There is a thin line between enjoying dolphin watching, with minimal impact on their behaviour, and causing severe disturbance while chasing them around. It is all too easy to step over this line if you are not careful and observant.
Like us, dolphins exhibit various natural behaviours throughout the day. They all serve a particular purpose and contribute to the overall health and survival of individuals within the group. These include feeding, travelling, resting, maternal care, social interactions and others. Having this in mind, it is clear that by approaching dolphins in the wild, we are creating a disturbance in their routine. To a certain extent, we are forcing them to abandon their current activities in order to deal with our presence. Persistent disturbance may cause long-term negative impacts such as stress related health issues, reduced reproductive success or avoidance of previously very important areas.
What we choose to do when we encounter these animals is going to make a huge difference in respect to their well-being. Observing their behaviour at all times is paramount as well as following these simple guidelines:
INTRODUCE YOURSELF POLITELY (1) – Approach slowly from their side. Avoid sudden changes in speed and direction.
- First impressions are important. As a human, you rely heavily on sight to provide initial information about the person you are meeting. However, vision is of limited use in their dark habitat. Sound, on the other hand, is carried through water quickly and can be detected at great distances. Bear in mind dolphins can hear you coming from much further away than you can see them. Therefore, your engine is a means of “communicating” with the dolphins. You should accelerate or decelerate gradually while in their vicinity. Putting your engine in gear, changing speed and/or direction is alarming the dolphins they should reassess your intentions so try being consistent. Let them get acquainted with the sound you are producing.
- Initially, try not to go closer than 100 m, approaching from either side at a very shallow angle. Allowing some time for them to get comfortable with your presence is also giving you a chance to note if there are any small calves in the group. It is best you leave immediately provided you see any.
FOLLOW PARALLEL TO THEIR COURSE (2) - Keep the engine in neutral while they are diving. Do not rush to reach them after they surface.
- It is best you maintain the boat in a position parallel and slightly behind the group. You are thereby leaving enough room for the animals to change direction without constraints. Make sure you are aware of their movement at all times so you can respond appropriately. Avoid crossing their path or moving ahead of them.
- While the animals are diving you can either maintain your current speed and direction or place the engine in neutral and wait for them to reappear. Do not rush to reach them when they surface. Follow the same routine as you would when approaching for the first time.
- If there are dolphins approaching the boat do not make any changes until they leave. They are perfectly aware of the position and speed of your vessel so doing/changing nothing is the safest way to handle this situation. It will also give you a chance to get a longer look at them as they won’t be startled by your actions.
DOLPHINS NEED PRIVACY, JUST LIKE US (3) - They will let you know if you are not welcome! Leave immediately if you hear loud exhalation or observe very small animals, tail slapping, changes in swimming direction or prolonged dives.
Even if you are not an expert in bottlenose dolphin behaviour, most of the time you will be able to determine whether your presence is disturbing the animals by making note of the following:
- Should you observe mothers with small calves, it is best you leave immediately because young animals are particularly vulnerable to stress. Females or the entire group will often try to position themselves between the calf and the boat in an attempt to shield the offspring. This is a definite sign you should move away.
- Leave if you notice the group is repeatedly making abrupt changes in speed or direction, above or below water. There can be several reasons for this kind of behaviour. You are most likely too close or keeping a course in conflict with their direction of movement. You might also be interfering with a critical period designated to nursing a newborn, rest or feeding and they simply do not want you around.
- Dolphins will undertake prolonged dives in order to “shake you off”, often surfacing far away from the initial position.
- Move away if they are repeatedly swimming directly towards and away from the boat.
- There are also more apparent ways of showing discontent. They can try to scare you away or warn you with loud exhalations and continuous tail slapping at the surface, as well as repeated breaching.
GIVE THEM SPACE (2) - Do not come closer than 50 m. Let them decide to approach you. If there are other boats around, increase the distance from the group.
- Dolphins can be easily disturbed if you do not keep your distance. There is no strictly defined boundary. Each encounter will be different and the comfort zone is even going to shift while watching the same group. So, how close is too close? If you notice any aggressive (loud exhaling, breaching, tail slapping) or evasive behaviour, you should definitely increase the distance from the group or even leave altogether. At all times, try not to come closer than 50 m unless the dolphins approach on their own.
- Too many boats surrounding the dolphins at the same time will also have a negative effect. If there are others actively viewing the animals, wait for them to leave before you come any closer. There shouldn’t be any more than three boats within 200 m of the group.
- Try not to have boats positioned on all sides of the dolphins. Surrounding them will create a feeling of being trapped and they will try to escape. It is better if all vessels are on one side of the group, allowing them enough room to change course without obstruction.
DO NOT OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME (3) - Stay with the animals for up to 30 minutes. Accelerate gradually when leaving.
- Your presence in itself represents a disturbance, regardless of your behaviour. Following these guidelines minimises your impact but it does not mean you are now part of the group. Although the experience of being close to these animals might be very rewarding, dolphins are wild animals and need to go on with their daily activities to ensure their survival. Enjoy yourself, take photos and share your impressions but leave after no more than 30 minutes. Make sure you are far away when accelerating. Do it gradually, especially if the dolphins are diving and you are not aware of their exact position!
CAUTION! Capturing, harming or harassing dolphins is PROHIBITED by Croatian law.
- Circling around dolphins, manoeuvring the boat directly at the group, trying to touch and tease the dolphins all constitute harassment – you do not want to get a fine!
Why not to swim with dolphins