December 18th 2003, Dingle
Sure enough the visiting dolphins were back in Dingle today (see yesterday's news report), after I had left the beach and just as Nick and Suzanne were packing up to go, by which time it was getting dark. This timing suggests a tidal connection, perhaps in conjunction with a movement of prey fish, as the dolphins arrived an hour later than yesterday, i.e. just before low tide each day. Today they stayed further out, around the lighthouse, and there was lots of activity which again we presume indicated feeding. Most interestingly of all, Fungie definitely did not join them, as the swimmers were able to observe him in the shallow water by Slaidín beach at the same time as they could see the dolphins leaping around outside the harbour’s mouth. In fact in Suzanne’s words “he was practically crawling up the beach” in his eagerness to stay away from or not be spotted by the visiting dolphins!
This is a fascinating and highly significant observation, which makes an important addition to our store of knowledge about ‘normal’ wild bottlenose dolphins, ‘solitary’ dolphins and the relationships between them - although it is of course open to several interpretations. We have already documented similar behaviour with both Dony and Dusty when they were approached by groups of ‘normal’ dolphins and also took avoiding action. Fungie on the contrary had previously been seen in amongst a gang of 'normal' dolphins when they had visited before, although we don't know what the nature of their interaction was and on at least one occasion (see Fungie’s Interactions with other dolphins) we got the impression that he was more in the position of the fly-half trying to avoid the charge of the front row than that of being fêted by long-lost friends. The only time I know of that he has 'hid' in the shallows by the beach before was in 1991 when some orcas came by the mouth of the harbour (an unprecedented event and not repeated since!). That time he spent the whole day hugging the shore and was clearly seeking to avoid the notorious predators. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Fungie was scared, and with good reason; orcas are the only species in these waters capable of preying on an adult dolphin.
Putting these observations together, it seems reasonable to conclude that Fungie was also frightened by the other dolphins today. Perhaps they behaved aggressively to him the day before. We know also that the last time Dusty was visited by a gang of other dolphins, the encounter appeared to observers to be hostile in intent. Quite likely all three of our solitary dolphins have reason to avoid their conspecifics. Just as in human society however, there could be many different causes for this negative interaction or unwillingness to interact. Perhaps the wild gangs ‘pick on’ the loners, but is this because they are from different tribes, or because of some other defect or peculiarity in the solo dolphins which we are unaware of? Or perhaps it is the solo dolphins’ very unwillingness to join or re-join the group which sets them apart and provokes an aggressive interaction. Whatever it is which sets the solitaries apart might well also be the same factor which led to their initial isolation.
One thing is now totally clear. Well-meaning conservationists and others who see every dolphin which interacts with humans instead of its own kind as somehow ‘lost’, and seek to ‘re-unite’ them with a wild group at large, sometimes advocating physical intervention by ‘rescue teams’ in order to achieve this, are totally misguided. These solo dolphins know all about the other dolphins, they hear them passing by, and they get out the way whenever they can! They do not follow the visitors when they leave and they show every sign of fear in their presence. It would be nothing better than torture for them to be forced to 'reintegrate' with a wild pod, if this were possible. They know themselves what best to do and if they wanted to and were able to join a wild pod, they would do that of their own accord.
Moreover it is clear that the factors which create a fearful or aggressive interaction between solitaries and large groups do not necessarily apply between individual solitaries or with other dolphins in ones and twos. Fungie played happily with Dony in 2001 and with another lone dolphin in 1996, as well as with two visitors in 2002. Dony and JeanFloch currently in Brittany have never been seen with other ‘normal’ dolphins but have been seen together many times, almost continuously in the last three months in fact. Whatever sets the solitaires apart from the group does not form a barrier between the solitaries themselves. This also makes us think of parallels from human society where an individual who either has been rejected or categorised as abnormal, or who merely feels himself to be outcast, may find solace and understanding in the company of someone else in the same situation. However, it may equally well just be a balance of power or numbers thing – maybe Fungie is happy with one or two visitors, especially if they are female or smaller than him, but not a gang of 10 or 15 when he is totally outnumbered? It’s all guess work really!
So if you have any ideas of your own, why not mail the editor?