A lone dolphin is making friends along Australia’s east coast, coming to shore to play with surprised humans, but wildlife experts are pleading with people to avoid interaction to ensure she stays wild.
The bottlenose dolphin, estimated to be around three to four years of age, has been getting attention since becoming stranded at Sussex Inlet in September 2012.
Wildlife experts decided to catch and release her back into the ocean after they became concerned that some people were harassing the animal.
In the last two weeks she has been seen in Pittwater, north of Sydney, and at beaches down to Sydney harbour. On Monday she interacted with swimmers and surfers off Shelly beach, Manly, Fairfax reported.
She appears to have little fear of people, joining them for a swim or a surf for hours at a time, even if the swimmers try to avoid it.
Reece Monley, a resident of Sydney’s northern beaches, was surfing at Long Reef on Thursday and told Guardian Australia the dolphin had been in the area all day.
“It jumped right next to everyone, then it would pop up half a foot away and swim right next to you,” he said.
“It was just circling everyone underneath them like a shark. It would look at you, pop up and then go back down. It didn’t care if people were touching it – it just kept wanting to be played with. Three girls kept diving down with it.”
Shona Lorigan, vice-president of the Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia (Orrca) told Guardian Australia she understood it was difficult to stay away from the animal.
“It’s very hard to resist her when she swims right up to you, but we’re trying to get people to limit their interaction,” Lorigan said.
“Particularly for the surfers it’s very difficult because she’s grabbing their leg ropes and jumping over their boards, so just stay still and enjoy the view.”
Lorigan said Orrca was asking people to follow some “golden rules” and not chase the dolphin, grab her dorsal fin, go anywhere near her tail or feed her.
“It is our hope that by limiting her interactions we are encouraging her to continue being a wild dolphin so she will eventually reintegrate with a wild pod,” she said.
Lorigan said the dolphin had access to a wild pod which lives off the coast of the Sydney northern beaches any time she decided to join it.
Scott Quin was swimming with friends in Pittwater near Palm Beach wharf in early December when the dolphin appeared beside them. He said he had heard the dolphin was in the area.
“The dolphin swam up [to us], and it would swim around the anchor lines of boats and things rubbing up on them,” Quin told Guardian Australia.
“Then it would come over and nudge at you, it definitely liked a good scratch. If you swam away it would swim around you jumping out of the water and sometimes over you.
“Whenever a boat came near or the ferry arrived or left it would swim off for a while and go have a good look at what was going on, swim around the boats for a bit and then come back,” he said.
Quin said he and his friends understood the potential risks to them, but said it was part of swimming in the ocean.
“I can completely understand the wildlife groups wanting it to rejoin a pod,” he said.
“It has had plenty of opportunities to, even before it started to get this friendly with people. Maybe it’s just lonely now.”
On Monday the National Parks and Wildlife Service issued a statement saying it was aware of the dolphin and asked people not to actively swim with it.
“I cannot stress enough that this is a wild animal and if it is threatened it will act on instinct and could unintentionally hurt someone,” NPWS Sydney Harbour area manager, Michael Treanor, said.
“Ultimately, if that happens the animal may need to be taken into captivity, which is not what anyone wants and what we have been working so hard to avoid.”