Top stories of 2012: Lone dolphin becomes fixture in Cayman waters

The summer of 2012 saw an addition to the local waters of a solitary and frisky dolphin. 

The presence of the male dolphin, variously nicknamed “Stinky”, “Humpy” or “Randy”, led the Cayman Islands Department of Environment to warn swimmers, snorkellers and divers to get out of the water if they encountered the amorous dolphin rather than interact with him. 

The purpose of that warning became clear in early September when underwater videographer Michael Maes, his wife photographer Ellen Cuylaerts and marine biologist Alex Mustard had an unexpected and scary run-in with the dolphin during a dive off West Bay in Grand Cayman.  

A video of that encounter, in which the dolphin pinned Mr. Maes to the seabed, attracted more than half a million hits after it was posted to Youtube. 

Marine mammal specialists from the United States visited Cayman to observe the dolphin and they backed the Cayman Islands Department of Environment’s message to the public to avoid interacting in the water with the dolphin, as engaging him only reinforces his behaviour. 

Boat users who have made recent sightings of the dolphin say he appeared heavily scarred and seems to be getting cut and scraped while going too close to boats.  

Trevor Spradlin, marine biologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was one of the visiting American specialists, 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 told reporters following two days of observation of the animal in early October. 

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.  

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.  

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.  

The dolphin has been most frequently spotted in the North Sound, although a map of sightings of the animals, drawn up by the Department of Environment, shows he has been circumnavigating Grand Cayman.