Solitary sociable dolphins – a natural fascination

10th Aug 2015

Humans have been fascinated by the power, beauty and sometimes vital savagery of the natural world for at least as long as history can tell us. And from the very beginning of history to the modern day this fascination has shown little signs of fading. However, this fascination has commonly come at a high cost to the natural world. Whether through ignorance, indifference or greed, our meddling in the worlds complex natural systems has often caused things to go wrong. And when they have gone wrong, we have struggled badly and often failed to re-establish the natural order.

Nobody knows why some dolphins live solitary lives. We do not know if it is a conscious choice made by the individual, or something which has been forced upon it by its family group. We are unaware of the permanent or temporary nature of the state and we have no understanding of the impact of this isolation on the individual dolphin. What we do know is that it is a rare occurrence in the wild, and in at least some of these cases the solitary dolphin has exploited the curiosity that exists between humans and dolphins to develop special sociable interactions with swimmers. However, our understanding of these sociable interactions has grown with time and we now realise that habituation to humans, even where initiated and sustained by the solitary animal, frequently results in detrimental consequences for the dolphin’s health, welfare and long-term survival. This has presented a complex ethical debate over whether human intrusion into the lives of these solitary dolphins can be a good thing.

Within this debate there are some aspects that we can all agree on. We can agree that every solitary dolphin was born wild, and in a modern world where humans influence or control so much, this is a most sacred condition. We can agree that these animals are highly social creatures, forming strong social bonds which produce stable family units among their own kind. And we can agree that they are highly intelligent animals, using these stable family groups to benefit the survival of their individual populations and the success of their species. There can then be little argument that humans provide a poor substitute for any of this. While a dolphin might be attracted to the temporary interaction of a swimming human, this type of social involvement cannot be compared with what is possible in the wild between individuals of its own kind. The interaction is temporary, lacking the permanent social bond which unites family groups. It provides nothing to the complexities of dolphin life such as communication and culture. And there is no benefit to the most basic survival instincts of feeding and reproduction.

We can also agree that a solitary dolphin can only become sociable with the cooperation of humans.

Despite notions of special relationships and social bonds between human swimmers and Dusty our solitary dolphin, the truth is we provide little in the way of survival or social fulfilment. In fact, by interacting with her, we are significantly increasing the risks to her health and welfare, and decreasing her prospects for survival. We have no idea if we are prolonging her term of isolation by interacting with her, and we cannot tell if the interaction is providing anything of benefit to her. Worse, while we have indulged her curiosity, we have gradually changed her from a wild dolphin, unfamiliar and cautious of humans, to an 'aggressive' dolphin which no longer fears humans.

To understand Dusty we cannot look at her current behaviour in isolation, but rather we must try to comprehend her transition over time. Dusty began as a wild solitary dolphin naturally cautious of human swimmers. Perhaps due to a natural curiosity and a desire to socialise, Dusty sought out the company of a small number of swimmers which had become familiar to her through regular presence in the water. Over a slow habituation process Dusty lost her fear of humans and became comfortable and familiar with these swimmers. It is even possible that Dusty began to consider these swimmers as a surrogate family grouping. But very quickly, as her presence became known and her profile grew, the number of swimmers looking to interact with her escalated. Suddenly, there were crowds of strangers cuing to receive their intimate experience with a ‘wild’ dolphin. Most knowing little about dolphins, and less about wild animals. For a social animal, designed to build strong social bonds sustaining stable family units, interacting daily with cues of strangers is something entirely unnatural. And then one of these strangers does something that Dusty considers inappropriate or threatening. She lashes out in an aggressive manner and the response is immediate. The strangers move away and she is given temporary reprieve from the constant harassment. It doesn’t take long for Dusty to figure out that she can manage the interactions using aggressive or threatening behaviour. In a very short period of time, we have changed the nature of a wild animal and presented it with an entirely new set of risks and challenges.

The short-term solution to established solitary sociable dolphins may be management. And the IWDG is exploring this option through supporting a new study by Abigail O'Callaghan-Platt. However, the longer-term solution is much more complicated, requiring greater understanding and compromise. And we, as the informed party aware of the risks to both human and animal, have the greater responsibility.

We must learn to respect our place in the natural world. We are a part of this complex system, not in control of it. Do we really need another pet, or are we running out of wild animals? Is the greatest thing about a wild animal not the fact that it is wild, not that it once was? By choosing not to swim with solitary dolphins we will prevent them from becoming sociable, and this will remove the risks to both human and animal. And this choice will make the greatest of contributions to the natural world, by keeping a wild animal wild.

Paul Kiernan, Welfare Officer