Dolphin disaster: Why we must learn from this before it’s too late
They died just as they had lived – following their natural instincts to stick together. Up the muddy river, running inland from Falmouth, the dolphins swam, responding to the distress calls of their fellow animals. By the time they realised the shallow waters were as much of a snare as any fisherman’s net, it was too late for many of them.
Despite the best efforts of rescuers, 24 dolphins died, gasping for air as they beached themselves along the picturesque foreshore of the Percuil River. Two more had to be put down.
It was the worst case of such a mass stranding on British shores for nearly three decades.
We find such scenes upsetting, not just because these are beautiful animals, beloved by everybody, but because we know that dolphins are also highly intelligent. There is something about their sinuous, hydrodynamic shape, their bright inquisitive eyes, and their apparently ever-smiling mouths that endears them to us.
Those who have had the privilege to see them up close, and perhaps even to swim alongside them, describe the experience in near-mystical terms, as if somehow the barriers between our two species had been temporarily lifted.
I know better than most the way that they can capture the imagination. I have spent the past five years researching my own book on dolphins, whales and porpoises, as well as writing and presenting a film on the same subject for BBC2’s Arena.
And during that time, I have been lucky enough to come into close contact with these amazing, exquisite creatures on numerous occasions.
Their abilities are extraordinary, not to say uncanny. Using echo-location, which is much like the sonar used in submarines, they are able to find and catch fast-moving prey, even in the darkness of the ocean depths.
They can copy, and even pre- empt, human behaviour and some have even been known to watch television through the glass walls of an aquarium tank – although, as one researcher has joked, that is a somewhat dubious achievement.
Throughout history, there have been reports of dolphins saving humans from drowning. Recently, an Australian family even claimed they were protected from predatory sharks by a school of circling dolphins.
But much of their behaviour remains a mystery and no one knows for sure why dolphins, such as those in Cornwall, apparently commit mass suicide. The theories are many. One is that ailing dolphins, which are air-breathing mammals, would rather beach themselves than drown – tragically, leading their fellows ashore in the process.
Another is that dolphins, like whales and porpoises, navigate using the Earth’s electromagnetic fields but that anomalies in these can sometimes lead them perilously close to land.
Most disturbingly, we could be playing a central role in their demise. One theory regarding the Cornish dolphins is that Navy live fire exercises knocked them off course. I have never heard of this happening before, but the increasingly loud sonar used both by the world’s navies, and by underwater oil prospecting, has long been thought to affect their ability to navigate.
Only post-mortems examinations, carried out by Paul Jepson of London Zoo, who attended the strandings in Cornwall, will help us understand the real cause of this tragedy.
Work carried out by the Natural History Museum is also essential. Since 1913, it has catalogued every such beaching incident, even down to the smallest harbour porpoise (one of which was found in Southampton Water this weekend, close to where I live).
What is certain is that these are truly remarkable creatures. To see a dolphin in the wild – rather than in the confines of an oceanarium – is a profoundly exhilarating experience. In the clear blue waters off the Azores, in the mid-Atlantic, I sped along with a BBC film crew in a 250 horsepower rigid inflatable boat – and yet was effortlessly overtaken by pods of common, striped and spotted dolphin.
They take particular delight in bow-riding – positioning themselves just ahead of a vessel, and weaving in and out of the bow wave.
Watching such a performance, it is impossible to believe that these animals are doing anything other than having pure, unadulterated fun.
The Azores are certainly a dolphin hotspot. Bottlenose (the original ‘Flipper’) and leaping Risso’s dolphins are also seen there – huge, pale animals given to leaping entirely out of the water in behaviour known as ‘breaching’.
Meanwhile, in the chillier seas of Cape Cod, in the northeastern U.S., I have been surrounded by two or three hundred Atlantic white-sided dolphins.
Sometimes they would even cheekily swim among their giant cousins, the humpback whales, and steal the tiny fish from under their noses – to the whales’ evident snorts of annoyance.
And there’s a large brain behind that trademark sense of fun. They constantly chatter and squeak to one another and emit pulses produced by their foreheads or ‘melons’ – dome-like structures which contain fatty oils and act as acoustic lenses to focus these sounds.
We still don’t understand what these sounds are used for, but they may be the basis of a dolphin language. After humans and great apes, dolphins certainly have the most complex brains in the animal kingdom.
Experiments into dolphin intelligence have been going on since the 1960s. The controversial scientist, Dr John C Lilly even declared that dolphins were akin to aliens on Earth and that they were able to communicate with one another, perhaps even telepathically. (Although Lilly’s extreme views were somewhat discredited when he also began to experiment with LSD.)
But dolphins do appear to communicate-with one another in some shape or form – although we have no idea how extensive their vocabulary is.
Individuals separated from their pod and held in confinement, for example, will call out the signature ‘whistle’ of their matriarch, as if to ask her what is happening.
Those in confinement also form close bonds with people. Margaret Howe, one of Dr Lilly’s researchers, even created a semi-submerged house in which she could live with her subjects 24 hours a day, sharing her life with theirs as the dolphins swam in and out of her living room.
Man’s relationship with dolphins entered a rather more sinister phase when the animals were trained for military use.
During the Vietnam war, American-trained dolphins delivered lethal doses of CO2 gas, through needles fixed to their beaks, injecting enemy Vietcong divers attempting to sabotage U.S ships.
Dolphins were also used in the Arabian Sea during the first Gulf War – although their exact role remains secret. Modern research, thankfully, tends to have more peaceful aims – but we still have a very long way to go.
Two-thirds of the surface of our planet is water – their domain – yet we seem to give little thought to what goes on there. Certainly, as the progression of the Marine Bill through Parliament this week shows, it is crucial to try to protect this, the last real wilderness on Earth.
Leaping dolphins animate that great expanse for us. They are the living symbols of the teeming life which lies beneath. I have watched pods of dolphins scything through football-pitch- sized schools of sand eels, elegantly eating their lunch before taking time out to play.
I have seen female dolphins swim with their calves alongside, the young animals barely bigger than a rugby ball. But you don’t need to go to the mid-Atlantic to see such sights. As this week’s events so clearly indicate, the coastal waters of Britain are alive with dolphins.
Stand on Durleston Head in Dorset with a good pair of binoculars – or even with your naked eyes – and you’ll see dolphin surfing through the waves.
And in the Moray Firth, you can watch bottlenose dolphins, bigger than a man, throwing huge salmon out of the water before expertly catching them in their jaws.
But such sights are tempered, for me, by the knowledge that thousands of dolphins still die as ‘bycatch’ in fishing nets.
Or that they choke on our rubbish, which so often ends up in the sea. Or that ships, or our quest for oil, may be causing them to die in such large numbers on the shores of Britain.
If there are lessons to learn from the Cornish tragedy, we should learn them fast, before dolphins disappear from our coastal waters altogether.
For if they did, our island would be much poorer for it.