Swimming with dolphins

Posted by on Sep 25, 2011 in Documentary, Featured, Underwater
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They “see” us before we see them. Yet we become aware of their presence almost immediately on entering the water. Despite the near twenty-metre visibility, their whistles, burst pulses, bubble trails and chirps “inspect” us well before they come into view.

Suddenly they are upon us, surrounding us. The dolphins circle us, inspecting each of us in turn, like planets circling the sun. Maintaining eye contact with the dolphins personalizes and intensifies the interaction. So we steadfastly try to maintain eye contact. But it all happens too fast. Circle swims, deep dives, winks, turns, bubble blowing and calls. This pod wraps us in an aquatic storm of high-cetacean energy that somehow touches our souls and invites us to dance with the dolphins.

Fifteen minutes later, the calls change and the dolphins simply disappear and get on with whatever they were doing before they came to play with us. Yet twice more that day they chose to indulge us. Leaving the shoreline where they’ve been surfing and jumping the waves, they come out to play. Each time we are invigorated and energized, and at the end of each engagement find ourselves strangely at peace and speechless.

A pair of bottlenose dolphins

A pair of bottlenose dolphins

The bustling town of Ponta do Ouro (Point of Gold) situated in the southernmost bay in Mozambique and a few short kilometres from the South African border is a playground to Mozambicans seeking relief from the hustle and bustle of Maputo and South Africans looking for a unique and exotic beach and diving experience.

Well known as a diving destination, Ponta (as everyone refers to it) comes alive over weekends and holidays. Its myriad bars, restaurants and clubs resonate to the sound of people having a good time.

But there’s a growing niche experience to be had that transcends the music, drum beats, parties and dive sites and its popularity is on the rise. Swimming with dolphins makes visiting Ponta a vastly different experience. Usually the preserve of scientists who study dolphins, it is now possible to experience wild dolphins in their natural environment under the leadership of knowledgeable and professional guides.

Angie and Steve Gullan pioneered swimming with dolphins almost sixteen years ago and Angie now runs Dolphin Encounters, a dolphin experience, and The Dolphin Research centre, a long-term research project. One of the early converts to this fledgling business was Harry van den Heever who became involved in 1996 and has since built up a deep knowledge of the Ponta dolphins.

Meanwhile, the siren call of the Ponta dolphins pod seduced Noleen Withers who on a visit to Ponta, found herself playing mistress to this engaging pod of inshore bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Five years ago, Harry together with Noleen set up Somente Aqua Dolphin Centre to promote sustainable dolphins tourism through education and conservation.

Guides swimming with dolphins

Guides swimming with dolphins

Today, Noleen and the team at Somente Aqua Dolphin Centre draw on the collective knowledge of many years of experience to delight in exposing seasoned divers, tourists and non-diving family members to the experience of swimming with dolphins.

Using dorsal fin identification, some 250 resident dolphins have been identified in an observed 40 to 70-kilometre home range that includes the bay of Ponta do Ouro. The exact range of this pod is not really known and estimating population size and range is a daunting task. The dolphins split up regularly with some going to deeper waters to feed, returning sometimes weeks later. Often bigger, more dominant males are found offshore yet they too return to the pod inshore. There is a constant process of splitting and reuniting – a process termed “fission” and “fusion”.

For the most part, the Ponta pod is habituated to human intervention and interaction in its habitat and range. The dolphins are accustomed to the passing traffic from dive boats and on rare occasions will pay scuba divers on the reef a friendly visit. Equally, the pod is experienced in being observed by dolphin guides and tourists. Many years of regular visits have built a high degree of trust between the dolphins and the humans that crave their company so much.

This “bond” that has been developed over the years is unique yet fragile. Along with restricting clients from diving down to the dolphins, the guides enforce a strict “no-touch” policy when interacting with the dolphins in order to avoid bacterial transfer between human and dolphins and to maintain the relationship of trust.

