Dolphins are probably the coolest ocean species that exists. They’re smart, they’re fast, and they even sometimes band together to kill sharks. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is. But something unfortunate is happening to our dolphin friends. And what is this terrible, dismay-inspiring thing? They’re having less sex. But what’s even more disconcerting is that we—us lousy humans—are the spring from which this lack-of-sex is emerging. If we want to keep the world ripe with dolphins, then, we must understand this most unfortunate of happenings.
1. How dolphin’s do it
Like humans, dolphins can mate throughout the year. In fact, this is often what they do. It doesn’t matter, in other words, whether it is spring, winter, autumn, or fall—a dolphin will be down to get it on. But, unlike humans, dolphins are only sexually receptive during certain parts of the year.
The time of year at which dolphins are receptive depends on the location of their pod. Those on the Atlantic coast near Florida, for instance, tend to mate around springtime. Those on the pacific coast in places like California tend to mate around Fall. If humans are ruining dolphins’ mating habits, then, they are doing at different times of the year.
2. Dolphin habitats
The habitat of dolphins similarly varies by the specific pod we’re looking at. There are, for instance, different types of dolphins that have adapted to different inter-ocean environments. Some of these are more inland, for instance, while others are out in the deeper seas. Tourists, then, are more likely to effect one of these groups and not the other.
Broadly speaking, there are two classifications of dolphins that exist (not counting the multifarious species that exist). These are the coastal dolphins, which lives their lives nearer to the coast, and the offshore dolphins, which spend their lives out at sea. Each of these has adapted their body to the different conditions in which they find themselves.
3. Coastal dolphins
Coastal dolphins are the breed that tourists are most likely to interact with. They live close to land in the warm, shallow waters of places like Florida and New Zealand—and their body’s show it. For the most part, these guys are small and thin. This is because they don’t have to deal with the excessive cold inherent to the deeper and cooler waters that exist in the deep ocean.
They don’t need, in other words, bigger bodies and more blubber to conserve heat. They can stay small, thin, and trim without having to worry about freezing to death. Where are you most likely to find these health-conscious dolphins? In places like bays, estuaries, and lagoons. These shallow water environments provide the optimal environment for the coastal dolphin to live.
4. Offshore dolphins
Offshore dolphins encounter a whole different suite of problems—some that are equally, if not more, severe than those encountered by the coastal dolphins. These problems range from getting caught in fishing nets to getting lost and sad in the big wide sea. But because they live offshore, these dolphins are larger and have more blubber. So at least they have their fat to keep them company. This girth helps them fight off the colder environment of the ocean waters.
Offshore dolphins evolved these larger and more rotund bodies to combat the more frigid temperatures of the cold ocean seas. So while they may eschew Jenny Craig as if her product were the plague (a statement many might resonate with), they keep warm under these ice-cold waters.
5. How dolphins spend their day
Just like humans, dolphins spend some parts of their day far more active than others. Knowing these times, then, will help us know exactly when we humans are perturbing their otherwise peaceful existence—and, as we’ll come to find, their love lives. These are the times, in other words, you’ll want avoid dolphins and their pods.
Most dolphins parse their time between hunting, feeding, socializing, and mating. Most of their feeding peaks around early morning and noon, then their socializing follows shortly thereafter. It’s the time between these peaks that they rest—one of the most important (yet often unrecognized) of dolphin behaviors.
6. Dolphin sleep
Dolphins have one of the most peculiar ways to sleep of all mammals. Since they have to breach the water in order to breath, for instance, they can’t just spend their time stationary sleeping beneath the water. Instead, they need to be able to sleep and breach at the same time.
So, in what ways did the dolphin adapt to deal with these changes? Well, it evolved to sleep one side of its brain at a time, of course! So while the entire human brain (i.e., both hemispheres) will sleep in unison, the dolphin brain will only sleep one at a time. This enables it to stay active enough to breach the water while sleeping, enabling to live another day without drowning.
7. Why dolphins need their sleep
Other than getting a little cranky from a lack of sleep, depriving a dolphin of this resting time will impose an abundance of physiological consequences on its body. These consequences, as it turns out, range from breeding to choosing a new place to live. Each of these, incidentally, will affect the dolphin mating routine.
