Charting interactions between dolphins and people
Irish Dolphins - Interactions between dolphins and people.  Including Fungie the Dingle Dolphin
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Saturday, 13th of April

A beautiful morning in Derreen and we were privileged to have the place all to ourselves. Keith and Jamie were in first, followed by Anthea and Benjamin (age 7). The dolphin came in close to the rocks to reward Benjamin’s bravery – the water was about 9 or 10˚C and his thin wetsuit can’t have kept him very warm. Jamie’s first swim with Dusty since August 2000 at Doolin; I think they were both happy to meet up again though there was no obvious sign of recognition on the dolphin’s part. Anthea’s first time with Dusty – after swimming with Dony last year. Dolphin still very keen on Keith’s monofin. They were all getting out soon after I got in. This was a special swim for me. It was only my second swim of the year – last time, two weeks ago, it was nice to be back in the water and that she came up to say hello, but she was more interested in Keith and his monofin. Usually I like to be in the water with a couple of friends, as it’s interesting to see how she behaves and how she relates differently to different people, but sometimes I admit that it’s nice to have a dolphin all to oneself!

Dusty on 13th AprilDusty was in a mellow mood this morning. Our session together included the ‘usual’ patterns like swimming around and alongside each other and diving down to the sea-bed, but there were also two distinct phases of particular interactions. In the first, after I had been swimming slowly alongside her for a while, stroking and rubbing her flank as we went, she stopped and allowed me to continue rubbing her all over her body (naturally avoiding the sensitive areas mentioned in our recommended Code of Conduct!). She seemed to very much enjoy the physical contact and I spent what seemed like ages stroking her or just leaning on her, rubbing her gently. As always in these situations, a whole range of emotions and thoughts passed through me while we were lying there side by side in the water. First there is the excitement and delight of being in this position of intimacy and trust with a wild animal – and not just any animal, but a large, powerful predator who is nevertheless exquisitely sensitive and gentle with her frail human companions. I felt so privileged to be chosen in this way – not that there was anyone else in the water she could have chosen to be with, and of course she is like this at times with most people who swim with her – but still the feeling is one of being chosen. She doesn’t have to interact in this way, and gains precious little that we can see from such an interaction.

Dusty on 13th AprilThen there is awe: the dolphin is sensationally beautiful, and yet it is an alien beauty. Lying next to her with an arm around her can be reminiscent for a moment of embracing a human. She seems to me so feminine, as well – smooth, sleek, curvaceous and delicate as she is. Of course, compared with a human in a wetsuit, all dolphins are amazingly supple, sensuous and agile, but there are degrees amongst dolphins too, and if I compare them, Dony seems to me like a street urchin, a bit rough and unpredictable, while Fungie is the retired aikido master, somewhat aloof perhaps, but still all muscle, and unquestionably in control of his immediate environment. Dusty however is a princess, with poise and grace, no bad manners - and yet also a certain vulnerability. These thoughts only last microseconds of course, and I soon dismiss them as absurd projections, as I get into examining the texture of her skin, all tiny ridges like ripples in the sand, the asymmetrical line of her blowhole valve which I hadn’t noticed before, the way she can rotate the axis of her pectoral fins….. and I realise how she truly is from another world, how different her body is that from any other mammal I have touched or come close to, how different her mind is too, to allow and encourage the liberties I am taking. The dolphin is right next to me, and yet she is so far away.

