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Irish Dolphins - Interactions between dolphins and people.  Including Fungie the Dingle Dolphin
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Is Dusty Dangerous?

Swimming with friendly dolphins is dangerous, according to press reports. In this article, we try to separate fact from fantasy.

There is something strange about the reporting of human-dolphin interactions in the Irish media. Whereas elsewhere in the world there is a tendency to a naïve exaggeration of the supposed healing power of dolphins or a ‘Flipper’-type characterisation of their jolly behaviour, here in Ireland our media seem to focus exclusively on doom and gloom. Reporters seem to make a bit of an exception for the Dingle dolphin and they generally work in a mention of the cute Kerrymen who are supposedly making a mint out of his presence. Any other solo dolphin, though, is fair game. The Clare dolphin, Dusty, in particular, has been slandered right from the start and associated with ‘danger’ in almost every news report in which she has featured. We don’t know why this should be the case, but she can’t speak for herself, so here are the facts as we see them!

The various dangers which have been imputed to swimming with dolphins by spokesmen for organisations including Clare County Council and Dúchas fall into several distinct categories, although they have often been muddled up in newspaper reports, and no doubt in people’s minds as a result. They are

Let's consider these in turn.

(1) indirect danger to human personal safety due to swimming in the sea

Swimming from the slip at DerreenSwimming in the sea, like any other outdoor pastime, has its risks as well as its rewards. The risks are closely linked to the weather condtions. Most people who drown or get into trouble in Irish waters do so in rough weather, without adequate protective clothing and some distance off shore. So far we have not seen any ‘off-shore’ dolphin swimming in Ireland and I doubt we ever will. At Derreen near Fanore people are swimming between 2m and 20m from the shore, and most of them are wearing wet-suits, even in summer. There are usually dozens of other people there to help if need be. The most potentially dangerous bit is getting in and out of the water when there are strong waves, and we would certainly urge caution in this respect. There are days when it’s very tricky getting in off the rocks and others when it would be foolish to try at all. However, the same applies to any other location along the Irish west coast, and we don’t want to live in a nanny state which denies us any outdoor pleasures beacuse 100% safety cannot be guaranteed at all times. Signs such as those put up at Derreen in 2001 saying dangerous it was to swim there, which were there even on the calmest and sunniest days (which is when most people swim, of course) merely bring officialdom into ridicule and are themselves a dangerous form of crying wolf. A red warning flag flying only on days on which the local lifeguards genuinely believe there is a particular hazard to swimmers would be more effective. A lifeguard actually on site would of course be no harm, but people have to take responsibility for their own lives at some point.

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(2) direct danger to human personal safety as a result of the dolphin’s behaviour

Another killer dolphin strikesThis is the one which gets all the press attention and yet it is least supported by the evidence. Only one dolphin anywhere in the world, ever, has been known to attack and kill a human being, and that was after long and repeated provocation. True, on many occasions solo bottlenose dolphins have banged into and injured people who have gone out to swim with them. Even Fungie, who everybody thinks has a grade AA safety rating, has given a few bruises and even broken bones in his time. Dolphins are big and strong and if you encourage them to play rough with you it is at your own risk. You are in their territory and you are meeting them on their terms – which is precisely what is so good about it! The implication that dolphins are by nature aggressive and are likely to set out to injure you, which appears again and again in press reports, is however one without any foundation and which we reject.

Irish Times: Saturday, August 11, 2001
Swimmers urged to stay away from dolphin
The wild female bottlenose dolphin off the coast of north Clare will seriously injure anybody who swims with it, according to Clare County Council's water safety development officer, Mr Liam Griffin.
Click here for the full article

Dusty has been known to poke and prod people with her beak and on a few occasions people have been hit by her tail fluke, although this may not always have been deliberate. She has also closed her mouth on people’s fins, arms and legs, and on a few occasions has even used her beak to hold people underwater. Some people have panicked, but most have remained calm and still until she released them after a few seconds.
Dony (q.v.) did this kind of thing much more often. Other solo dolphins have done similar things in other places.

