Like anyone who has ever been on or in the water, I love dolphins. I would defy anyone not to feel some excitement when on a boat and the cry ‘dolphin’ sounds out. These very intelligent and social mammals live in groups, or pods, and actively communicate and support each other through posture and sound, and to us, so it seems, also enjoy some form of human interaction, or at least have a curiosity towards humans.
In common with other mammals, including us, the young ones depend on the mother for survival and dolphin calves will stay with their mothers for a few years. During that time they learn many skills by imitating every movement of their mother. Hunting is one of the very important skills they need to learn before they reach adulthood.
In July 2015 I finally got to do the Sardine Run trip with Walter Bernardis (African Watersports), a trip I had wanted to do for a long time. If you have never done this, I recommend you do it soon. It is fairly common knowledge that the Sardine activity is not as intense as it once was, partly due to the extreme fishing of sardines further down the coast, but there is still action to be had and a whole lot of other adventure to experience, not least due to the character of Walter, the owner and operator of African Watersports. It is fair to say that with Walter on the boat there is never a dull moment. Not only do he and his crew have a nose for finding the action, but also Walter is full of stories and anecdotes and probably one of the most fearless people I have ever met! And on the few occasions Walter falls silent, there was always Franseau ready to step in!!
So before we get back to the dolphin story, a few words on the other experiences to be had, apart from Walter! There were days when the sardines were just not hanging around; on those days we followed the hump back whales. These guys tend not to hang around and are moving through pretty quickly, but even so, fast moving breaching whales are still pretty spectacular, occasionally there is the chance to get in the water ahead of them and hope they pass close by. On one day we even encountered a curious Sunfish at the surface, which hung around with us for nearly an hour, providing the closest encounter I’ve ever had.
You can see that during this trip there was a lot going on, but for me the real privilege was to see dolphin interaction while they were hunting the sardines. While diving on one of the small bait balls, I could hear clicking noises all around and bubble trails left by the dolphins as they moved in and out at such high speed. This is part of their communication and hunting method, employed to push the sardines up and into a tighter ball. When the sardines are closed up into a tight ball, the dolphins will come in waves, from all directions, to grab them one by one.
This was pretty exciting stuff, being amongst the dolphins, watching their hunting behaviour (oh and not to mention the gannets, bombing us from overhead!). While watching all this amazing the action, my attention was drawn to two dolphins that were coming in slightly later than the others, and with much slower movement, at least slower compared to the rest of the pack. Then I realised it was a mother teaching it’s young to hunt. Patiently, in a relatively slow pace, the dolphin would come in, closely followed by the young dolphin, mimicking every movement of its mother. Each time they came in it seemed the youngster was getting more and more excited to be learning this new skill. As a mother myself, it was quite touching to see this mother and infant interaction, and I could imagine how satisfied the mother must have felt, watching her youngster learn this. It’s not often you get chance to observe dolphins so closely in the water, and to see them up close in full feeding mode is an amazing experience. But to experience the interaction between a mother and its calf is something I will never forget, a rare moment I feel very lucky to have seen.