Dusty on 13th AprilSometimes I am so bold as to place one hand either side of the dolphin’s torso and guide her in a particular direction. She lets me do this and I bring her head slowly up out of the water in a vertical pose. She leans back a little on my shoulder as I tread water. It’s another magical moment – even though she did this a few times with me last year – but I’m not totally relaxed, and I try to keep away from her beak. Am I going too far, pushing her around like this? Maybe she will tell me off! I am ashamed of my lack of trust and sorry to spoil the flow of the interaction, but I’ve seen all those sharp teeth when she opens her mouth occasionally and I don’t like the look of them! Keith and Jamie are more confident and have no qualms about going head to head with Dusty, but stupidly I don’t always feel comfortable with that. I know - I believe – she would never attack me. I have swum with her dozens of times and hundreds of times with other dolphins and they have never attacked me, as they so easily could have done if they were as dangerous as human beings are. But still, every now and again, I admit that a little nervousness creeps in. Maybe it could happen by accident, as when Dony swiped me with his tail last year. Maybe curiosity could induce her to sample a small chunk of my wet-suited arms. But I don’t really think so! These are just the fears we learn in childhood, maybe even from a race memory. Ours is the first generation in the million or so years during which humans have shared the planet with dolphins in which more than a handful of representatives of each species have had the chance to get close to each other. It’s still a very new thing. So, it’s stupid, but these flashes of doubt still pop up for me.

Dusty on 13th AprilI deliberately go back to stroking her flank and think that I should really be taking careful note of her condition, in the interests of science! So I examine her carefully and notice lots of new scratches since two weeks ago. There is still a tooth-rake mark we saw last time, and what I call the ‘net-marks’, vertical lines or creases behind her head which I doubt have anything to do with nets really, seem more prominent. Some marks look like scratches from rocks more than anything else. There is a slight swelling in her lower abdomen, might she be pregnant? I must bring a tape measure next time. It is notoriously hard to tell whether a dolphin is pregnant as they hardly show at all.

Dusty picking up a piece of seaweed I had thrown for herAfter a while we swam around more actively again and then a second interesting phase began. At one point she brought a thin piece of seaweed on her pectoral fin. I took it off her and trailed it around for a while without any response. Then I dived down and picked up a chunkier bit with a holdfast and small stone at one end. I waved it in front of her and dropped it. She went slowly down and picked it up straight away before it hit the bottom, and brought it to the surface. I took it off her and repeated this 10 or 12 times, gradually throwing it further away and closer to shore, so the others sitting watching could see what she was doing. (However, they still hadn’t noticed until I shouted out to them – it’s actually very hard to see from the shore what is really going on in the water). The dolphin swam lazily over and each time after the first one she left the seaweed till it hit the bottom and then carefully lifted it. Sometimes she had to flick it a bit until she could get under it. She lifted it on her beak each time and brought it back to me. What was remarkable for me was the clear and repeated response pattern to my actions. It was like a dog fetching a stick in its repeatability, and yet it was very different. The dolphin played her part of the game rather lazily, although always readily and accurately, almost as if she was saying, ‘Of course I can do this, do you think I am stupid?’. Sometimes I gave her a ‘reward’ of a rub in between throws, but sometimes not. I wanted her to carry on fetching the weed but I didn’t want to insult her or patronise her by treating her like a trained pet. Since she didn’t need the reward anyway, it was hard to see why she should continue the game. Eventually even I got bored with it myself, noticed I was cold and was glad to see Jamie getting ready to get back in and take over from me.

Dusty retrieving seaweedAs I was getting out of the water, the dolphin was carrying seaweed around and transferring it from her head to her pectoral fin. Jamie now tried chucking his diving mask away and as it sank, she retrieved it. They repeated this trick a second time.

After Jamie had been in the water for half an hour or so, Laura and I watching from the rocks suddenly saw more fins in the water. As they approached we saw two more adult bottlenose dolphins with a young calf coming in. They popped up several times and circled round the area where Jamie and Dusty were in the water. From our vantage point, Dusty appeared not to take any notice of them or to interact with them. However, Jamie, in the water, whilst he was at first baffled by us two screaming and shouting ‘Behind you!’, had seen Dusty suddenly dash away, presumably when she first detected the other dolphins. However she returned to him immediately. The visitors came within 10m of the rocks but were gone again in 5 minutes as suddenly as they had appeared.

The next day we saw new tooth rake-marks on Dusty which had not been there before.

Graham Timmins
Date Posted: 13/04/2002
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