On two occasions that we know of, one each in 2003 and 2004, swimmers have apparently received cracked ribs after Dusty poked them vigorously with her beak, and on a number of others people have gone away with painful bruises. On a third occasion in September 2005, a swimmer reportedly received unspecified internal injuries after being poked by Dusty. Distressing as these rare incidents are for the victims, they should be set in context. If Dusty or any other bottlenose dolphin really wanted to injure us badly, they could easily do so and it would be more than a bruise we would be getting. Anyone who has seen film of the Moray Firth dolphins beating up harbour porpoises will also be aware that we humans, by comparison with porpoises, are as agile in the sea and as well able to defend ourselves as a slug on a carpet. If a dolphin were to really attack you and mean it, you would simply not survive, and there is basically nothing you can do about it, because we are just too slow and too weak in the water. We therefore believe that any injuries received by people in interactions with solo dolphins are either unintentional on the part of the dolphins, in that they may not realise their own strength or our feebleness in relation to them, or they are intended to discipline us or tell us off. Given the incredible precision and control which the dolphins are able to exert in their movements around us in the water, and knowing also that some people's behaviour around Dusty has not been so respectful or sensitive as one might wish, we lean mostly towards the latter explanation.

If Dusty or any other dolphin interacts with you physically in a way which you don’t like, we suggest you remain calm and swim slowly towards the shore as soon as you are able. If she moves to block you or to push you out to sea, persist. You can push her away or swim around her. You can also call someone else over to distract her.

But of course it would be best to avoid arousing her anger in the first place. We don’t know the full story of why Dusty snaps at, pokes or bangs into some people at some times, but we do have some clues. We’ve certainly seen her do this with people who have been very pushy, grabbing her fins for example, or intruding when she has been enjoying a quiet interaction with a favoured playmate, but also with apparently ‘innocent’ swimmers including children.

The key has to be found in close observation of what happens before the ‘sudden’ change of mood, which only appears sudden because we have not been reading the cues. One scenario we have arrived at only with hindsight and after several similar occurences is that Dusty can be jealous of certain favoured swimmers and can object if they are replaced by others she doesn’t know, who she then chases out of the water. Every time we’ve seen this with our own eyes, it has been girlfriends of male swimmers she has picked on – this may be coincidence, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in human terms, Dusty can be a jealous mistress! The 'pushing out to sea' also usually occurs when a last or favourite playmate is heading for shore, and it seems common sense to interpret this as an expression of the dolphin’s desire to continue the interaction rather than as an aggressive action per se.

More recently, regular Dusty swimmers have concluded that many 'aggressive' moves by the dolphin can be linked to a battle for possession of what she sees as ‘toys’, although to us they might be useful diving masks or expensive cameras. Right from the first years she has been in the habit of carrying off such objects, including also boogie boards and fins, whenever she gets the chance. Often she will bring them back, but by no means always. Face masks have become a favourite recently and if she grabs your mask with her teeth or bangs on it, it means she wants you to take it off and give it to her! (Dony was also known to demand the removal of both face masks and fins, though he didn’t then swim off with them). Maybe there is something disturbing about these accessories from a dolphin’s point of view, or maybe they just want to play with them. In any case we advise that if Dusty wants something, and you’re in water out of your depth, you give it to her, unless you are prepared to argue with 250kg of solid muscle. Regulars have found that if Dusty holds them underwater, they only have to let go of whatever they are carrying and she will release them. The obvious answer is not to carry in any toys or accessories that you’re not prepared to give away. Think of it as the price of admission to Dusty's world!
(Footnote (2007). This behaviour has not been reported in the last two years.)

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(3) direct danger to the dolphin as a result of human behaviour
Frankly, ee would be more worried about danger to the dolphin than to the people. Humans are hardly an endangered species, after all. However even here there seems to be little real cause for concern. There is no evidence that wild dolphins catch human diseases or that infectious diseases are easily transferred in the marine situation. In a chlorinated dolphinarium, with an animal fed on frozen fish and antibiotics and its immune system hopelessly compromised, it may well be that there is a danger of infection during the constant handling by trainers. Normally speaking the situation in the ocean is different. However it makes sense from our own point of view, never mind the dolphin’s, not to go swimming when we are sick.

