Dolphins often seem to want to befriend us

You’ll have heard of Fungie, a male bottlenose who has forsaken the open sea to live inside the harbour mouth of Dingle in Ireland, a placid, shallowish inlet bordered by low verdant hills that are speckled with sheep.

According to local legend, he has been swimming around in this area, not much bigger than a few city blocks, since October 1983.

It doesn’t seem like an auspicious place for a dolphin to settle. Though the bay is sheltered from snarlier North Atlantic conditions – churning seas, huffing winds – dolphins are well equipped for these things and seem to revel in the action: surfing down the faces of waves, leaping through the wakes of ships, playing in the maelstrom. By comparison, the Dingle harbour is a pond. Nor could it be mistaken for a marine sanctuary: it was known in the past for its abundant reservoirs of rubbish. So what was a full-grown bottlenose with an entire ocean at his disposal doing in this fish tank? And where was his pod? Being part of a pod means protection, hunting success, society, sex, kin – the fundamentals of dolphin existence. A solitary dolphin is like a floating oxymoron. So how did this one survive?

The tales of Fungie the loner dolphin seem improbable. But surprisingly, there are others like him. Scientists don’t know why it happens, but tales of dolphins befriending humans reach far back into history. Aristotle wrote offhandedly about dolphins’ “passionate attachment to boys”, as if everyone just knew this as a fact. In the year AD 77, Pliny the Elder recounted the story of a dolphin named Simo who formed a bond with a boy who fed him bits of bread, giving him rides in return:

“This happened for several years, until the boy happened to fall ill of some malady and died. The dolphin, however, still came to the spot as usual, with a sorrowful air and manifesting every sign of deep affliction, until at last, a thing of which no one felt the slightest doubt, he died purely of sorrow and regret.”

When you consider how risky it is for dolphins to spend time in close proximity to people, it is all the more intriguing that so many human-dolphin stories have similar themes: dolphin seeks out man, dolphin wants to play with man, dolphin assists man, dolphin rescues man. If dolphins didn’t already have such a well-established reputation for showing up like Superman in the third act, it would be impossible to put their behaviour into context. But there are centuries and even millennia of tales of their generosity towards the awkward two-legged creatures they encounter who are so out of their element.

In the book Beautiful Minds, biologist Maddalena Bearzi recalls tailing a pod of bottlenoses on one grim, foggy morning along the coast of Los Angeles, as they herded a huge school of sardines. If there’s anything that commands a dolphin’s attention it is a mother lode of fish, so Bearzi was surprised when one suddenly broke away from feeding and headed out to sea at top speed. The rest of the pod followed; so did Bearzi and her crew. The dolphins arrowed about three miles offshore and then they stopped, arranging themselves in a circle. In the centre, the scientists were shocked to see a girl’s body floating.

Tales like this are remarkably common and surfers, in particular, seem to benefit from dolphin intervention. When Todd Endris was bitten three times by a great white shark near Monterey, California, dolphins drove off the marauder, formed a ring around Endris, and escorted him to the beach. Australian Dave Rastovich, straddling his board waiting for a wave, was astonished to watch a dolphin hurtle itself at a shark that was torpedoing towards him, sending it fleeing.

Full story: Independent