Few things can bring a heart more joy than watching wild dolphins at play. Humans have long been fascinated and enchanted by these intelligent beings; dolphins, too, seem to be interested in and curious about us. Perhaps that is why the huge death toll exacted by red tide on our SW Florida dolphin population last year cut so many of us to the heart. Despite that tremendous loss, our local dolphins have shown incredible resilience.
Nursery groups of mothers(cows) and their babies(calves) have been spotted frequently in our waters in recent months, bringing joy and hope to many. Fort Myers Beach is truly a dolphin watching paradise. Residents are often asked where the best area is to view dolphins. Since our coastal dolphins are constantly on the move, there is no perfect dolphin watching location. Dolphins seen near the south end of Estero Island could easily be spotted on the opposite end of the island just an hour or two later. The best way to see them is to simply slow down and be aware, while drinking in the beauty of our waters.
When we are out on the bay or Gulf, it’s important to remember that we are always the visitors; and these waters are the dolphins’ home. There are a few other important points to keep in mind so we can keep our dolphins safe, while still enjoying time in their company.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits feeding or touching wild dolphins and is enforced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Feeding dolphins can prevent a mother from teaching her calf to feed and fend for itself and ultimately could result in death. Receiving fish from humans can also cause dolphins to become “beggars,” going from one fishing boat to the next. Propeller injuries and ingested fishing gear are often the sad result of such practices and have been responsible for dolphin deaths.
Wild dolphins are just that, wild. Even if they approach you when you are swimming or boating, never touch them. It is for their own protection that they remain wary of human touch and that wariness can protect them from those who wish them harm.
There are many myths surrounding dolphins and it’s important to help dispel them. One common misunderstanding is that dolphins can always avoid a boat’s propeller because “they are so fast and smart.” That simply is not true. While it is indeed true that dolphins are intelligent and agile, we often see adult dolphins in our area with lacerated dorsal fins, a result of a tragic encounter with a propeller. Even if the wound is not initially fatal, it can result in infection and, eventually, death.
Our dolphin calves are even more vulnerable to a propeller. Calves are born with an innate sense of echolocation, the ability to locate objects by reflected sound. Like human infants, however, dolphin calves require time and practice to master certain skills, including that one. While young and relatively weak, it is harder for them to avoid contact with boats or propellers.
So, what can we do while boating to keep our friends safe while still enjoying them?
First, never drive directly into or over dolphins. Let them approach you on their own terms, rather than trying to maneuver them into your vessel’s wake. In particular, if you see dolphin calves behind you, simply slow down or put the motor in neutral until the dolphins move on.
The highlight of any dolphin watching venture is undoubtedly seeing them jump; they are the very picture of freedom in motion. Dolphins jump for a variety of reasons, including “spy hopping’ to get a look around or even to see who is operating a boat. When dolphins are in a group, they often frolic and leap together simply because they are having fun; no need for outside encouragement. There is nothing more beautiful to behold than dolphins simply being dolphins.
A note of caution is in order when operating a personal watercraft or jet ski near dolphins. While there is no propeller to cut a dolphin, running over or into a dolphin with a PWC can result in a head injury that could prove to be fatal. So, as when operating a boat, don’t chase, give dolphins space, and let them approach you on their own terms. Circling them can separate mothers from calves and cause them great distress. As one local resident observed, “Dolphins hunt their prey by circling them, so I imagine they feel hunted when surrounded by boats or jet skis. That has to be stressful on them.”
Kayaking, with no propeller to cause harm, is an excellent way to see dolphins. Caution and restraint are needed here as well, as a group of kayaks can also prove to be disruptive to dolphins if the vessels surround them or paddle quickly and directly towards them. Conversely, when dolphins don’t feel threatened, they will often approach a kayak out of curiosity.
Most of us are thrilled to see dolphins up close. However, NOAA warns against purposely “enticing” dolphins to draw close to your vessel, such as with the use of loud noises, whistles or dolphin sounds. These tactics can actually disrupt their feeding and mating. Often, these efforts to “bait” them do not have the desired effect anyway. If dolphins are intent on fishing and their prey is scared off by noise, they often will leave the area, as well. Sitting quietly results in seeing the best display of natural dolphin behavior.
There is no doubt dolphins are intelligent beings and enjoy complex social relationships. Research indicates they can recognize themselves in a mirror, revealing that they are self-aware, sentient beings. They are far more than a mere “photo op” or the next “tourist stop” to amuse us. It is heartening to see the genuine love and concern our beach community shows for the well-being of our local dolphin family. A powerful way we can continue to help them thrive is to educate others about these laws and guidelines. In this often turbulent world, dolphins bring us so much joy and a sense of peace. We owe it to them to do all we can to keep them healthy, safe and at peace, as well. It is our responsibility, privilege and joy to do so.
Monica Lynn offers a monthly presentation January – April, on the local dolphin pod at the Beach Library. The next one will be held Tuesday, January 14 at 10:30am. She will also be a guest speaker at the Friends of the Beach Library annual meeting on January 27 at 5:30pm.
All photos by Monica Lynn, taken from a kayak in the back bay.