A dolphin asks divers for help?

by • January 20, 2013 • Dolphin News, Dolphin Science, Personal MusingsComments Off1399

An amazing video showing a diver removing a fishing line that was wrapped around the pectoral fin of a wild bottlenose dolphin has been making the rounds this week.

This video was uploaded by Ocean Wings Hawaii, an ecotour company offering night dives to observe manta rays feeding off the coast of Kailua-Kona. In the video, shot on January 4th 2013 by Martina Wing, an adult male bottlenose dolphin can be seen approaching a group of divers. The whole area is illuminated by powerful dive lights, and the manta rays can be seen in the background. The dolphin does not display any signs of being nervous or agitated, and hangs quite calmly in the water column just inches away from the (presumably) astonished divers. Before too long, the divers notice the fishing line. According to Wing,the fishing line was wrapped so tightly that it could not be removed by hand, which is why the diver featured in the video (Keller Laros – AKA the Manta Man) whips out a pair of underwater safety shears and begins cutting the line. Although the video is not time stamped (which makes it difficult to say how long the encounter lasted), it’s obvious based on the length of the uploaded video that the dolphin spent many minutes being gently manhandled by the divers as they tried to free him. At one point, the dolphin returns to the surface for a breath before re-approaching the divers. Eventually the line was removed from around the fin, although the fishing hook remained in the dolphin’s flesh.

I found this video to be pretty darn amazing – and that’s coming from someone who has spent an awful lot of time watching underwater video footage of wild dolphins.To begin with, I am amazed at how boldly this animal approached the divers, how close he got, and how easily he tolerated being touched and prodded. This is especially baffling if, as I suspect, this dolphin had not had much exposure to human divers, snorkelers, or swimmers in the past (i.e., it had not yet been habituated to human presence). Although wild dolphins certainly do approach humans, with the infamous lone sociable dolphins (like Fungi or JoJo) spending a lot of their time in close contact with humans, this level of contact – which appears to be a once-off occurrence – is rather rare. I am also amazed at how tolerant the dolphin was of the bubbles being expelled by the regulator – some of which hit him full on in the face. We often tell tourists that we see on our own research expeditions in The Bahamas how nervous wild dolphins can be around diver-produced bubbles, which is one of the reasons we snorkel with them as opposed to dive.

Many of the folks commenting on the video are suggesting that the dolphin approached the divers to solicit help in removing the fishing line. This is the explanation many have for why the dolphin was so relaxed, and got so close. Of course it’s entirely possible that the dolphin was sick or weak (from the fishing line entanglement or otherwise) which might explain his lack of fear and generally calm demeanor. And I am not 100% sure that it’s accurate to suggest that the dolphin “knew” that the divers were trying to help him. The dolphin also rubs up against the mooring line (as can be seen in the video), so it’s possible that the dolphin just regarded the humans as another thing to rub up against – something that appeared to work even better than a mooring line at getting rid of that darn fishing line. Given how difficult it is to prove what dolphins might or might not know about the thoughts or intentions of humans (or other dolphins), it’s probably going a bit too far to conclude that the dolphin knew it could find help if it approached the divers. Consider also that if the dolphin had tried the same approach with humans in somewhere like Taiji, things would have ended very differently.

But there is no denying that this dolphin remained strangely calm as a relatively large, bubble blowing monster with odd grasping appendages grabbed hold of a (probably quite tender) part of its body and starting tearing away at the fishing line – an activity that was probably painful in and of itself. Whatever the dolphin might have been thinking, it must have put the divers in the category “friend” and not “foe” in order to let this happen, which was, in this case, a very smart decision. Kudos to the divers for intervening.

UPDATE: Someone suggested that it’s possible the dolphins in this area might be being fed/provisioned by humans, which might explain why this dolphin was so comfortable around the divers. I sure hope this is not the explanation for this dolphin’s behavior since feeding wild dolphins is illegal, and increases the risk that they get injured by boat propellers or, ironically, tangled in nets and fishing lines.

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