Dolphins: Close Encounters

Fraser’s. Hector’s. Spinner. Rough-toothed. Bottlenose.

They are just a few of the nearly three dozen species of dolphin that glide through the earth’s oceans, at home in a watery world most air-breathing mammals would find hostile. But as NATURE’s Dolphins: Close Encounters shows, these small whales have proved remarkably rugged and intelligent. Indeed, people have come to admire these savvy athletes of the sea so much that dolphins have become the object of a billion-dollar entertainment industry. Each year, millions of fans pay to watch — and even swim with — their favorite animal. But the dolphin’s popularity also raises a troubling question: are these captive performers our willing partners — or our prisoners?

Like their close relatives the porpoises, dolphins are small whales that have teeth instead of comb-like baleen. But while porpoises have spade- or shovel-shaped teeth, dolphin teeth are sharp and pointy, perfect for grabbing a fish, crustacean, or squid. Like bats, many dolphins are apparently able to locate and home in on their prey using a kind of sonar, producing clicks and pulses of sound that bounce off the target. Some can dive to extraordinary depths, nearly one thousand feet below the surface, to find food.

The dolphin’s sonar and swimming prowess, however, aren’t the only traits that have made the animal so interesting to people. Dolphins also have social skills that have endeared them to mariners and fascinated scientists. Sea lore, for instance, is full of tales of dolphins that rescued drowning sailors by holding them up near the surface and pushing them to shore. Such stories, researchers note, may arise from the fact that dolphins do cooperate to help lift ailing relatives and newborns near the surface to breathe. And some dolphins do push floating objects around the ocean, for reasons researchers don’t fully understand.

In many ways, in fact, dolphins behave like people. They are highly social animals that often live in groups and take great pains in caring for their young. Dolphin mothers often babysit their calves for up to two years, until they are able to survive on their own.

But gaining insight into the lives of wild dolphins, which often live hundreds or thousands of miles from shore, has been difficult. There are places, however, where the conditions are just right for studying wild dolphins. One is Australia’s Monkey Mia beach. Here, as Close Encounters shows, clear waters and remarkably tame dolphins have allowed researchers to get close to their subjects.

For more than 30 years, the wild bottlenose dolphins have been visiting the remote beach on Shark Bay about 400 miles north of Perth. Most mornings, small groups of dolphins — which are well-known to residents by markings on their dorsal fins — swim in to snack on fish offered by visitors.

While the feeding is carefully regulated to prevent the dolphins from becoming overdependent on the human handouts, the practice has helped draw hundreds of animals to the Bay that aren’t frightened by people. As a result, Monkey Mia has become one of the most active dolphin research centers in the world. Since the 1980s, dozens of researchers have traveled to the area to study everything from mother-calf relationships to dolphin dating.

These studies have added much to our understanding of dolphins. Some researchers, for instance, showed that dolphins can use tools — a skill that at one time only humans were believed to possess. At Monkey Mia, the tool is a sea sponge, which the dolphins carry in their beaks, apparently to help stir up food from sea grass beds. Other scientists have tried to understand why some dolphins seem extremely attracted to pregnant women that visit the beach.

Still other studies, such as one by biologist Rachel Smolker, who is featured on Close Encounters, have examined dolphin speech patterns. Smolker and colleague John Pepper found that young male dolphins on the prowl for mates form alliances that appear to be cemented by sound. At first, the two males will have very different patterns of squeaks and clicks. Over time, however, the duo will develop a single, unique signal, perhaps to help them let each other know when an attractive potential date appears.

At Monkey Mia and other dolphin havens, however, development and pollution threaten to disrupt the lives of dolphins. But researchers hope that their work will help fuel conservation efforts. “The more we know about dolphins’ social lives and their specific environments,” says Diana Reiss, a Rutgers University researcher, “the better equipped we will be to protect and preserve their diminishing coastal habitats.

Online content for Dolphins: Close Encounters was originally posted August 2000.

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  • jaqueline

    hi there a like dolphins do u

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  • lynn

    just hope that we human will stop disruoting the natural balance of nature

  • kaitlyn

    Ilove dolphins too.But not killer whales

  • Kato

    i did some research and most people think dolphins are dangerous.Canu believe that.