Most importantly, dolphins need their sleep to engage in ever-so-important behaviors like rearing young, regaining homeostasis, nursing calves, and breeding. Since all of these are, uh, let’s just say important, the dolphin definitely needs its rest. And we humans aren’t the best at letting them have it.
8. When dolphins are annoyed
There are many signs that a dolphin will give when it’s in distress. These signals are what we, as dolphin onlookers, need to know, because they tell us when the dolphin actually needs to get away for some shut-eye, or maybe when they just want to have some dolphin alone time.
Either way, the few main things that a dolphin will do when it’s in distress is slap at the water with its tail, breach an excessive number of times, exhale air with a strong force (called chuffing), and flee from whatever entity is stressing them. It’s important to recognize these behaviors not as play, but instead as signs of perceived peril.
9. Tourists and the pain they cause
Other than just being annoying, tourists have the tendency to interfere with dolphins at these times that they would otherwise use to rejuvenate. These disturbances come from multiple directions, including boat traffic, pedestrians swimming, and habitat destruction. In many places, for instance, the hours most active for the tourist are the hours the dolphin most needs for its alone time.
In Florida, for instance, where many people visit for the summer months, dolphins are interacted with at most times during the day. And what happens when these tourists inundate dolphins with all their touristy behavior? Well, what do you think? A lot!
10. Tourist ruin dolphins’ frisky activities
The more that dolphins hang around humans, the less time they end up mating. This is a problem. If dolphins don’t mate, then clearly they can’t proliferate their species. And, if they can’t proliferate their species, then there won’t be any more dolphins friends to hang out with. This would be a bummer.
In one study, for instance, the more humans hung out with Florida dolphins, the less time they would spend trying to mate. But this altercation to their behavior happens in a few different ways. However you spin it, though, tourists are the bane not only of the locals’ existence, but also that of the dolphins’.
11. Other problems caused by humans
Humans do many other things that perturb the otherwise lovely life of dolphins. For one, they fish them into oblivion. This unfortunate fact has been the result of numerous protests, outcries, and lamentations. Primarily, there are two different ways in which dolphins are fished. The first is by accident while the second is more deliberate.
The less deliberate fishing happens when dolphins are snagged by fishing nets. This often happens because dolphins spend their time fishing above tuna to catch them. When tuna ships try to catch this tuna, then, they often grab the dolphins along with them. Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are caught and killed in this way per calendar year.
12. Deliberate dolphin fishing
Unfortunately, dolphins are also sometimes hunted for sport. In Japan, for instance, dolphin meat is often considered it delicacy; it fetches a hefty price at the market and is considered something for the bourgeoisie. When you want to be high-class, in other words, you often turn to the dolphin meat.
Dolphin hunting is also a part of many cultures’ traditions. In the Swedish Faro Islands, for instance, there is a season in which the townsfolk rally up and hunt dolphins. The terribly gruesome and unsightly kill-spree results in the death of many hundreds of dolphins. I wouldn’t recommend you partake.
13. Normal problems for the dolphin
The problems dolphins had to face prior to this human dilemma were vastly different—they were, let’s just say, more natural. These problems ranged from predation to early death and disease. While most species in the tree of life face these same problems, the dolphin’s plight has been exacerbated by our dastardly human presence.
To adequately cover these problems, I’ll dedicate some time to each. First, I’ll cover predation, then I’ll move slowly and excruciatingly to early death and disease. Each of these problems takes on a different shape in different dolphin populations. But in each instance we see what dolphins have to go through without human’s present.
The main foes of the dolphin are the shark and killer whale. Both of these formidable dolphin foes can grab a dolphin when hungry, tear it to pieces, and feast on the remains. However, these apex ocean predators are typically only afforded the ability to prey on smaller dolphins like calves. This is because larger dolphins are a more challenging prey to sink.
Dolphins, however, have evolved ways to circumnavigate these large and daunting foes. Most of these have been through the pod—the groups that dolphins normally hang out in. You see, dolphins are highly social creatures. And this sociality has helped them to escape the perils of having to deal too frequently with these larger predators.
15. The pod
Dolphin pods range in size from about two to 30. While some pods are even larger (some ranking, for instance, in the thousands), this more moderate amount is the norm. These pods help to make the dolphin a less enticing meal for the elite predators of the sea.
