There is a fine line between enjoying dolphin watching, with minimal or no 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 a 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 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 dolphins is going to make a huge difference to their well-being.
It is paramount to be attentive to their behaviour and to follow these simple guidelines:
(1) INTRODUCE YOURSELF POLITELY– Approach slowly from the side. Avoid sudden changes in speed and direction.
- Do not approach from behind or head on. Dolphins are aware of your position. Following or approaching them from behind creates a feeling of being chased and they will try to escape or distance themselves from your boat. Similarly, by approaching head on, you are crossing their path and creating a barrier. This will force the group to change direction, split up or dive deep to avoid your boat. Try not to provoke a reaction from the dolphins as this is a clear sign your presence has influenced their behaviour more than is acceptable. Your goal should be to observe the animals without impacting their next move.
- 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 less important for dolphins. 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 “communication” with the dolphins. You should accelerate or decelerate gradually in their vicinity. Putting your engine in gear, changing speed or direction is alarming for the dolphins, so try to be consistent. Let them get acquainted with the sound you are producing.
- Initially, try not to get closer than 100 m, approaching from either side at a very sharp angle. Allowing some time for them to get comfortable with your presence also give you a chance to note if there are any small calves in the group. It is best you leave immediately if you see any.
(2) FOLLOW IN PARALLEL TO THEIR COURSE – 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 parallel position and slightly behind the group. This way you leave enough room for the animals to change direction without constraints. Make sure you are aware of their movements 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 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 will not be startled by your actions.
(3) DOLPHINS NEED PRIVACY, JUST LIKE US – 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:
- If you observe mothers with small calves, 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. 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 new-born, 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.
(4) GIVE THEM SPACE – 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 might alter while watching the same group. If you notice any aggressive (loud exhaling, breaching, tail slapping) or evasive behaviour, you should definitely increase the distance from the group or 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 have a negative effect. If there are others boats actively viewing the animals, wait for them to leave before you come closer. There should not be more than three boats within 200 m of the group.
- Do not to have boats positioned on all sides of the dolphins. Surrounding them will create a feeling of entrapment and they will try to escape. All vessels should be on one side of the group, allowing them enough room to change course without obstruction.
(5) DO NOT OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME – Stay with the animals for up to 30 minutes. Accelerate gradually when leaving.
- Your presence 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 well away before accelerating. Do it gradually, especially if the dolphins are diving and you are not aware of their exact position.
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
The prevailing public perception of dolphins leads to expectations of friendly interactions with attention-seeking wild animals. Dolphins in captivity might seem to form intimate relations with their trainers while performing fun and exciting stunts. Dolphins are even involved in therapeutic and educational programmes aimed at to helping people overcome their difficulties. Here is why you should not attempt to swim or dive with dolphins:
- You run the risk of harassing the animals while trying to position the boat in such a way that would enable a person to dive close to the group. Dolphins can move through water much faster than any swimmer so chasing them around is not going to give you a chance for a closer look.
- Should you succeed in approaching the animals, bear in mind this situation is not safe for you or the dolphins. These are wild, untrained animals with unpredictable behaviour and should be treated with care and respect. People need medical attention due to bites and body strikes inflicted during such interactions.
- While people in the water may become objects of interest for nearby dolphins, their curiosity should not be misinterpreted as friendly behaviour. A swimmer immersed in their habitat is foremost a foreign and unfamiliar object that needs to be investigated. By trying to seek out their attention, you are disrupting their natural behaviour and forcing them to abandon their current activities such as resting, feeding and socialising. You may force resting animals to move and expend energy, often to unfavourable areas where they are exposed to even more stress. If the pursuit persists, small calves can be strained to keep up with the pod.
- The repeated presence of people in the water can also have the effect of decreasing fear of human interaction making them more vulnerable to boat strikes, entanglement in
fishing gear or even intentional harassment.
- Both humans and dolphins are mammals. Although sea water acts as an effective disinfectant, interaction with wild dolphins may result in disease transfer. These may present serious health threats to dolphins and humans alike.
- Finally, swimming with dolphins represents harassment – you do not want to get a fine.
Why not to Feed Dolphins
It is easy to get carried away while observing these interesting animals. Many people lose track of the fact that dolphins rely on their hunting skills to survive as predators in the wild, and offer them food. Most believe they are helping “starving” dolphins by providing an easy meal. Some are trying to trick the dolphins into coming closer in hope of prolonging the encounter. While these are probably not the only reasons behind this kind of conduct, the results are always adverse. This is why:
- Dolphins can get accustomed to receiving food and become increasingly dependent on humans to provide the next meal. They will alter their foraging strategies and social relationships to allocate more time to “begging” as opposed to actively searching for prey. Human intervention most often presents a transient, unreliable food source which can suddenly become unavailable at their expense.
- The adopted habit of looking for food near humans can prove to be fatal to offspring that may not learn essential hunting and foraging skills. These individuals become completely dependent on human intervention to survive.
- Animals used to receive food will often accept items they would normally refuse to eat. Ingestion of inappropriate food items such as candy bars, pretzels or even plastic objects that are sometimes offered by people who are unaware or unethical can lead to serious health problems.
- Even if you provide fish or other marine organisms such as squid, bear in mind the species in question may not be part of the natural diet of dolphins. These can be contaminated by bacteria and become a source of, potentially lethal, infection if improperly handled or stored.
- Dolphins accustomed to taking food from people lose their fear of humans and frequently approach boats. Being less cautious places them at greater risk of entanglement in fishing gear or ingestion of deployed equipment. It makes them prone to boat strikes and injuries caused by engine propellers.
- Think about your own safety and that of people interacting with the animals in the future! Dolphins used to receiving food from humans can become aggressive if you fail to produce the expected hand out or try to touch and tease them. Remember, these are wild animals with unpredictable behaviour.
- Finally, feeding dolphins in the wild constitutes harming and harassment for reasons explained above – you do not want to get a fine!