The bottlenose dolphin known as Filippo lived since 1998 in and around the port of Manfredonia on the southen Adriatic coast of Italy. In many ways a typical ‘sociable’ wild dolphin, he interacted daily with swimmers and boats of all kinds, bowriding and jumping for joy when excited, mooching around in the harbour when resting; he allowed himself to be petted by people he trusted, swam too close to propellers and when irritated by too much of the wrong sort of attention, got into trouble for biting people. Researchers from Italian marine institutions studied the dolphin at length and mounted a vigorous campaign to prevent people from swimming with him, in the perhaps naïve belief that this would hasten his return to a ‘normal’ wild life. This notwithstanding the fact that he was often sighted in the company of another, non-interactive dolphin (known as Andrea) and yet repeatedly sought out human company. At the same time as banning swimming, the protocol agreed with the local harbour authorities, pragmatically accepting that no-one would pay any attention to this – especially where the water is over 25C for most of the year – perversely went on to insist that anyone who did decide to go swimming with the dolphin should at all times have boat cover nearby. This sounds to us like a recipe for confusion and conflict, and perhaps the idea that motor boats and dolphins make a better mix than people and dolphins needs to be challenged once again.
Nevertheless, Filippo brought joy to thousands of locals and visitors over the years and the friendly dolphin soon became the town’s mascot and only claim to fame. At least one local teenager claims to owe his life to the dolphin; a non-swimmer, he had fallen from a boat and was drowning when the dolphin appeared in time to carry him to the surface and push him back to the arms of his father on the boat. Meanwhile the more likely danger to Filippo’s own safety and wellbeing, as ever with friendly dolphins, was proven to be not swimmers, but boats and boatmen, and specifically the propellers of a motor boat which apparently brought his life to an end on August 6th of this year.
We have refrained from publishing the story thus far as the full results of the autopsy which was carried out immediately after the dolphin’s body was found have not yet been released and there is confusion about the circumstances of his death. We have now heard from reliable sources that it seems the autopsy findings are being hushed up, though it is not clear why. What is known is that the dolphin was struck by a boat and that he was severely injured: a long deep slash apparently from a propeller, crushed ribs on both sides, and ruptured lungs with internal bleeding. What we don’t know is whether these injuries were inflicted concurrently or separately, deliberately or accidentally. Filippo was very well used to boats of all sizes and speeds and would hardly have got himself run down without other factors being involved. One suggestion is that he was trapped in a fisherman’s net, perhaps even drowned, before being run down; but this is hard to visualise as fishermen do not drive over their own nets, and if he was entangled in a bottom-set net (despite having been familiar with these for at least the last 6 years?), he would not have been close enough to the surface to be run-down. Or perhaps the dolphin, who readily came to swim alongside boats and allowed himself to be petted, was killed by heavy blows to the chest and then run down to make it look accidental? Lest this seem too horrific to contemplate, bear in mind that one of the few other dolphins to come close to the shores of Manfredonia, a female striped dolphin, was killed by three gunshots to the head, and speculation in the press at the time was that the assassin thought he was shooting Filippo. Fishermen in Manfredonia, as in many other places, are known to be hostile to dolphins and perhaps were jealous of the attention and fame Filippo received or of his continuing ability to feed himself in a very over-fished region of the Meditteranean. (Let us not be too complacent in the less hot-blooded regions of NW Europe, either; shortly after Fungie’s arrival in Dingle in 1984, a local man was narrowly dissuaded from attempting to shoot him, and Dusty in Fanore has received ‘death threats’ as recently as last year.)
Nevertheless the first assumption is that Filippo was somehow simply run down by accident, and there would be little doubt over this if the autopsy report had been released to the public in full. Even in this scenario, there is little cause for celebration: a unique dolphin has died because a boat operator was negligent of a well-known and fully protected wild animal. We are still making enquiries in Italy and hope to be able to publish more details of this little reported tragedy in due course.