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Zafar the bottlenose dolphin in Amsterdam harbor

Zafar in Duiken magazine

Although the story of Zafar's travel and initial rescue ended very positive, it did have a (for many) unexpected "encore" in store..

After the rescue he was seen multiple times around the Marina at IJmuiden and then went out to sea on the 5th of May.

He was spotted further North while escorting fishing vessles.

Then, it went silent until Zafar washed up on the beach of Wijk aan Zee on the 12 of May..

His tail fin was missing and a big bruise on his flank indicated a heavy blow to that side.

An incredible sad situation after all the effort that had gone into saving him and since many people loved the dolphin across Europe.

Some people would drive for hours on end to swim with the solitairy dolphin and really connected with him.

Check out this beauty of a video made in France by Jan Ploeg, when Zafar was entertaining himself while interacting with people and a fish.

Researchers of the University of Utrecht (experienced with researching the many porpoise strandings we have in the Netherlands) tried to get answers to the questions that were to be answered.

One of the most important question that I wanted answered was: How can a dolphin that is so used to boats, suddenly wash up on a beach in a state like that?

Researchers concluded the wounds inflicted could only have been manifested with a boat collission. The general idea was first a collision, then his tail hit the prop of the boat.

For me, it is strange however that an animal like Zafar is "hit" by a boat. It did cross my mind that habituated dolphins can also make mistakes, especially with fast-moving parts of a boat like a propeller.

Apparently it is not uncommon for these type of dolphins to get hit by a propeller as can be read in the publication of Nunny and Simons (2019):

"The WiSe scheme (2018) highlights the risk of injury from propellers and the fact that solitairy-sociable dolphins are often very attracted to them therefore it is often recommended that engines are put into neutral if a dolphin approaches.."  

Another question that crossed my mind was, "what came first"? The collision (heavy blow to his flank) or the blow that cut off his tail? Especially since I think a dolphin like Zafar is not suddenly run-over by a boat.

I feel the following is the most likely scenario: Zafar has made a deadly mistake, or was caught by surprise when he was sucked into the wake of a boat.

His tail somehow is hit by the propeller. The blow is so heavy his whole body is swung with force towards the hull of the boat and slams into it.

I would be surprised if loosing his tail and breaking his vertrebrae would not have killed him almost instantly. The internal bleedings of the (for me second) blow would probably not leave him much more time though.

A very sad way to go for such an admired and famous dolphin..

Although many dolphins in the Atlantic actually die from entanglement in fishing gear and some are cut from the nets loosing their fins (in an attempt to save the nets), I don't think that was the scenario here as the research has not pointed that out as a potential cause.

If it would have been the case I think there would have been entanglement marks on the skin as well. Also, I think the big internal bleedings point at a different scenario.

The story I wrote for Duiken Magazine on Zafar's arrival, rescue and death shows a few findings: 

  • Dophins & whales are definitely not 100% safe in the Northsea, one of the busiest seas in the world (especially these type of social animals are a group with high risk of getting injured).
  • The work of NGO's like SOS Dolfijn has high highs and low lows. Some of them follow up on eachother quite fast.
  • And even when you do everything right, things do go wrong..

The magazine is out in stores now, if you would like to support SOS Dolfijn in their efforts, use the QR code on below advertisement (or this link) to show your appreciation for their work.

Funds will be used wisely and most probably go into realizing a permanent rehabilitation center with educational purposes.

Interested in more images of Zafar or the "friendly dolphin phenomenon"? Follow this link.

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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