  • Travis

    I love dolphins

  • Taylor

    I love Dolphins so much

  • jackie

    do any of u know a website that has stuff about dolphins skeleton i could use 4 my report

  • jessie

    i love dolphins so much i could live with them

  • tauf

    do u kno any facts about a dolphin’s whole life, like when it’s born to when it’s grown-up?

  • kailyn contreras

    dolphins are sooo cute

  • diana

    i lov dolphin much…. :))

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  • Jay jay

    sometimes dolphins can kill animals people don’t think they can kill.

  • noemi

    Me and my best friend are doing a projiet on dolphins and i think they are nice and great animals.i learnd sooooo much many things about them.thats why i love dolphins and do a protese on polibears beacus they are going xtink help dolphins and polerbears:):):):):):):):)<3<3 ps. save the animals

  • noemi

    my friend name lupe and larua are coping my animals so i am not there friends

  • Kali

    i love a butiful dolphin!!

  • hannah

    hi i love dolphins they are sooo cute!!!

  • lucy

    hi i love dolphins 4eva

  • James

    They’re Incredibe. they can super heat water bubbles to the temperature of the suns surface, heal autistic children, they are telepathic, the water, the water, the water. Super intelligent. Yeah theyre lovely.

  • joshua

    dolphins is are awsome

  • jack

    I like dolphins.

  • Elizabeth

    This website is really helping me with my dolphin report

  • emma

    i think dolphins are cool.

  • tia wilder

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  • andrea

    Dolphins are so cool!!!!!!!!!!!
    I love dolphins a lot and I hope that I will get to see a live one someday.



  • samantha

    i love dolphins

  • Kay

    I love dolphins as does my daughter. On vacation next week we are going to swim with the dolphins in Florida. Can’t wait!

  • charleen

    Dolphins are Mystical, Beautful Creatures,My wedding ring are Dolphins curled around the “circle of Life” I get alot of comments on it, If we don’t listen to the Earth, we will loose its Beauty..for generations to come,

  • SMR

    Dolphins are beautiful mammals. I love dolphins because they’re part of the water scenary for beaches, lakes and so far. Dolphins put a soothing to my mind and relaxes me. GO DOLPHINS!

  • REM

    i love dolphins i wish peole would stop killing them

  • Judy

    I’ve fallen in love with dolpins more now than before, due to the fact that I daily takes an injection for (MS) Multiple Sclerosis. I find them to be very peaceful, so,I sit and look at s pictures from a calendar I were given.

  • Artur

    Just a link to my picture of Gaspar, one of the most famous dolphins in the world

  • amber

    dolphins are so cute!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Asia

    Dolphins are too cute. They are my 10th favorite animal next to lizards.

  • Brandi

    I absulutly love dolphins, and cant wait to become a marine biologist:)

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  • saqib javed

    i cannot believe the dolphins playing with the ball.

  • dolphin lover aka sonia (alex)

    Dolphins are my favorite animal in the entire world!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I really wish i could have a dolphin as a pet :[ All i can do is think about them.

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  • Destyne Wells

    I love dolphins so much and over the summer i went swimming with them and i would love to do it agian if i ever go back to ohio!! I just wish that they would stop hurting ther nature, and for all of the dolphin lovers out there you are alsome and i am thinking about protesting. PEACE,LOVE,AND HAPPINESS 4 EVA!!!!!!!:):):):):):)

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  • Ben

    How can you not love orcas/Killer whales let me guess you saw the movie Killer Whale they are actually playful and friendly I love all types they are my Fav animal get it ajpf;hgjfdhgj;gj;gfdkhgl;khg;jkb;kgf;hjbhvlhbhl They ARE EPIC BELIEVE IT OR WATCH FREE WILLY I shall remember keiko Forever he was a good dolphin is sad that he got beached…………………………………………………………………………………

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    I wish people would stop killing them too Hey who wants to see a dolphins tale it’s real she really lost her tale but it fell off on it’s own

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