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A bottlenose dolphin carries a stout emperor in its mouth, by Joost van Uffelen

Breakfast with the dolphins

The seas around Reunion island are home to an interesting variety of cetaceans. During our trip we encountered spinner dolphins, humpback whales and indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in-water.

Due to the el Nino year only few whales could be found along the coast, so the dolphins at times could really steal the show (read: save our day) right in the middle of the whale season..

The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins of Reunion islands west coast seem to have no problem with having freedivers around. Maybe it is due to the fact that people have been interacting with them in the water for a longer while.

They actually seemed to be very interested in contact with humans, although on some days they kept more distance than others.

Breakfast with the dolphins

During one of our early morning ocean safari's we had a very special encounter with the local group of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. 

When we encountered the dolphins they were somewhere in between the surf spots of the harbor of St. Gilles and Boucan Canot. They travelled in South direction at a slow pace. We decided to slide in and join them, avoiding making too much noise. While swimming along with the dolphins all of a sudden a dolphin known as "Kodak" (probably he likes to get his picture taken?) appeared with a big fish in his mouth.

He was having breakfast!

Kodak seemed to enjoy the fact that only he had the fish as he did not seem to share the meal with another dolphin that kept on following him around. He swam in front of us from left to right, observing us while we observed him. It almost felt like he was showing off.

Then another dolphin popped up with the same type of fish, a Stout Emperor (Gymnocranius Grandoculis) in its mouth. Both dolphins had expertly beheaded the fish already. How they did it? I have no clue, but it must not have been pretty..

The dolphins fed on the go. They did not just hang in one spot and finish the meal. While swimming they would tear off chunks of fish to swallow them directly. In the meantime we tried to keep up with them. Camera's were rolling and the shutter of my camera was in overdrive. 

In between demolishing the fish they would either carry it in their mouth or (funny enough) on top of their beaks. When placed on top of their beak they would push the fish forward with their Melon (their forehead).

The ease with which they switched between pushing the fish on their beak and carrying it in their jaws was pretty astonishing. They surely had done this trick more than once!

Only a few times they would drop the fish. It was almost too tempting to pick it up. They were quick enough however to turn around and pick it up themselves before any other dolphin (or human) would be able to steal their well earned meal..

The dolphins could not be called neat eaters as we were continuously swimming through a cloud of discarded fish scales and chunks of fish. It seemed nobody raised them with "eat with manners" or "finish it all".. They appeared to just take the parts that mattered most. Maybe even only the parts that tasted best?

At one point the fish were reduced to a size which the dolphin could swallow whole and with a few attempts down it went..

And then breakfast was over.

Luckily we managed to record the event with some images & video that later revealed the details of the whole thing. Slowing down the video showed how the dolphins teared off pieces of fish and swallowed them just there and then. Interesting was to check whether they were sharing their catch as well. We did not observe anything like that, even though we did identify that the hunters were followed by other (hungry?) dolphins. A theory could be that the successful hunters were males that were just showing off their catch to the females and young dolphins in the pod.

On other trips we did observe what seemed to be that the resident pod was followed by a trio of male dolphins. One of them was easily identified as Kodak, because of his unique dorsal fin. After comparing video's and photos one of the other two turned out to be the second successful hunting dolphin... This might have been the moment where the boys came in to show off how capable they were as male dolphins (doesn't that sound like human behavior?).

Some more research reveals that bonding of male dolphins into strategic alliances is not a new thing. Actually whole studies have been done on this behavior! Apparently the males form alliances to be more successful in breeding with the females. In a sense they cooperatively herd "their" pod. This behavior has been observed also in lions, chimpansees, baboons and other mammals.

Needless to say we were stoked and honored to be accepted as spectators of the show. If these dolphins would not have wanted us around, they would most likely have fed in the depths. Or they would just swim off to a different location, leaving us at the spot.

Some more on these dolphins

The Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops Aduncus) is only since 1998 seen as a distinct different species from the larger common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus). We actually freedived with the same species in Mozambique. Experts still seem to debate on whether or not Tursiops Aduncus should be further split into distinct species. Although research is being done around the world the species is still recorded as data deficient according to IUCN. Basically it means that not enough research has been done to be conclusive on their overall conservation status. 

For Reunion however the population does not seem to be large and rather isolated and therefore is protected.

These dolphins are more inclined to be in trouble due to their habit to forage inshore waters. This makes them more vulnerable to bycatch in fisheries and even to the direct taking for performing in dolfinaria shows around the world. In fact, 28 of these Indo-Pacific dolphins were caught by targeted fisheries in the Solomon Islands in july 2009 to be exported to Cancun (Mexico). It is said that at least 12 of the 28 dolphins of that shipment died within 5 years of their captivity. Another 28 of them were exported to Dubai and the list goes on with exports to Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.

I guess that is something you could consider prior to entering a dolphin show while holidaying abroad..


Check also my portfolio for more images and video of the encounter.

joostvanuffelen's picture
About the Author:
Joost loves the oceans, travelling and (underwater)photography. Combining those three elements he creates ocean art, travel reports and ocean photo stories...

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