Posted by: orcaweb | June 27, 2017

It’s all fin and games

Throughout our time on board, we have been privileged to witness a truly wonderful range of species, living wild and free throughout our oceans. We are often asked about the social lives of these species, and why they seem to just love to play. We love to talk about their behaviour, as there is so much we are yet to discover about their social lives and communication.

Cetaceans are widely recognised as incredibly sociable, with great emotional intelligence. The large baleen whales live largely solitary lives, often migrating long distances to find a mate. They sing across oceans, communicating over hundreds of kilometres. Meanwhile, the toothed whales, including the dolphin species and sperm whales usually live in very sociable pods. Indeed much of what we know about communication within these species, we have learned from these gregarious and playful animals.

In general, smaller species such as the common dolphin tend to form more flexible societies. Individual small family pods can come together to form a huge group of hundreds or even thousands of individuals all hunting and playing together. They are so sociable that they often form mixed pods with other species. We often see striped dolphins and common dolphins travelling and playing together as we travel through the Bay of Biscay.


Common dolphins coming to play by the Pont Aven

Larger cetaceans such as the orca and pilot whales tend to form stable matriarchal pods. These are led by the eldest females, the matriarchs of the group. These family groups often stay together for their entire lives. This means that they are incredibly close, with strong emotional ties within their pod. They will be part of a wider population, able to communicate and mix with other related matriarchal pods.

pilots, northern shelf, June 17

Pilot whales sighted last week from the Pont-Aven

These family pods have very strong, individual identities. That can be seen through their communication. Different family pods belonging to the same wider population have many similarities in their dialects. The more distantly related they are, the more different their whistles sound.

You can however have different populations living in the same area, yet they don’t mix, as is the case for orcas and sperm whales. Their dialect is completely different, and so they can’t communicate with the other populations. The unique dialect they each have really reinforces their sense of identity and knowledge of who they are. When it comes to orcas particularly, there are many different, genetically distinct ecotypes of orcas throughout the world.

They also have distinct identities within their own pods. Dolphins are known to use signature whistles to refer to individuals, in the same way as we have names for each other. These are thought to change throughout their lives, for example when young male dolphins leave their mothers to form young ‘bachelor pods’ their signature whistles become similar to each other. This is thought to strengthen the bond between them, and to signal to competitors that their alliance is strong.

Although it can be difficult to understand the reasons for many behaviours, sometimes it is simply play. We have seen dolphins jumping into the air, twisting and turning and chasing each other under the water. On every crossing of the Bay of Biscay this season, we have had dolphins darting through the water, keen to play in the waves around the ship, and to surf the wake.


Common dolphin showing off!

In other parts of the world they have also been recorded playing with objects such as pebbles and seaweeds, balancing them on their pectoral fins, carrying them around in their mouths, or throwing them back and forth to each other. We don’t understand the rules, but I’m sure it’s all great fun from the dolphins’ perspective!

Dolphins have also been recorded using tools. For example, some members of a population of Bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay off the west coast of Australia have been observed wrapping their beaks in sponges before hunting for fish near the seabed. This behaviour, called ‘sponging’ prevents the dolphins’ beaks from being injured by corals and sharp rocks while they forage.


Bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Santander

Not dis-similarly, it was documented through the use of ‘secret’ filming for the BBC documentary Spy in the pod, that some bottlenose dolphins, particularly young males, enjoy deliberately administering themselves a non-lethal dose of pufferfish venom (read into that what you will!)

Of course, we are hesitant to over anthropomorphise these animals and to attribute human traits to their behaviours, but it’s hard not to with these animals who are so obviously intelligent, emotional and charismatic. As a child I wanted to grow up to be a dolphin, and to be honest, it doesn’t seem like too bad a life!

Heather – ORCA Wildlife Officer


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