Charting interactions between dolphins and people
Irish Dolphins - Interactions between dolphins and people.  Including Fungie the Dingle Dolphin
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Dusty - Pattern of behaviour

In the gully at DoolinWe believe that Dusty's first significant interactions with people began in summer 2000 at Doolin. At least from this time on, she has relished human company and been relatively indiscriminate about who she has socialised with - everybody seems to be welcome in her world and she is the most immediately trusting of any dolphins we have come across. When we first arrived with wetsuits and snorkelling gear in July 2000, and Dusty was first exposed to free-divers and later sub-aqua divers, she was very interested and would almost always follow us to the bottom in preference to remaining at the surface. In the absence of any strong swimmers and divers, however, she was apparently equally content to interact at the surface. She likes to be stroked gently, and when trust has been established, she will often almost loll in people’s arms to have her tummy and back rubbed at the same time. Sometimes she will tow people along if they place a hand on either side of her and on occasions she has also towed people hanging onto her dorsal fin (which we don’t recommend). Naturally she does not take to people rushing to grab hold of her, though; but even then she rarely shows any irritation and usually just drops quietly out of the way.

Mouthing a finFrom first exposure, Dusty was immediately interested in foreign objects such as diving gear, cameras and surfboards and was particularly keen on diving fins. She would mouth these gently and allow herself to get a gentle scratch from them. In particular she was and is totally fascinated with monofins (large triangular fins which you put both feet into and which imitate a dolphin’s tail). She will bob in the water with her beak just held lightly against the underside of a monofin and often remains 'glued' to a monofin even when the wearer is sitting on the rocks with just the fin in the water.

At times Dusty will open her mouth near swimmers and show her teeth, but to our knowledge she never bit or even snapped at anyone during the first year. She is normally very quiet around people and noticeably gentle around children and other less strong swimmers. At times she has tolerated and indeed appeared to enjoy the attention of over 20 excited people in the water at one time, generally swimming from one to another and letting everyone touch her briefly. She does not tend to have strong favourites beyond preferring those she knows best from many previous encounters, although as often happens with friendly dolphins, many people tend to feel that they alone have been singled out for special attention or have some unique relationship with her.

When we filmed her in 2000, Dusty was fascinated by the underwater videocamera housing, so much so that it was often difficult to get anything other close-ups as she was sticking her nose right into the lens. In Doolin that year she also played a lot with boogie boards, on one occasion ‘stealing’ a board from some local lads and taking it off into the cave. In 2003 she still plays with body boards and is able to balance them with incredible dexterity on her nose as she pushes them through the water.

In 2000 Dusty initiated a game by carrying plastic bags and other flotsam to us on her beak or dorsal fin. We reciprocated with seaweed, but could not at first get her to play tag with it as some wild dolphins will. Instead she tolerated having the weed wrapped around her beak and seemed to be very fascinated by the vibrations caused when thin seaweed (mermaid’s tresses) was stretched tight and drawn through the water. Sometimes she liked to be rubbed or massaged with a piece of seaweed too.

Just off the pier in FanoreDusty's behaviour has not changed markedly since she moved to Fanore/Derreen in 2001. She still responds well to active and strong swimmers but also visits everyone else in the water and allows them to touch her. Unlike at Doolin, where there were only sheer drop-offs into deep water, the rocky beach areas at Derreen enable her to swim into extremely shallow water in order to interact with children and other non-swimmers standing in the surf. In doing this she often appears to put herself at great risk of stranding, being bashed against rocks or of being trapped in too-shallow water surrounded by people. However she seems to be master of the situation and has come to no harm so far despite the apparent recklessless of her behaviour.

During 2001, Dusty added some interested new behaviours to her repertoire. She brought objects in her mouth to snorkellers, including a jellyfish and a lost diving mask, and has ‘stolen’ seaweed from snorkellers in a tag-like game. With one or two people in the water behaving calmly, she seems to like best being stroked and ‘cuddled’ (there really is no other word for it!). With more people or swimmers who are pursuing her more actively, she tends to move around fast herself. Sometimes she surges almost entirely out of the water. She rarely leaps clear of the water (in comparison to the Dingle dolphin, for example), but when she does so she can be very elegant and athletic.

On the pier at Fanore Dusty has continued to engage in reciprocal patterns, such as diving down to the bottom headfirst and returning to the surface in synch with a free-diver, repeating the sequence several times over. She is still keen on boogie boards but has got more blase about sub-aqua divers which she has now seen plenty of.

At times Dusty will present her dorsal fin in what seems a very clear invitation to a swimmer to grab hold of it. If this happens, she will generally swim steadily out to sea with the swimmer in tow until he or she lets go. Most conservationists and biologists disapprove strongly of people holding onto a dolphin's dorsal fin, but we have not been able to find out exactly why. Maybe it just looks too much like a circus act. In the wild, dolphins will often pick up objects such as seaweed and other flotsam and carry them around on their dorsal fins. However, the drag from a person would be much greater. Of course Dusty is at any time easily able to dive down and dislodge a person holding on to her fin. Meanwhile it is the thrill of a lifetime for anyone lucky enough to be chosen for a free dolphin ride!

