With the Dingle dolphin more than possibly any other interactive dolphin in history, what he does depends to a large extent on who you are and whether he takes to you. He has always been staggeringly unpredictable and seems to delight in overturning every assumption we have ever made about his behavioural patterns. We have had absolutely no success in correlating his behaviour with the tides, the winds, the weather, the temperature or anything else. Just when you think you have noticed a trend, he will do the oppopsite of what you expect.
Similarly, all attempts to manipulate his behaviour with various tools and tricks have ultimately failed. Despite the general patterns we have reported in other sections, he can and does continue to surprise us by totally ignoring a person or activity he has previously seemed to be enthusiastic about and going mad over some apparently banal circumstance. The time scales for these shifts can range from minutes to months and years. There are really no rules with this dolphin.
Most of his interactions are actually with boats (see Interactions with boats). He spends a large part of each day following or being followed by boats. (Even that distinction can be surprisingly hard to make.) A subset of these interactions, when there are only one or two boats out, could be defined as people wielding paddles from boats. This would mainly be local people he is habituated too and the game would involve the paddle being swept from side to side underwater with the dolphin alternately approaching and dodging it. Another subset would be the more interactive behaviour the dolphin engages in with some kayakers and people in small boats, and particularly over the last few years with a regular visitor, Aiden, in his sailing dinghy. Even there it is hard to know whether it is the expert sailing, the small size and speed of the boat or the personality of its skipper which is the key factor making it so attractive to the dolphin – and no-body is about to waste an afternoon by conducting controlled trials!
Behaviour with swimmers in the water is hardest of all to analyse and classify. Many aspects are subtle and are invisible to anyone more than 10m distant. Activity nowadays centres around the use of boogie boards. Swimmers either paddle furiously along in a chosen direction or spin around on the spot, swishing the board over the surface of the water. The dolphin responds by following the movement and, if excited, by leaping out of the water, sometimes over the heads of the swimmers. This mainly occurs with people the dolphin is accustomed to, but even newcomers can enjoy the response if they have a positive attitude and are included in the ‘regulars’ group.
Within this basic framework there is room for a whole range of less obvious patterns of stimulus and response. Sometimes the dolphin will cruise around in a rather mellow fashion. Sometimes he will show himself above the water a lot, at others he will appear to hide and sneak up on people. Sometimes, with at least one regular, the dolphin will actually nudge him with his beak. When he is excited and starts jumping, he has a whole range of different styles, varying in height and spread and style of re-entry – from smooth and clean for rapid re-emergence to back-flops for maximum splash effect. He will also lunge half out of the water, swim belly-up, ‘hydroplane’ on the surface and perform a sort of ‘attack’ run, where he swerves away or dives underneath the swimmer at the very last second. With some people, on some occasions, he will swim right into the shallows at Slaidín beach to play there. At other times he will lead you out towards the open sea.
As discussed above (History and first interactions), all this behaviour is very much conditioned by season of the year and time of day. But another major factor, harder still to analyse, is contributed by the personalities and attitudes of the swimmers. Many of the dolphin’s behaviours are not triggered by any external stimulus from the human beings. The boogie board is not really the key, just as the paddle never was. Many of the dolphin’s sudden moves may be entirely independent of anything we do, and would surely be classified as such by a scientific observer.
The subjective experience of hundreds of participants, however, has been that the dolphin responds in some way to our thoughts or feelings. He rarely does this in ways we expect, and it is very hard to separate a genuine interactive process from a psychological projection. On one classic occasion, one summer’s evening a self-styled ‘dolphin shaman’ sat on the end of the jetty at Slaidín playing his didgeridoo (as people do) to summon the dolphin. The dolphin took no notice whatsoever and continued to follow the boats around out in the channel. Undeterred, the musician droned on. After half an hour, most of the boats left and the remaining one, a small dinghy with an outboard, put-putted over to the beach with the dolphin in tow. As the dolphin passed by 10m from the jetty, to the delight of all the onlookers, the didgeridoo player beamed with satisfaction: “See, I told you he would come in!”. He was convinced, and maybe his music really did attract the dolphin, but it didn’t look like that to anyone familiar with the dolphin’s liking for motor boats.
We have all been guilty of this kind of projection, and one of the delights of a continued relationship with the dolphin is the way he steadily shatters all such projections, whether consciously or not!
In the final analysis it is impossible to discuss the patterns of behaviour involved in a dolphin-human interaction without reference to the internal processes of the human heart and mind.
For some glimpses of the kind of thing which goes on, have a look at last winter's Fungie Diary.
The Dingle dolphin often feeds in the channel narrows where the water is turbid and fast-flowing – an ecological niche which few if any other predators are capable of exploiting. He seems to swallow his catch underwater and is rarely if ever actually seen eating. When salmon are running he may hunt them further out into Dingle Bay. Over the years he has been seen showing off a variety of prey including salmon, trout and pollack and has oaccasionally brought his catch to boats and to swimmers. Ronnie Fitzgibbon reports him catching squid (pre-1988), a deep water animal which is not normally found near the mouth of the harbour.
Until the last day of November 2001, we had not seen him carrying any kind of fish around at all since 1993. On this occasion however, he tossed a fish into the air, letting it go and then catching it again repeatedly like a cat ‘playing’ with a mouse.