No sooner had I set down my camera bag, lifted my binoculars to get a closer look at a shy albatross in the distance, before I was more or less startled by the loud flop of a full grown bottlenose dolphin as it landed sideways in front of the wave created by the ship’s bow beneath me. “Are you kidding me right now,” I believe I said out loud to no one in particular, scrambled for my camera, and squealed with delight as the flop was echoed by two other equally large individuals. Looking beyond them, there were dozens more making their way toward the ship!
The dolphins took turns launching themselves from the waves, seeming to thoroughly enjoy themselves in the surf, while simultaneously taking in what they could see of us above the water. A particularly impressive leap provoked irrepressible cheers and whoops from myself and a few others that I had hastily encouraged from the comfort of the café just inside to join me in the wind. It’s in such moments where there is no hope of polishing my happy and excitable giggles into more professionally informative speech. If the dolphins can break from the foraging task at hand to play, I too can break from the ‘naturalist’ mode for a few moments to let the dolphins fill me with the Rachel Carson ‘sense of wonder’. Such a performance from these complex marine mammals makes it difficult to deny that play behavior is not an important part of the social life of a dolphin, just as laughter is said to be ‘good for the [human] soul.’
Once they’d tired of us and re-focused on foraging, however, I too reverted to my naturalistic pondering … Based on our distance from shore, and the size of the group of these animals, I deduced we’d encountered a fusion of multiple off-shore ecotype pods. Warm water from the equatorial pacific makes its way along the eastern coastline of Australia in summer, and many dolphins are known to take advantage of the rich food resources this supports. Bottlenose dolphins normally spend most of their time in smaller groups closer to shore, but will join forces offshore to feed. What was even more amazing was the pod of no less than fifty pilot whales moving as one about 500 yards distant. Although not as curious about us as the dolphins, the pilot whales didn’t seem bothered by our passing. The presence of such large aggregations of both species is indicative of the significance of this area for summer feeding.
It wasn’t just beyond exciting to see so many of these toothed whales so close (and so surprisingly), but particularly prudent after having given a talk on dolphins in the theatre just hours earlier, encouraging people to be on the look out throughout the day because of the ocean conditions I just described above! This isn’t the first time the dolphins have been on cue either. Last cruise, just as the sun was setting against the backdrop of the Tauranga coastline of New Zealand, I was out on a lower open deck reading a recent article about local dolphin populations in preparation for my talk on dolphins the following morning. As if to give me their blessing, I looked up from my reading to see several common dolphins traveling at full-speed toward us.
There is so much we don’t know about the ocean, so much to be explored. Humans have explored less than 5% of the world's oceans. Dolphins spend their entire lives ranging throughout it, and their pilot whale relatives interact with it at depth, sometimes 1000 meters below what humans are capable of going. The more we can learn about these animals, the better we can understand their habitat that we really know so little about and are at the point of recognizing is so important to us. So, keep it coming my fellow surf-seeking friends, I’m dying to learn more!