Why do dolphins help people?

There are many stories dating back into history of dolphins helping people. Why they should do this is a mystery, especially as man has killed countless dolphins over the years, and continues to do so. In some cases these are ongoing relationships. There are many instances where wild dolphins cooperate with local fisherman to capture fish together, in places as far apart as Brazil, Mauretania and Myanmar. The dolphins are not taught to do this by the humans; in most cases the dolphins originally initiated the behaviour. They will herd fish towards the waiting fishermen and signal to them when to deploy their nets. These fishermen are careful to ensure that the dolphins get their fair share of the resulting catch.

Dolphins helping humans

Perhaps more surprising is that dolphins will sometimes chose to intervene in a chance encounter to save another creature from a different species. For example, they have been observed apparently trying to help whales in distress who have become trapped in shallow water. There are also many stories over history of dolphins helping people in distress in the sea.

Dolphins cooperating with fishermen

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Dolphin asks person for help

Here are few recent examples of dolphins helping people taken from the press; it may well be that some of the details are exaggerated by the media or the individuals concerned, but there is clearly some basis to these phenomena.

July 1996 – Associated Press

Martin Richardson, a Briton, was swimming in the Red Sea off Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula when he was attacked by a shark. Companions aboard a diving boat heard him scream.

“Something took a bite of my side,” Mr. Richardson, a 29-year-old diver, told The Associated Press by telephone from el-Tur on Wednesday. “I started panicking for a bit, then it took another chunk of my upper arm.”

Mr. Richardson’s companions then watched as three bottlenose dolphins encircled the wounded man, flapping their fins and tails and scaring off the shark.

“This defensive behaviour of dolphins is common when mothers are protecting their calves from predators,” said a statement by the Recanati Center for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel.

The statement said the dolphins continued to circle for several minutes until Mr. Richardson’s companions reached him.

Mr. Richardson was rushed to an Egyptian military hospital at el-Tur, 55 miles to the northwest. He recovered.

August 2000 – Daily Record – Scotland

A friendly dolphin has saved a teenage boy from drowning. Non-swimmer Davide Ceci, 14, was within minutes of death when dolphin Filippo came to his rescue.
The friendly 61-stone creature has been a popular tourist attraction off Manfredonia in south-east Italy for two years. But now he is a local hero after saving Davide from the Adriatic when he fell from his father’s boat.
While Emanuele Ceci was still unaware his son had fallen into the waves, Filippo was pushing him up out of the water to safety. Davide said: “When I realised it was Filippo pushing me, I grabbed on to him.” The dolphin bore down on the boat and got close enough for Davide’s father to grab his gasping son.
Davide’s mother Signora Ceci said: “It is a hero, it seems impossible an animal could have done something like that, to feel the instinct to save a human life.”
Filippo has lived in the waters off Manfredonia since he became separated from a visiting school of dolphins. Maritime researcher Dr Giovanna Barbieri said: “Filippo seems not to have the slightest fear of humans. I’m not surprised he should have done such a wonderful thing as to save a human.”

October 2004 – Guardian

Four swimmers were saved from a great white shark by a pod of altruistic dolphins, who swam in circles around them until the humans could escape.

Rob Howes, a British-born lifeguard, had gone swimming with his daughter, Niccy, and two of her friends off Ocean beach near Whangarei on the North Island, New Zealand, when the dolphins suddenly appeared. At first, he thought the mammals were being playful, but he soon realised the danger the swimmers were in.

“They started to herd us up, they pushed all four of us together by doing tight circles around us,” Mr Howes told the New Zealand Press Association.

He tried to drift away from the group, but two of the bigger dolphins herded him back – just as he spotted a three-metre great white shark heading towards him. “I just recoiled,” he said. “It was only about two metres away from me, the water was crystal clear and it was as clear as the nose on my face. They had corralled us up to protect us.”

The dolphins kept their vigil for 40 minutes until the shark lost interest, and the group could swim 100m back to the shore.

August 2007 – MSNBC Interactive

Surfer Todd Endris needed a miracle. The shark — a monster great white that came out of nowhere — had hit him three times, peeling the skin off his back and mauling his right leg to the bone.

That’s when a pod of bottlenose dolphins intervened, forming a protective ring around Endris, allowing him to get to shore, where quick first aid provided by a friend saved his life.

Nearly four months later, Endris, who is still undergoing physical therapy to repair muscle damage suffered during the attack, is back in the water and on his board in the same spot where he almost lost his life.

“[It] came out of nowhere. There’s no warning at all.

Maybe I saw him a quarter second before it hit me. But no warning. It was just a giant shark,” Endris said. “It just shows you what a perfect predator they really are.”

The shark, estimated at 12 to 15 feet long, hit him first as Endris was sitting on his surfboard, but couldn’t get its monster jaws around both surfer and surfboard. “The second time, he came down and clamped on my torso — sandwiched my board and my torso in his mouth,” Endris said.

That attack shredded his back, literally peeling the skin back, he said, “like a banana peel.” But because Endris’ stomach was pressed to the surfboard, his intestines and internal organs were protected.

The third time, the shark tried to swallow Endris’ right leg, and he said that was actually a good thing, because the shark’s grip anchored him while he kicked the beast in the head and snout with his left leg until it let go.

The dolphins, which had been cavorting in the surf all along, showed up then. They circled him, keeping the shark at bay, and enabled Endris to get back on his board and catch a wave to the shore.

Would you like to learn more about the lives of dolphins in a fun and entertaining way? Get the novel Dolphin Way – although it’s fiction, it is full of factual information about the way dolphins live and interact.
Dolphin Way video trailer

In the novel Dolphin Way, the dolphins have their own culture and language with oral histories that explain their racial memories of how they and humans went their separate ways, with radically different results. You can get the book or just download the first section for free here.

Available as a paperback, audiobook or e-book