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Dusty dolphin swims close to the Arran islands

The friendly Dolphin phenomenon

While doing some research on dolphins to write an article for Duiken Magazine I learned that Dusty is not the only friendly dolphin out there. Famous dolphins like Dusty, Fungie and Duggie have been known to interact with humans for extended periods of time. Although all of these examples occured in Irish waters, many more examples are documented inside and outside British waters.

The friendly dolphin phenomenon is actually quite common and subject of debate amongst many dolphin enthusiasts and biologists. Why these animals seek out interaction with people (and in Duggies case even a dog!) is still unkown, but I discovered three main theories for this phenomenon. Also, I noticed that most of these friendly dolphins tend to change their behavior as the interactions intensify and become more frequent.
Fungie for example was known to be very friendly upon his arrival in Dingle, but got a worse reputation as time went by and he became a touristic attraction.

The Tory Island dolphin Duggie was one of the Irish stars who made friends with a local labrador named Ben. Below a wicked video shows their interaction in the harbor of Tory Island.


The first theory explaining the friendly behavior suggests that a dolphin loses his or her pod and devoid of social contact fills this gap with the best next thing: us humans. In Dusty's case this is quite plausibel since she was found as a relatively young bottlenose dolphin when she started to interact with people in Doolin back in 2000.
Another theory is that dolphins sometimes tend to live solitary for certain phases in their lives, but still look for interaction from time to time. It is not uncommon for males to live temporarily solitary lives and as a matter of fact, most of the friendly dolphins seem to be male bottlenose dolphins. Interaction with other (pods of) dolphins does happen though, especially when mating.

Although Dusty might be an exception to this rule it could well be a good explanation for other friendly dolphins indeed. It is not uncommon for mammals to live solitary lives at all. Bull elephants for example also live solitary lives away from the matrilineal herds after growing up amongst the herd themselves.
A third theory is a more controversial one. Advocates for this theory see a causal relationship between the closing of the dolphinaria in for example the UK and the appearance of these dolphins looking for social interaction with humans. The introduction of the dolphinaria in the seventies was followed by a major uprise in objections to the circumstances in which the dolphins were kept. This uprise lead to regulation guidelines which in turn contributed to the closing of all the dolphinaria in the UK.

Records show that some dolphins were moved to other accommodation, for example the Dolphinarium in Harderwijk in the Netherlands. Other dolphins named Rocky, Missy and Silver were released in the waters around Turks & Caicos in the Caribbean. Rumours indicate that some dolphins could well have been put back in their natural environment; the British seas.. Being animals that have relied on humans for social interaction as well as for their only food supply, make it not too surprising if such dolphins would continue to seek contact with people..
Different phases
Whatever the reason is for the friendly dolphin phenomenon, it is a truly amazing spectacle to see wild dolphins interact with people on their own terms. Dusty is free to go at any time and still chooses to interact with people. Stories like Dusty's however start out with a mutual beneficial relationship for both the dolphins and people, but have a rather negative end to the story. Other friendly dolphins were becoming more and more frustrated. They sometimes even became aggressive when more people were drawn to the water to interact with them!

During the second time we met up with Dusty we noticed that more people were entering the water than during the previous days. The crowd included people who did not respect the dolphin as much as they should. When a German surfer for example decided to reach for the dorsal fin of the dolphin to ride it, she reacted by wild jumping, doing tailslaps and splashing violently. Clearly she wasn't appreciating this physical approach from a stranger.

In conversations with Doolin locals they indicated that what we had witnessed was nothing compared to her actions in summertime. Dusty would get even more frustrated during summer months when even more people came to swim with the dolphin and the water would become overcrowded. She has been responsible for quite a few bruises and even some broken ribs when she would react aggressively to people..

Leaving Dusty in Spring and knowing that her own success might (have) become a problem for her wasn't really a reassurance. As we left Ireland I was wondering what would happen in the summer to come. Last week news about Dusty reached me via Twitter. Dusty had been involved in a so called unprovoked attack. A video taken by a spectator showed the attack, but more context (what happened before the attack) was not shown...

I can only hope that people will respect these friendly dolphins for being wild animals. To give them space when they need it and leave them alone when it is too crowded. In my opinion these animals can never exhibit "wrong" behavior, since they are after all, wild animals. Interacting with them (as with any wild animal) can in some circumstances and especially when you don't read the body language, lead to injury. The video above shows this perfectly well.
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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