One way that pods help to protect the dolphins is that they have adults that circle the perimeter. This enables them to warm those on the inner ranges of the pod prepare themselves in the event of an attack. When dolphins operate in pods, for instance, they can often gain up on whatever animal’s attacking them. And, in groups, they can definitely overpower a shark.
16. Early death and disease
Most dolphins, as with most animal species (other than humans, of course), die within the first two years of life. This major bummer of a fact leaves many little dolphins victims of the times—the young times, that is. But when they do survive into their ripe old age, they live somewhere into their early to mid-twenties.
Dolphins in captivity tend to live a bit longer. More amazingly, however, is that they tend to show drastically reduced rates of infant mortality. For the most part, this is because they can receive treatment for any of the medical conditions they may develop. They can also escape the perils of predation.
17. Shifting habitats
The more that dolphins interact with tourists, the less time they have to recuperate from their busy dolphin days. And what do dolphins do when they can’t rest their pretty little dolphin heads? Well, they migrate to a more distance place such that they can regain their pre-disturbed dolphin composure.
As you can imagine, this raises all sorts of problems for the dolphin and its peers. When a dolphin has to migrate outside of its normal resting-grounds, for instance, it is more exposed to predators. Similarly, this out-of-range location puts the dolphin out of distance of its would-be lovers. Thanks, tourists!
18. Why dolphins matter
There are thousands of reasons (maybe more) that we should care about dolphins and the health of their mating rituals. For one, they’re smart. If we use ourselves as a heuristic, knowing that our fellow humans are smart—well, some of them, at least—makes us want to treat them more kindly. The same rule can apply to dolphins.
Since we know dolphins experience some semblance of things like empathy, sociality, and culture, we should exert more effort to make sure their lives aren’t terribly uncomfortable things. We should, in other words, work more rigorously to prevent them from getting trapped in nets, hunted for fun, and other such abysmal and contemptable things.
19. Dolphin culture
One thing dolphins do that is thoroughly impressive is show signs of culture. Different groups of dolphins, for instance, will show cultural differences in things as varied as the way in which they mate to the ways in which they hunt. Some groups, for instance, will throw seaweed at each other as a way to pass the time.
Others groups will use crustaceans to protect their mouths while barreling through rough water terrain. Mating positions, too, can vary via dolphin culture. Some dolphins, for instance, will confine themselves to the traditional strictures of missionary, while others embark into the other adventurous ways of the dolphin Kama Sutra.
20. Dolphin smarts
So how intelligent are dolphins? They’re kind of like the underwater human but with flippers and fins. One way scientists measure this intelligence is through something called the encephalization ratio. Essentially, all this measures is the brain size in proportion to the rest of the body. A blue whale has a giant brain, say, but how large is that brain in proportion to the rest of the body?
Humans, for instance, have a high encephalization ratio—on that’s bigger than that of the dolphins. But dolphins aren’t far behind; they’re ahead of whales and certain great apes. This stupendously high ranking on the encephalization ratio puts them on firm ground for one of those creatures with a great deal of intelligence.
Dolphins also show their own signs of an advanced language. They use different frequencies, for instance, to convey different meanings to their dolphin compatriots. What’s even more amazing about this, though, is that don’t really use their ears to do this. Their echolocation and hearing systems operate via other means.
The size of their ear canal, for instance, is drastically reduced. Regardless, they have a much larger auditory cortex, grossly larger than that of us humans. This is also in part why they are thought to have such large brains—their auditory cortex grew, and the rest of the brain had to follow suit.
22. Dolphin sounds
Broadly speaking, dolphins have two ways in which to communicate vocally. The first of these is through long, drawn-out tones, while the other is through short bursts. But on top of this, they can whistle, squeal, and squeak. Each of these dolphin vocalizations contributes to the dolphin vocabulary.
Their communication system is so advanced that they are even thought to have their own names. One dolphin, for instance, will recognize another (or that they’re talking about another) just based off of one frequency pronounced in one way from another dolphin. This is staggering considering the fact that they don’t have vocal cords.
23. Ways to help dolphins keep their mojo
In order to prevent the detriment humans have currently been inflicting on the dolphin love sessions, we should avoid these dolphins during their respective mating seasons. These times vary, however, between dolphin pod and location. The burden, then, should be placed on those in control of the areas in question.