Juvenile bottlenose dolphins

Juvenile bottlenose dolphins

Trust underlies any relationship and trust is earned, not given. Regular trusting interactions build greater trust and cement relationships. The Ponta dolphins accept unfamiliar humans into their space because of the trust implicit through regular and careful interactions. Most often, these interactions take the form of play, and mimicry is an often-played game. In the last two years, Noleen has developed a special bond with a particular female and juvenile who play mimic games with her. She holds her arms out in front of her and nods her head. They mimic this by holding out their pectoral fins and nodding with their heads. She also goes into a tuck position, which they also mimic.

They love to play and one of her favourite games is to hide from them when swimming behind them – as they look at her from one eye she moves to their blind side behind them so they roll to the other side to see her and she repeats the hiding action. They love this game and have been known to do complete back flips to see her.

Sometimes, Noleen will dive down to the sand and wait, ignoring the dolphins (the Somente Aqua Dolphin Centre team sometimes dive down to sex the dolphins). Their natural curiosity getting the better of them as they dive down to investigate her. When they’re really in the mood to play they will bring her toys, such as seaweed, to play with. This is called “object play”.

Regular interaction has led to the development of a game, which the guides call “circle swims”. Circle swims generally begin when eye contact is made between human and dolphins. In order to maintain eye contact it is necessary for the dolphins and human to swim in circles, hence circle swims. These circle swim affairs can be highly energetic and fast if done with juveniles or synchronized, graceful and calm when performed with older dolphins. It’s a favourite game played between human and dolphins with the dolphins oftentimes jostling for prime position in the eye-contact-circle-swim dance. In this way, the underwater ballet of “dances with dolphins” is performed.

Three dolphins circle swim with one of the guides

Three dolphins circle swim with one of the guides

The years invested by the dolphin guides in interacting with the dolphins is manifest in the special relationships that have developed between certain team members and dolphins. And it is these special relationships that allow for time in the water for clients to witness interactions between team members and dolphins and to establish trust on the part of the dolphins to accept the unfamiliar humans in water.

All cetaceans use echolocation to hunt and assess objects and life forms. Interestingly, this ability is believed to enable dolphins to be able to pick out a pregnant woman from a non-pregnant one. Dolphins seem particularly sensitive and Noleen has observed changes in their behaviour when interacting with the dolphins during her menstrual cycle. She has observed that the female dolphins become more protective and intentionally prevent male dolphins from interacting.

This nurturing behaviour on the part of the female dolphins is well known to extend to the care they lavish on their own calves. Because of this, guides do not encourage interaction with dolphins mothers and newborn calves. Voluntary interaction by the mothers usually occurs when the calves are two to three weeks and older. In these instances the proud mothers have been known to bring in their calves to as if to “show them off” to specific people they have built relationships with. Calves generally swim between their mother’s pectoral fins as if hiding. But when mothers show off their calves, they will swim closer and then tip to one side, raising a pectoral fin to show off the baby. Excited whistles and chirps by the mother usually accompany this – as if describing and telling the calf about humans.

A pair of shy bottlenose dolphins

A pair of shy bottlenose dolphins

Incredibly, these curious and intelligent dolphins have established a bond with Noleen’s labrador, Kira. Kira often accompanies the Dolphins Centre crew on the boat and long before the dolphins are sighted Kira will become aware of their presence. She will bounce from side to side on the boat straining to see her friends. Yet only when the dolphins approach the boat to interact will she jump in the water and swim with them. Kira has never jumped in the water when the dolphins are resting, almost as if she picks up their behaviour – when at rest dolphins give out a strong ammoniac smell that she would pick up. Paddling on the surface she will swim in circles while her friends delight in circling beneath her – a marvelous sight to bear witness to.

There are only two authorised dolphin operators in Ponta and they adhere to a strict code of conduct, which they rigorously apply to each dolphin interaction. This code of conduct has been designed to ensure the well being and safety of the dolphins at all times and is based on years of experience and careful observation.

On finding a pod of dolphins, the boat skipper and swim facilitator will assess the dolphins’ behaviour before considering entering the water to interact. Dolphins that are resting are left alone, as is a pod that evidences avoidance of the boat. If newly born calves are spotted, then that pod too is left alone.

