In search of common dolphins

I am standing on the marina in Pythagorio, it is 8am and the morning sun is gradually releasing its warmth. I am joining a crew from the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation to take part in a common dolphin survey of the Eastern Aegean.  We load the boat with provisions, bags and equipment and adopt our positions on the deck.  The skipper takes the helm and glides us out beyond the marina.  We will be back at sunset.

As we sail out past this small Greek fishing village, the warm November sunshine rises above the ocean and casts its platinum river of sparkling light over the silent water.  There is a slight undulating swell and tiny ripples of current.  Every now and then the boat slips through round pools of still, glassy water compressed by the high pressure and lack of wind.  It is an inky, indigo sea. We are heading to the Western reaches of Samos and out towards the islands of Fourni where we will do several transects. There is a profound air of anticipation; we have the whole day before us and who knows what we might see.

I look out towards the horizon where the blue mountains of Asia minor are lost in the morning mistiness and nearby seagulls stretch their wings and take flight. The only sound is the rhythmic chugging of the engine.  I can smell the aromatic herbs of the Aegean sweeping out from the land over the sea; connecting land, ocean and place. I am teamed with ten marine scientists: all strong and intelligent; proud young people making their way in conservation.  There are two missions afoot: one to take water samples that measure the level of micro-plastics, and two, to study common dolphins; observing their behaviour and taking bio-acoustic readings.

Short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) thrive in tropical and temperate waters and used to be very common in the seas of Greece.  However, they are now classified by the IUCN as endangered here as populations have experienced a sharp decline in the last ten years due mostly to human encroachment, overfishing, pollution and entanglement.  They typically travel in large social groups numbering between 10 and 50 animals but sometimes groups comprise thousands of individuals. They are very acrobatic, sociable, and joyous to watch.  Having seen a small pod whilst travelling by ferry back to Pythagorio one evening, I am hopeful that we will encounter them.  With our eyes closed and our headphones pressed tightly to our ears, we can hear them clicking and whistling on our hydrophones amidst the background hum of the ocean itself and the surprising loud engine noises of passing ships (noise travels very fast and very loudly underwater).  Smiling at each other and nodding: we know they are near.

If you have ever been lucky enough to encounter dolphins in the wild, you will immediately understand their universal appeal.  I have seen grown men laugh and cry on encountering them.  There is no-one that remains unmoved by their boisterous play, their inquisitiveness, intelligence and playful bow-riding.  They make us happy.

Unfortunately for dolphins our pursuit of them for pleasure has caused them considerable stress.  The worst of this is when they are captured or bred for captivity to furnish the dolphinaria, that sadly, despite the downturns of SeaWorld, still draw the crowds.  No creature is designed for captivity but some suffer the confines more than others.  Several countries have taken the step to forbid dolphin captivity and breeding programmes (e.g. the UK, France, Costa Rica, Chile, India and Hungary). For other countries, the practice of the whale and dolphin ‘show’ continues.

According to the Born Free Foundation, there are currently approximately 3,000 whales and dolphin in captivity around the world today. These are found in 63 countries, with the highest numbers located in Japan (57), then China (44), USA (34), Russia (24) and Mexico (24). Facilities occur in popular tourism destinations, such as Florida (USA), the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico), The Dominican Republic and Cuba (Caribbean), the Canary Islands (Spain) and in coastal resorts of Turkey. They are held in zoos, hotels, as separate operating facilities, and within travelling menageries.


In the EU, there are currently 33 facilities that house an estimated 309 individual captive cetaceans. This includes 283 bottlenose dolphins (MEP, 2015). Although some are bred in captivity, there are many more that are captured and taken from their families to furnish concrete pools. The methods of capture, and subsequent transport, can be extremely cruel and some animals die of shock or injury in the process; not to mention the stress on both parties when calves and mothers are separated.

Dolphins are shaped by a million years of evolution for a life they cannot live in captivity. They are held in pens with non-conspecifics and trained to perform unnatural behaviours, or interact with people in swim-with and petting activities.  In the wild, they are almost always in motion covering up to 125km per day.  They spend less than 20% of their time at the water’s surface and never ‘stand’ upright on their tails.  Their world is largely acoustic and they are excellent hunters.  Living in sophisticated and dynamic social networks, they form complex relationships and interactions; communicating using immense sensory capacities over wide geographic areas. In captivity, they are denied the basic enrichment that only the open seas can provide.  But here, today, in the open seas they can be quite elusive.

The morning stretches into the afternoon on this beautiful vessel.  We languid on its decks.  Our stations rotate to keep us awake and looking, but as yet…, nothing.  Eventually, though, as the sun dips towards the horizon we spot some fins travelling West.  “Dolphins!!”, the watchman calls, and there they are.  We reach for our cameras and binoculars, and jostle into position; eager not to miss this moment.  Then watch as two common dolphins undulate over the water: skimming the surface, disappearing, looping, surfacing then gone.  So fast.   Later, travelling east, we see two more.  Again, so fast and so agile, they are soon departed.  But everyone, even the surly skipper, break into a smile.  We’ve seen four dolphin and heard many more.  It has been a good trip.  Quietly, in the crepuscular light, we chug back into the harbour and glide silent through the marina gateway; our wonderful boat day has come to a close.