In Florida, for instance, residents have proposed that fines should be imposed and enforced on those who would attempt to interact with dolphins during their summer mating season. The same would apply to places like South Africa and the Pacific Coast of the U.S. Wherever these dolphins are, people shouldn’t be interacting with them when they are trying to get their mating ritual on.
24. Bottlenose dolphins
Now that we’ve learned a little about dolphins and their mating habits, let’s look a little more closely at a few dolphin species. Understanding these different dolphins will help us learn what we’re going to miss if this dolphin lack-of-doing-it continues. Bottlenose dolphins are probable the most popular of these dolphin species.
They were, for instance, portrayed in the hit 60’s TV show Flipper, are held in aquariums everywhere, and are even the telly. These are a species of oceanic dolphin, which means they live their life primarily offshore. While there are several different species of the bottlenose dolphin, the common trait to all of them is that they prefer warm and temperate waters.
25. Risso’s dolphins
Another interesting dolphin species is Risso’s dolphin. Closely related to some killer whale species, this dolphin was named after Antoine Risso—the first man known to have described them. This dolphin, for the most part, is relatively large, and can be found in places as varied as the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea.
Like the bottlenose dolphin, this species prefers the warm and temperate waters of the Pacific and Atlantic waters. One of the more interesting facts about this dolphin, however, is that it’s been found to roam in pods with numbers upward of a thousand. This impractically large dolphin pod number is a testament to the social ability of the species.
26. Common dolphin
The common dolphin is another species of the flippery critter deserving of our adoration. One place it’s commonly found is off the warm and vivid coasts of New Zealand. Interestingly, this dolphin has evolved a very distinct coloration around its body. The lower two-thirds of its body, for instance, is shaded with a light brown to grey fade, while the rest of it is a traditional, darker grey.
The patterning of the coloration is in the shape of an a nifty hourglass. This species, however, is one of those that doesn’t like to live its life too far offshore. An interesting little fact about these dolphins is that they will sometimes dive to a depth of around 280 meters (918 feet) to get fish. That’s pretty deep.
27. Pantropical spotted dolphin
This species of dolphin was one of the unlucky few to have become endangered because of the mass amounts caught in fishing nets. Fortunately, a “dolphin-friendly” fishing method was invented that helped limit the number of deaths due to this unfortunate and rather undesirable bycatch.
Because of these newly implemented dolphin-safe methods, the pantropical spotted dolphin is now of the most abundant species that exists today. You can thank the dolphin-friendly fishing method for this one. So while you embark into your next can of tunafish, you can reflect kindly on the ingenuity of this newly crafted tuna fishing method.
28. Pilot whales
Whales are closely related to dolphins. Some, for instance, are so closely related that they are in fact considered a species of dolphin. Pilot whales are one of these. These dolphin-whale creatures are one of the largest of the oceanic dolphins in existence. The only dolphin larger than them is the killer whale (yes, orcas are a member of the dolphin troupe).
Like other dolphins, though, these rotund dolphin friends eat both squid (which makes them teuthophagous) and fish (which makes them piscivorous). Unlike other dolphins, though, the pilot whale will often stay within its birth pod throughout its life. Other dolphins, then, that often exchange the members of their pod fluidly and with ease, can look with piquant interest at these dolphin counterparts.
29. Humpback whales
Humpback whales are another species of dolphin (who knew!) that are abnormally huge. These are actually the second largest dolphin species that exists, coming shortly behind the blue whale. These can weigh up to a staggering 40 tons and have a length similar to that of a school bus. That’s a little too large, if you ask me.
Most humpbacks have wide ranging spaces, navigating from places like the Gulf of Alaska or the Gulf of Maine. These long distances allow them to ingest fish from all over the world. Those that inhabit the Arabian Sea, however, are different in that they stay there for life. These few are, as we say, lifers.
30. Humans and the mating rituals of dolphins
Ultimately, humans are disrupting the mating schedule and habits of dolphins. This is a major bummer. Because the species are so intelligent, have, culture, and like to clap and perform for us at SeaWorld (they probably don’t actually enjoy doing this all that much), you can add this to the number of negative things that people have imposed on the animal kingdom.
To stop these dolphins from dwindling in number, we need to implement the equivalent of a million candlelit dinners and beds of roses for their benefit. The way in which we can most plausibly do this is by just staying away, giving them space, and letting them get their mate on. If we don’t, what other intelligent sea creature can we aspire to play chess with?