Bottlenose dolphins are perhaps the best known of all the marine mammals. These small toothed whales are distributed worldwide, in the warm and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. Their presence in coastal waters has created an interest in these animals dating from ancient times to present, often depicted in folklore, art and modern media.
Bottlenose dolphins are large-brained mammals whose behavior has been the subject of numerous studies. The extent of their “intelligence” is unknown. Intelligence is measured in human terms and is therefore difficult to measure in animals. Dolphins demonstrate the capacity for complex problem-solving, and research has revealed advance cognitive abilities. A large portion of their brains may be devoted to communication.
Dolphins are famous for their reputedly playful nature. They often ride the bow of waves of boats and are frequently seen soaring high out of the water in a display of aerial acrobatics. They interact enthusiastically with objects in their environment for no apparent purpose other than play.
Television shows and films have popularized the idea that dolphins enjoy interacting with humans. It is this notion that has created a dangerous trend with potentially disastrous consequences to bottlenose dolphins. Feeding and swimming with wild animals has become more and more common, despite federal law prohibiting the practice.
Commercial operators and private individuals seek out dolphins, luring them with fish to boats and beaches. As the animals receive handouts, they lose their natural sense of caution and are put in jeopardy. They are fed inappropriate food items and improperly handled fish, sometimes with fatal consequences. Injuries from boat hits and propellers are increasing at an alarming rate. There are social consequences as well, with females teaching their calves to beg from boats rather than to forage food naturally. Additionally, enthusiasts forget or are unaware of the potential for extreme aggressions from these large, powerful animals. As more people enter the water seeking friendly interactions, there are increasing reports of dolphin aggression, often leading to sever injury of the human intruder.
How can you help? You can continue to educate yourself on how to properly observe and respect wildlife, and share that information with your friends. Keep dolphins safe by observing them from a distance where you can enjoy their truly natural behavior. If you want to get a close up view of any wild animal, visit zoos and aquariums, where you can learn more about the animals with whom we share our planet.