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Alone again - naturally? (the solitary dolphin phenomenon)

Dolphins are extremely social creatures, living in close knit groups, why is it then that some are solitary? Is it by choice or for some tangible reason such as being ostracised by their pod, no-one knows for sure.

To date over 90 solitary or sociable cetaceans have been recorded worldwide but questions have been raised regarding potential threats to the safety of solitary cetaceans who it is claimed, can be exposed to many dangers if encouraged to interact with the public.

Studies have shown that this type of exposure can encourage solitary cetaceans to become habituated, reliant on the human contact that is offered to them. However there are opposing views on the effects habituation has on these cetaceans and the ethics surrounding this. Any cetacean/human contact is subject to many factors including: the attitude of the local people living in the area, the attitudes of people interacting with the cetacean and the nature of the individual cetacean.

There are a number of possible reasons why a cetacean may appear as a solitary individual. It may have been spatially separated from its familial or social groups either by choice or via any one, or a variety of environmental or man-made pressures, such as food availability, habitat destruction, predation presence, reproductive strategy or human interference. In some cases the solitary state may only be temporary, perhaps triggered by the loss of a companion or group.

In nearly every case the causal factors which lead to them taking up a solitary existence is unknown. This makes every individual solitary cetacean unique and each one requires special consideration. As humans we all possess unique characteristics and behavioural attitudes, which can be shaped by past experiences and encounters - so can cetaceans and the sequence of events leading up to them becoming solitary can shape their behaviour and response to others, whether that is other cetaceans or humans who decide to enter the watery world of the cetacean.

People are unaware of the implications of swimming with wild dolphins, due mostly to the fact that, for many people, the only experience they have of dolphins is via shows in marine parks or swim-with dolphin facilities, neither of which reflects the true nature or needs of dolphins in the wild. Rather these actually serve a disservice to dolphins as it teaches people, even on a subconscious level, that it is acceptable to keep them in captivity or take them from the wild, for our own amusement. It promotes the idea that they are friendly animals who will openly welcome approaches from humans - all of which is far from the truth, and all of which is solely responsible for the attitude some people have to solitary dolphins which appear around our shores from time to time.

Because of this the public have unintentionally and unknowingly become desensitised to the fact that these solitary cetaceans are in fact wild animals that live by their own rules and this exposes the cetaceans (and people) to many dangers.

Cetaceans stir up certain emotions in a large proportion of the population, people will travel for miles to see one up-close and in the excitement of the moment many people will forget that they are dealing with a wild animal. Often solitary cetaceans are viewed as willing 'playmates' and can been seen as a means of making money - a local attraction which will bring people to the area.

People always want to get closer to the animal. Understandably a solitary cetacean causes much excitement when they appear and this usually leads to more boat traffic - with people taking to the water to see the cetacean up close. It is still a mystery why many solitary cetaceans appear to be fascinated by boat propellers, often getting dangerously close to the blades - excited boat handlers may unintentionally injure the animal as it is far harder to anticipate the movements of a solitary individual with a fascination for the propeller. Incidences of direct or deliberate injury are thankfully rare however it can and does happen.

As already pointed out the solitary state may only be a temporary one, with the cetacean returning to a familial or social group, however if human contact is continuous they may become habituated to a human presence, losing all fear of us and often of boats and unable to interact with their own species and return to their natural lives.

This was the case recently with "Marra" a solitary dolphin which appeared in 2005 off the coast of Cumbria. When she was found trapped in a local marina she was showing the early stages of habituation however, scientific experts were hopeful that she would be able to integrate back into dolphin society once freed from the marina - sadly this was not the case. As the water temperature around our shores increased and summer approached many people travelled to the area to see and swim with her, unaware of the additional risks to themselves in doing so.

Cetaceans carry many diseases and parasites which although not a direct threat to them, can prove fatal if passed onto humans. There is also the risk of serious injury as cetaceans, being powerful mammals can unintentionally harm swimmers who get too close. However dolphins have been known to bite, tail slap or land on people who, intentionally or unintentionally, do something which the animal considers a threat (like grab out for the animal). Cetaceans are naturally very adept in their environment however the same cannot be said for us humans. Even the best swimmer can get into danger by being swept out to the open sea by unexpected currents or can be kept out in deep water if the dolphin does not want the "play-time" to end.

By contrast to Marra, who was completely habituated to humans and many other dolphins just like her (Freddie (Northumberland), Georges (Dorset) and more recently Dave (Kent)), "Fungie" is, if reports are accurate, the worlds' longest resident solitary dolphin having been present in Dingle Bay, Ireland since the early 1980s.

Whilst being subject to a vast amount of publicity and exposure Fungie is subject to a lot of protection from the locals who, for the most part, respect he is a wild animal and are also aware of the massive benefit the dolphins' presence has on tourism in the area. As such they aim to ensure his ongoing safety and if necessary are happy to work alongside groups such as the Marine Connection, experienced in dolphin welfare, to challenge anything/anyone posing a threat to his well-being - sadly this is not often the case which is why we need targeted responsive measures to protect solitary dolphins from harm, as and when they appear off our shores.


by Margaux Dodds / Lissa Goodwin
images (c) G Parsons, Marine Connection, N Duthie

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Conservation through education - protecting whales, dolphins and the world's oceans for the future generations