The Dingle dolphin loves boats of almost any description. His passion for following boats started with trawlers and half-deckers and has included dredgers, tugs, Navy frigates, sailing dinghies, ocean-going yachts, currachs, motor cruisers, jet-skis and speedboats to name a few. He likes to bow-ride inflatables of all descriptions but tends more to cruise alongside or in the stern wake of bigger and heavier vessels. He has had many different favourites at various times, and at the time of writing (Nov 2001) it seems to be a Laser dinghy – but is it the dinghy or the man at the helm? With this boat, anyway, he is particularly liable to half-throw himself out of the water as he swims alongside, to flop over backwards or sideways, to generally frolic around and even on one occasion to land smack on top of the boat, apparently winding himself temporarily in the process. This kind of behaviour has more often been seen with windsurfers over the years.
For over ten years now it has been the bugbear of many dolphin enthusiasts that they have to wait all day for the chance to swim with the dolphin or even to just watch him going about his business in peace, as there is always at least one boat out in the bay driving around and trying to attract the dolphin’s attention. Even on a quiet winter’s evening it only takes one boat to take the dolphin away and remove the opportunities for other kinds of interaction. On a summer’s day there may be a dozen private boats out, as well as the 12 licensed dolphin boats which run trips from the pier in Dingle, all chasing after the dolphin at the point where he was last seen to surface. Unlike whale- and dolphin-watching in other parts of the world, there is no pretence of observing a wild animal in its natural habitat and seeking to avoid disturbing his feeding or influencing his behaviour in other ways. On the contrary, the general trend is to drive at full speed straight at the dolphin and let him take his chances where he can. Many visitors have been appalled to see what is commonly referred to as ‘the dolphin circus’ and to note the apparent lack of regard shown either for the dolphin’s safety or that of other water users. (Dolphins are protected from harassment under Irish law, and there is a 6 knot speed limit within Dingle harbour, but neither of these laws have ever been enforced by the authorities up to now).
We share the general distaste for the exploitation of the dolphin by commercial interests which put absolutely nothing back into the conservation and protection of the marine environment and contribute nothing towards better education about dolphins in the wild. We feel sad about those boat owners who try to lead the dolphin away from other people instead of joining the party and sharing the fun with everybody. However, it has to be said that the boats only chase the dolphin because he lets them. If he chooses to disappear from view, even within the small area he has selected as his territory, he is quite capable of doing so, and there is no way they can find him even with all their radar and echo-sounders. Try as we might not to be anthropomorphic, the dolphin really does seem to be the ringmaster of this circus and to get a kick out of leading the boats a merry dance around the harbour. It is hard not to imagine that he actually loves and seeks attention, and that the attention of a large powerful boat is more of a buzz for him than that of a helpless human, however eager to impress. If the dolphin chooses to forego the chance of meandering around a couple of floundering blobs in wetsuits in favour of zipping along beside an inflatable, bouncing off the pressure waves from a speeding catamaran’s hull or rising to the excited cheers of 40 kids on a tourist boat, who can blame him?! There are in fact times when he will stay with a preferred swimming companion and ignore boats, however they try to tempt him, so he does have a choice. But the general rule is that any passing boat will draw him away from swimmers and the beach, and we respect that choice, however frustrating it can be at times.
Luckily there are now a few boat users in Dingle who have cottoned on to the fact that they and everyone else tends to see more of the dolphin, and to see more exciting behaviour, if the dolphin is simultaneously entertained by swimmers in the water and boats staying close to each other, rather than trying to lure the dolphin to different parts of the bay. If only such people are out, a great time can be had by all. In general however, we just have to accept that there is no hope of regulating the behaviour of boat users, and indeed most of them have no idea what they are missing, as they have never witnessed any of the more personal and intriguing interactions you only see with swimmers. So it is always helpful to remember that the ball is in the dolphin’s court.
In other places dolphins have been severely injured by boat engines. The Dingle dolphin is as fascinated as other ‘friendly’ dolphins by whirring propellors and often sticks his nose where he shouldn’t, as the scars testify. At first we were worried about the use of powerful twin screws by the newer dolphin boats as the vortex created by these engines was blamed for injuring (possibly fatally) the friendly dolphins in Amble, England (‘Freddie’, 1991) and Stavanger, Norway (‘Flipper’, 2001). The exceptional high-speed manoeuvrability of jet-skis and wet-bikes also seemed to be too much to expect a dolphin to cope with without injuries such as befell the friendly dolphin ‘Jo-jo’ in the Turks and Caicos Islands (1992), and we campaigned unsuccessfully to have these banned from the harbour. If it was up to us jet-skis would have been banned entirely from Dingle harbour, and the likes of Tom Cruise would not have been allowed buzz the dolphin in his helicopter (1991) (the dolphin vanished but re-appeared after an hour or so!). However it seems that all these nuisances upset us dolphin-watchers more than they do the dolphin. 17 years is ample proof that he is well able to cope with any kind of boat activity and any kind of weird behaviour by human beings. So long as the US Navy keeps its LFAS well away, he will be fine.
The latest toy for the boys invented by the defenders of the free world, Low Frequency Active Sonar has killed whales and dolphins in each of the trials which are so far known to have taken place. It works by transmitting colossal shock waves through the sea. These waves resonate with the laryngeal and cranial airspaces in the bodies of any cetaceans in the area, pulping the surrounding tissues and causing massive internal haemorrhaging. A bit like having your brain microwaved from a distance.