Marine mammal specialists are backing the Cayman Islands Department of Environment’s message to the public to avoid interacting in the water with the lone male dolphin that has made his home in local waters.
Three experts from the United States, who visited Grand Cayman last week to observe the dolphin, nicknamed Stinky, say that it’s important that people resist the temptation to get in the water and swim, touch or feed the animal.
Their advice for divers who encounter the dolphin is to avoid interacting with him if possible.
Chris Dold, the vice president of veterinary services at Sea Work Parks and Entertainment, explained: “The safest thing is to not approach the dolphin. If he approaches you, don’t try to fend him off, believe it or not, because we’ve seen that engaging the dolphin accidently, your reaction is to say ‘back away, dolphin, back away’, which encourages him to push harder. The most prudent thing is to give him no reinforcement, don’t engage him and if he’s sticking around, end your dive as quickly, but as safely as possible.”
He also advises divers against using their fins to distract or fend off the dolphin, as that gives the dolphin something to grab onto.
However, Mr. Dolds acknowledged: “It’s hard to give this sort of advice, because you’re not down there, you’re not in the heat of the moment and it’s hard to predict every scenario and how he might react to every scenario. But, the safest thing is to stop what you’re doing, wait him out and end your dive as safely and as soon as possible.”
The dolphin behaviour experts spent two days in Cayman last week, tracking down the dolphin from reports of sightings from members of the public and boat and tour operators and observing him.
Since June this year, there have been numerous reports of the dolphin acting sexually aggressively toward divers, swimmers and boats.
Trevor Spradlin, marine biologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the dolphin was displaying classic, aggressive, male dominant characteristics seen in other lone dolphins and that water users who are educated to spot that kind of behaviour can take themselves out of harm’s way.
“The potential for high-risk interaction is there. We’ve seen it from videos and photos submitted by the public and by the dive operators. There are certain key things that he has done to divers, such as threat displays, he has done open mouth, he’s done chuffs (sharp exhalation of air through the blowhole), he’s done tail slaps … There are certain warning signs that people, if they are educated and if they know the warning signs, can do a lot to minimise what might happen next,” Mr. Spradlin said.
That’s not a smile
He said a lot of people misunderstand dolphin behaviour. “They think the dolphin, when it opens its mouth, that it’s happy and it’s smiling at them. They don’t realise that’s a very aggressive, negative interaction,” he said.
In the short term, the way to deal with the dolphin is to get out of the water if he approaches, not to seek him out, do not get in the water to capture photos or film of him and not to tap on the sides of boats to get his attention.
The team plans to continue to keep abreast of the dolphin’s behaviour and see how the situation develops over time. That will determine if a long-term solution will need to be found. Ultimately, the dolphin’s behaviour will be governed by the behaviour of the humans he encounters, the experts said.
Laura Engleby, another marine biologist from NOAA, said the animal’s aggressive behaviour is typical of a dolphin that becomes accustomed to humans.
“The more he gets habituated to human interaction, the more you’ll see that behaviour escalating, which is standard male dominant behaviour that is misdirected towards people. That’s why it’s so important for people to resist the very strong temptation to interact with him because the more that happens, the more those kinds of behaviours are likely to occur and escalate and get more intense,” Ms Engleby explained.
She added: “It’s something that … progresses; that’s why we’re echoing the DoE’s advice for people to try to observe and admire and enjoy from the boat, from the surface,” she added.
The dolphin’s future behaviour will determine if a long-term solution is needed. Mr. Spradlin and Mr. Dold said it was unlikely that the dolphin could be placed into a pod, as it is not known where the dolphin came from and, besides, pods of bottle nosed dolphins are rarely seen in Cayman. Moving the dolphin into a dolphinarium is one possibility, said Mr. Dold, but he added that a “lot of work and observation that should happen prior to that to make the most reasonable and best decision for this animal, for his individual welfare”.
The team estimated that the dolphin is about 20 years old, based on his size – a little under 8 feet long – and photographs of his teeth that show they are worn down.
It had been thought he was a young dolphin that had recently reached sexual maturity – hence, reports of his sexual behaviour. There have been sighting of the dolphin since 2009, but since June this year the sightings have become more frequent and his behaviour has become increasingly aggressive. Last month, a diver videoed the animal as it held him against the sea floor. The video has had more than 476,000 hits on YouTube.
Director of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie said there had so far been no reports of tour operators offering tourists trips to places to see the dolphin.
She added that now that her department’s advice to the public to try to avoid interaction in the water with the dolphin had been backed by the experts, the DoE would embark on a campaign to educate operators on advising their customers what to do when they encounter the animal.
A provision within the Marine Conservation Law, regarding Wildlife Interaction Zones, arms the Department of Environment with legislation under which anyone who interacts with the dolphin outside those zones can be prosecuted, Ms Ebanks-Petrie said.
“We have some legal provisions that would allow us to enforce … the message that we’re giving, which is stay away from the animal, because the Wildlife Interaction Zone regulations that were passed in 2007 had the provision in them that makes it illegal for anyone to encourage or invite or facilitate interaction with wild animal outside the Wildlife Interaction Zone,” she explained. The Department of Environment had urged the public to get in contact if they spotted the dolphin, which enabled the observation team to locate him each day. The DoE has drawn up a map showing that the animal has been circumnavigating Grand Cayman and, although he is most frequently spotted in the North Sound, he has been seen all around the coast.
The department had also asked anyone to send any video footage or photographs of the dolphin to the DoE so the experts could view them. Janice Blumenthal, research officer with the DoE, said about 30 people had submitted videos and photos.
The dolphin has several scars and scratches on him, but those were healing, Mr. Dold said, indicating that the dolphin is in relatively good health, although he is thinner than he should be.
The team said there were historically only 30 recorded cases worldwide of solitary male bottle nose dolphin. Ms Engleby is studying another lone dolphin in Louisiana.
Department of Environment is going to join a “blue ribbon” panel made up of marine experts to help develop approaches for dealing with solitary dolphins.
The department is urging the public to continue to send videos or photographs of the dolphin to [email protected]
“The potential for high-risk interaction is there. We’ve seen it from videos and photos submitted by the public and by the dive operators.” Trevor Spradlin, NOAA