A Greek biographer and essayist of the mid first to early second century AD, known as Plutarch, observed that the dolphin “is the only creature that loves man for his own sake.” These unique mammals of the seas truly inspired wonderment and imagination among humankind for centuries. In fact, dolphins were even fused into ancient religions and customs. In the book Dolphins and Porpoises, Louise Quayle observed that dolphins “were interwoven with the lives of the gods and goddesses whose actions formed moral allegories for Greek life. Apollo, Demeter, and Aphrodite are among the deities with whom dolphins have been associated.” For example, according to Greek mythology, Apollo, a god, went to the town of Pytho and slew Python, the dragon which protected the area. He, then, established his oracle by putting on the semblance of a dolphin, and leaping aboard a Cretan ship, he forced the crew to serve him. Thus Pytho was renamed Delphi after the dolphin (Greek, ‘delphis’), and the Cretans established the cult of Apollo Delphinius. Truly, the dolphin aroused the imagination.
You have probably seen or heard of the 60s tv series about the world’s most famous dolphin, Flipper. The show capitalized on the dolphins’ social nature, their grace, intelligence, playfulness, and friendliness to man. They are known for their learning abilities and can be seen performing impressive tricks at oceanariums. One dolphin trainer was encouraging his animals to clean their quarters by tossing them a fish for any trash they retrieved. He became suspicious when one bottle-nosed dolphin (same kind as Flipper) began claiming one reward after another. It then dawned on the trainer that the dolphin was simply tearing small pieces of a larger debris in order to claim more rewards rather than bringing the entire piece in and get only a single fish. This was an example of just how quickly a dolphin can learn.
One of the first things a person appreciates about dolphins is that they are, not fish, but mammals. The mother gives birth to one baby at a time, called a calf, after a gestation period of 8 to 11 months. The calf emerges from the mother’s body tail first. This is imperative since dolphins need air to breathe (as do all mammals), thus if the calf came out head first it would drown by the time the tail passed the mother’s body. As soon as the calf is born, the mother nudges the baby to the surface for its first breath of air. Most dolphins have their young during the warm months of the year. At birth, both the mother and the new baby are surrounded by other members of the community (called a school). The other dolphins guard against sharks and other predators that might be attracted by the scent of blood. To protect the mother and the baby, sentinel dolphins will form a wall surrounding them and when the shark does try to attack, they will butt it in the liver using their heads, killing the unwelcome intruder within minutes. Each dolphin mother, with the assistance of a “sitter”, ensures that the calf gets proper care and supervision. This, at times, includes discipline when the baby is rambunctious. The mother disciplines an unruly calf by taking it between her jaws and then either submerges it or holds it out of water for about half a minute. Such “spanking” is usually sufficient to instill obedience. Young ones usually stay with the mothers for at least one to two years, while continuing to nurse. The life span of a dolphin is relatively long among the animal kingdom, living more than 20 years.
Have you ever wondered how fast a dolphin can swim? No doubt you have seen clips of film or video were dolphins swim alongside a fast moving ship, jumping in and out of water. Well, dolphins have been clocked traveling at speeds in excess of 40 kilometers (25 miles) an hour. Their bodies are designed to help them maneuver quickly through water. For example, the tail is horizontal, not perpendicular like the tails of fishes, which propels the animal in its lunges and dives. However, the key to its speed lies in the dolphin’s ability to pass through water so smoothly that very little drag results. This is possible not only due to its streamlined body and manner of swimming, but also its remarkable skin. It rests on many small, elastic supports, which make the skin act as a shock absorber. The skin also secrets oils which scientists believe help them shed skin. Thus the dolphins move through water according to theories known as “hydrodynamics” and “laminar flow”. According to these theories, the water closest to the skin creates the most drag while the production of oils lubricates the skin and helps the outer layers of water around the animal flow smoothly over each other. And what about the leaps into the air? These actually serve to preserve the dolphin’s energy and get a catch of breath.
Imagine being able to move rapidly and easily through your home at night without turning the lights on. Dolphins can move through complex mazes blindfolded as easily as though were clearly visualizing every object, opening, and obstacle. Actually they were “hearing” their way through the maze. This complex communication and detection system is known as “echolocation”, which is a highly advanced sonar (sound navigation ranging). It consists of high-pitched whistles and squeaks, some of which may be of ultrasonic frequency (above the range of human hearing). These sounds travel from the dolphin and are reflected back by the objects ahead. Such echolocation is used for orientation, obstacle avoidance, food procurement, and social interactions. The United States Navy has taken advantage of the dolphins’ echolocating capabilities by experimenting with placing a metal plate on the side of its submarines. “When dolphins are instructed to place mines on enemy vessels,” says the book Dolphins and Porpoises, “they avoid American submarines because they can ‘see’ the metal plate.” Dolphins’ intricate acoustic sense has also sparked a controversy about whether they can actually talk to each other. Although echolocation plays a big part in finding their food and territory scanning, cetacean experts have cautioned that calling these sounds “communication” means only that dolphins are able to transmit signals. A strong argument against the idea that dolphins can speak has been presented by the curator of marine mammals at the British Museum in a 1979 interview by the BBC World Service. Considering the fact that a large number of dolphins have been slaughtered during commercial tuna-fishing operations he said: “These things wouldn’t be caught in such large numbers if a dolphin had been able to say to another one, ‘Don’t go near anything which sounds like a ship’s crew…keep well clear of it.'” However, there is still much to learn about echolocation. This is how the publication of the University of California at Santa Cruz, CMS News, put it, “If you can imagine yourself blind, at a party where everyone is speaking a language that you don’t know, you will have an idea of what marine researchers are up against.”
In addition to the impressive feats they can perform and their use in practical spheres of life, there have been numerous reports of dolphins saving someone’s life. For example, the Journal of Commerce reported in 1997 that a man swimming in the Red Sea, off the Egyptian shore, was attacked by a shark. After he suffered bites to his side and arm, he was surrounded by three bottle-nosed dolphins “flapping their fins and tails to scare away the shark.” The dolphins continued to circle the British swimmer until his friends got him. According to the Journal, “such behavior by dolphins is common when mothers are protecting their calves.” It is no wonder then why these friendly creatures of the sea are so overwhelmingly popular and how this popularity fuels concern for their future.