The two ‘new’ dolphins we have been swimming with in Ireland since 2000 have both allowed and indeed encouraged exceptional levels of physical contact with humans and it may be that they tolerate more than is good for them. However, the risks of picking up human diseases or of being injured in some way by people wielding sharp jewellery or whatever are certainly minor compared with the damage they could get from other sources such as nets and boat propellers, and all friendly dolphins bear the marks of their encounters with these very real and ever-present dangers. Our feeling is that we have to trust the dolphins to handle the situation thay have chosen as best they can. If they strand themselves or get caught in fishing gear, as several friendly dolphins have done in other places, we will of course do our best to rescue them. But we also respect that they have chosen to interact with us and we do not want to stop people swimming with them for their own supposed safety. We feel that attention would be better directed to the more obvious hazards mentioned above. The miles of abandoned gill nets floating around in Irish waters, the dumping of sewage and other waste into the sea, the seismic drilling for oil exploration currently going on in the Celtic Sea, the general over-fishing of our coastal waters… all these are more serious threats to dolphins than a few people swimming off the shore, and more worthy of attention by our journalists.

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(4) indirect danger to the dolphin as a result of habituation to human beings
This is quite a serious point, though it is added as a footnote to only a few articles. The general belief amongst biologists and conservationists is that it is best not to ‘tame’ wild animals or to interfere with them in any way which might disrupt their normal patterns of behaviour, and we would concur with this. Except that we quite like to have blue-tits in our garden nest boxes and on our bird tables…. and even scientists can be tempted to put out food for foxes or badgers to encourage them to visit their gardens! With the Irish dolphins there is no point in trying to feed them as they are better able to catch their own fish, and in any case they come to us without the need for such inducements, so the question really is, are we are changing their patterns of social behaviour. i.e their ability to function properly as members of dolphin society?

That’s a tricky one to answer, as we know almost nothing about 'normal' dolphin society. What few studies have been done on wild bottlenose dolphin society have concentrated on animals in the Florida Keys, off Texas, off the Bahamas and in Shark Bay, Western Australia, and these may all soon be reclassified as separate species from our own North Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. The general belief at present, based on these tropical water dolphins, is that bottlenose dolphins belong to a ‘fission-fusion’ society in which individuals form more or less loose coalitions or associations with other dolphins within the population at large, only to break up and reform at time intervals ranging from days to months. Male dolphins in particular may rove widely in twos and threes and even go solo for periods of their life, perhaps meeting up with the larger groups only occasionally in order to mate. It may even be that some solo dolphins’ residency in one place and consequent association with people has been a side effect of their monopolisation of a convenient feeding territory such as the mouth of an estuary. Or perhaps that 'solitariness' is a consequence of the desire to interact rather than the other way round. Be that as it may, it is clear at least that dolphin social behaviour can be very flexible and there is no reason to suppose that a dolphin having gone solo and human-friendly cannot return to other dolphin groupings when it wants to. Numerous 'solo' dolphins are known definitely to have done exactly that, in fact (see for example Friends in the Sea by Wade Doak).

Dusty is a particularly interesting case, as she is a young female who seems to have conceived before settling in Doolin in 2000 and to have given birth (to a calf which died at or soon after birth) around the time she first appeared off Derreen. Dolphins appear to lose their first calves quite commonly, but her calf’s chances in this case will not have been improved by the absence of other female dolphins to act as ‘midwives’, and it may also have been that Dusty was too young anyway to be a mother. However, other dolphins are frequently sighted in the area and there are many reports of Dusty interacting with some of them; at the same time there have been several incidents when she has conspicuously avoided visiting dolphins and one in which she appeared to be kidnapped by a gang of larger males. Maybe she thinks she is better off on her own, or maybe she will rejoin a pod when she and they are ready; we don’t know enough to say, but we don’t think her human companions are much of a substitute for the social life of a ‘normal’ dolphin or that they could be an inducement to her to reject the latter.

Finally, our decision once again is to respect the dolphins’ own choice to swim with us humans as long as they want to do so, and to trust that they know what they are doing at least as much as we do. That’s not saying much, after all!

© 2001 & 2004 Graham Timmins

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Date Posted: 09/07/2001
Date Edited: 27/02/2008
Topic: Dusty
Library: Current
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