Dusty - the killer dolphin
Reports of aggressive behaviour which surfaced in the media at the beginning of July 2001 appear to have been exaggerated. Our own observations have been that despite the hordes of sometimes careless people who have been in the water with her at busy weekends, Dusty has responded with great care and gentleness. A particularly hysterical article in the Irish Times at the beginning of August seemed to imply that the dolphin had injured someone and was therefore dangerous. The actual facts were that a swimmer had banged his head on a rock; the dolphin was nowhere near at the time. One of the reasons for the existence of this website is to counter the negative effects of this kind of sensationalist journalism. Whilst urging caution to anyone who swims in the Atlantic ocean, and respect for all wild animals whether large or small, we would not like to see the dolphin blamed for human carelessness or misfortune. If the dolphin was as aggressive as the Irish Times claims, we would all be coming home in body bags. An animal capable of pinning a healthy shark to the seabed with her beak would not have much trouble drowning a floundering human being if she wanted to. However, this is not what she does! And luckily there are hundreds of people who have swum safely with Dusty who can testify to this.

During April 2002 we saw the dolphin expand her repertoire of games by repeatedly retrieving pieces of seaweed and diving masks which were thrown for her. She also proved her dexterity by skilfully moving a plastic bag and other objects such as gloves from her beak to pectoral fin and back again.
At this time we also first saw her playing with kayaks, pushing them around with her beak and playing with the paddle.
During the summer of 2002 Dusty developed a love for swimming off with any foreign objects she could balance on her beak, fins being a constant favourite. Sometims snorkellers had their dive gear brought carefully back to them, even after they had given up hope, and at other times they lost it for good. Sometimes Dusty would drop a fin and let it sink to the bottom, way out of a snorkeller’s depth, before retrieving it. She certainly seemed to be having a lot of fun at our expense!

As more people came to swim with Dusty in 2002, we witnessed the first incidents of her losing her cool and snapping at or pushing people out of the water. In some cases the victims acknowledged that they had been to blame for intruding on Dusty while she was interacting with someone else (something which people often do), but in a handful of others the ‘attack’ seemed to be unprovoked and we could only put it down to jealousy or possessiveness on Dusty’s part. Sometimes it seemed that she wanted the sole attention of one favoured playmate and didn’t want any rivals on the scene. But we don’t really know what motivated these unexpected outbursts, and they were equally directed at people who had been enjoying Dusty’s favours before and after the incidents as at strangers. In June 2003 Dusty got a lot of bad press for another of these incidents, when a first-time swimmer was actually badly hurt when Dusty rammed her in the chest (the swimmer got two cracked ribs). Photos of the incident show the woman repeatedly “butting in” on an intense interaction with another swimmer just before the attack, but that has happened hundreds of times before without Dusty getting visibly irritated, so it is hard to know what exactly triggers a physical response from her. Obviously we recommend that swimmers show the same respect for Dusty’s freedom to choose who she interacts with as we would for our fellow human beings. If you were invited to a party at the house of an attractive person you did not know, you would not keep trying to interrupt his conversations with other people, tapping him on the shoulder while he was talking, or worse, caressing his inside leg! - you would wait till he chose to introduce himself to you. Again and again we have seen that when Dusty pauses to engage in a one to one with someone, other people pile in on top of them, trying to grab hold of Dusty and so spoiling the interaction for everybody! Respect!


Dusty was quite often seen apparently feeding about 100m off the swimming location in Doolin, but was not seen carrying or playing with fish. She ignored small shoaling fish as well as the large dogfish which are plentiful along the walls of the caves and easily caught. She was often seen to defecate, especially when excited.

In Fanore Dusty has been interacting with people solidly for periods of over 8 hours at a time, with no breaks longer than a minute, during which she headed a short way out to sea but soon returned at speed. We surmise that these excursions may have represented short foraging trips, but still find it remarkable that she should go for so long without feeding properly. Reportedly she also engages in longer foraging trips to a known fishing bank some half a mile offshore.

On July 3rd 2003, Dusty brought a live salmon to Jan Ploeg, one of her favourite admirers and a frequent visitor from his base in Holland. She gave the fish into Jan's hand and he reckons that she somehow sedated it with her sonar so that he could carry it to the shore. This is the first report we have had of Dusty bringing fish to a swimmer. This is really exceptional behaviour even for a 'friendly' dolphin; it's something Fungie occasionally did in the old days, but otherwise it's almost unheard of.
Jan is a vegetarian and wasn't taking any hints from Dusty about changing his diet, even for fresh wild salmon, so the beneficiary of the dolphin's generosity was a passer-by who happened to be on the beach at the right time! For a full account in Jan's own idiosyncratic and imitable style, click here

Please note that the information above, whilst accurate to the best of our knowledge and belief, is given without prejudice and is not intended as an endorsement or encouragement to anyone to attempt to swim with the dolphin at Derreen.
Date Posted: 15/08/2001
Date Edited: 07/03/2006

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