifetime – but what impact does this have on the dolphins themselves? Sadly, instances of overzealous skippers, keen to give their clients a close up and exclusive dolphin encounter, are reported all too often. Scientific studies have shown that such irresponsible boat behaviour can have long term detrimental impacts on dolphins’ social behaviour, feeding and even reproduction.
Most countries have voluntary accreditation schemes that train skippers in responsible conduct. These schemes, such as the WiSe Scheme in the UK and Dolphin SMART in the USA, encourage skippers to approach wild dolphins slowly and limit time spent with the animals to minimise any stress caused, ensuring the best experience for both dolphins and clients. Jet skis are also highly disturbing to both dolphins and porpoises, so avoid using these where possible.
Action: Choose an accredited whale watching operator or use a recommended responsible outfit on your green travels.
Dolphins in Captivity
Keeping dolphins in captivity is an increasingly controversial subject, garnering international attention, celebrity involvement and a number of high profile legal challenges. Dolphinariums have been illegal in the UK for decades but many attractions continue to keep captive dolphins across the rest of Europe, the US and across the world. There is no doubt that zoos and aquariums play a vital role on conservation – many influential biologists and conservationists were first inspired by a visit to them – but as we learn more about these sentient, socially complex and wide-ranging animals, the keeping of dolphins in tanks needs to be reassessed.
Action: Avoid attractions that keep dolphins in captivity
Become a Citizen Scientist!
Marine biologists are often faced with a lack of data when studying the underwater environment – it’s expensive and logistically difficult to survey such a large and poorly accessible area. But the study of dolphins has one thing on its side – you can spot dolphins from dry land! Alongside the data collected from dedicated surveys, land-based data is hugely valuable in helping scientists better understand how dolphins move around the sea.
This data can be collected by anyone, anywhere on the coast – just keep an eye on the waves and report what you see to any one of the sightings schemes that exist in your country. If you want to support the progress of science but don’t live near the sea, you can make a direct contribution to the funding of essential science and conservation work through targeted crowdfunding websites.
Action: Report any dolphin sightings or contribute to scientific research online
The sad reality is that dolphins (and other marine animals) sometime strand on our shores – either live or already deceased. Although upsetting, their bodies can at least provide vital information to scientists about a number of things that we just can’t learn anywhere else. We can look at why the animal died (is there disease or a boat collision?), we can age the animal (counting the layers in their teeth, like tree rings) or we can simply learn more about the anatomy of that species – especially if it’s one that doesn’t wash up very often. Only this year a brand new species of beaked whale washed up in Alaska – a species that no one knew even existed! Report UK Strandings to CSIP or if you are in the USA to one of a variety of institutions listed here.
If you find a live stranded animal, please report as quickly as possible to the rescue authority. In the UK this is BDMLR.
Although a sad event, stranded animals provide a unique opportunity for scientists to learn more about these animals. From genetic studies to examinations of parasites and disease, this information can all help towards the conservation and protection for dolphins worldwide. To learn about one such example of this research take a look at this population genetics study of Bottlenose dolphins in the Mediterranean.
Action: Report all strandings (live or dead) to the appropriate authority
The conservation of the world’s dolphins is a truly global, multi-faceted endeavour but it is also something that we can all work towards. If we all do our bit then hopefully “So long and thanks for all the fish” is a message that will never become more than a line of pleasantly entertaining fiction.