Resting is easily determined – loud exhale breaths, slow movement on the surface and longer dive times indicate a pod at rest. Dolphin brains, like all cetaceans, comprise two distinct lobes and this enables them to shut down one side of their brain to rest while the other remains awake. Resting can be between seven minutes and seven hours long. Feeding is very obvious – the dolphins dive regularly, swim at a fast pace and cover a large area in their search for food.

While it is sometimes more difficult to interact with the dolphins when they are feeding it is a fantastic experience to be had – to see how they use teamwork to hunt their prey and also how they often play with their food.

The Dolphin Centre’s main aim in conducting dolphins interactions is to promote a safe environment for sustainable dolphins tourism through education and conservation. Consequently, their pre-launch briefing is detailed and informative. They spend time explaining the species of dolphins that may be encountered and the behaviour to be anticipated. During the boat trip, the swim facilitators or skipper provide a running commentary of the behaviour they see, interpreting for the benefit of the visitors onboard the boat. So you never feel that you’re missing out on a potential interaction.

The most commonly seen three species of dolphins are: the inshore bottlenose dolphins – a social and playful dolphin, the indo-pacific humpback dolphins – shy and elusive, and spinner dolphins – found in deep water and so-named for their great spinning leaps into the air. Often chance encounters with larger animals occur – whales, mainly humpback whales, migrating during the months of July to November and whale sharks in the summer months.

Ponta lies in a partial marine reserve that runs from Santa Maria in the north to Kosi Bay in the south. Research, discussions and negotiations are developing and it is hoped by many that this area will be declared a full marine reserve. The area appears to be unique with its coral reefs, migratory animals and special dolphins.

Excited youngsters close in, to play

Excited youngsters close in, to play

During peak holiday periods Ponta experiences a high degree of diver and tourist traffic which encourages dive operators to incorporate dolphins encounters in their service offerings. While this is good business, it’s not good conservation practice though as it takes experience and know-how to work with the dolphins. So a lack of application of protocols and depth of knowledge of dolphin behaviour can lead to a negative impact on the pod and a concomitant breach of trust.

The healing powers of dolphins are legendary and steeped in mysticism. While there are many people who are skeptical, there are many who believe in the abilities of dolphins. Noleen shared two stories with me of encounters she’d experienced with dolphins and disabled children. The first was of an autistic child that found the ability to speak having learned to vocalize the words “dolphins” and “Ponta” following her interactions with the dolphins. The second was of a young boy who had lost an arm and was slightly brain damaged following a serious car accident. While he was in the water with Noleen and his sister, two dolphins came out of nowhere (Noleen could hear their vocalisations before she saw them) and they drew belly-up to the boy gently touching him with their pectoral fins … almost as if lifting him to the surface of the water. This pair then stayed close-by and in an upright position watching him until he left the water.

Interacting with dolphins is not a guarantee on every trip as these are wild creatures that are untamed and free. They don’t “play” on demand. They have moods, activities and conditions that may take them away from interacting. But the more trips you do, the better your chances of having an interaction. Therefore it is best to book for at least three trips in order to up your chances of interacting with them. Also, as dolphins are super-sensitive, you need to modify your behaviour and mental state when in the water with them. Quick, urgent, flapping movements will scare them off, as will any tension, bad or low energy and anxiety. You need to keep a calm demeanor and be relaxed in the water. Keep your arms by your side and fin gently. Also seek to make eye contact with the dolphins; this is what they look for as a prelude to interacting.

Dolphin trips are essentially “seafari” trips, albeit looking for a specific type of animal. The chance of encountering other large marine animals is great, so anticipate this – whale sharks, whales (humpback whales), turtles and sometimes mantas. And working with professional guides who know the dolphins intimately and can assess their behaviour is reason enough to find out more.

Knowing that the guides are committed to sustainable tourism and that they have both your and the dolphins’ interests at heart makes for the best kind of interactions.


This article was originally published in issue 19 of African Diver Magazine and the original can be found here

For more images of dolphins visit my image archives here

The Dolphin Research Centre in Mozambique

Dolphin Encounters Mozambique

Somente Aqua – The Dolphin Centre, Mozambique