Flipper Backlash

Dolphins’ Dark Side May
Have a Familiar Twist: Us

In the Gulf of Mexico, they are among the species most affected by the catastrophic oil spill that BP caused two years ago. Pink bottlenoses found in the Amazon river are also facing dire consequences from illegal mining pollution and other man-made hazards to the forest basin. And they’re still being hunted all over the world for the high value their meat is worth in the black market.
But there was an area where dolphins were still unbeatable: the court of public opinion. No longer.
But it’s not that they’ve dropped off the endangered species list. Or mass beachings, such as the one that’s just happened in South America have somehow waned. Dolphins, as it turns out, are so smart that even their messy social interactions remind us of wise guys behaving badly. Some are calling it the dolphin mafia mentality. Who knew?
You may say that there’s a backlash going on against dolphins, and that’s all their own doing. But this is, of course, an anthropomorphic and reductionist view of a species that, apart from breathing air and raising their young on milk, has very little to do with us. Except for the way they relate to each other, though, and social bonds are a reliable way to study any species.
Cetaceans, with their big brains and sophisticated social networks, connected by bloodlines and sexual partnerships, do resemble humans and other highly intelligent land mammals. Chimpanzees, elephants, canines and, whenever it’s convenient, even some feline species, routinely collaborate with each other to survive.
Since we obviously can’t monitor sea creatures as we do with those living on land, the next best thing is to observe them interacting with each other. It’s no easy task, as a team headed by University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, biologist Richard Connor has found while studying a group of dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, during the peak mating season.
More on that in a minute, but let’s add some more mojo here, so you don’t have to dive into this new soup of information without wetting your appetite first. Although we’ve come a long way since Flipper was a hit TV series in the 1960s, we haven’t completely shaken off from our collective psyche that image of dolphins as good-nature creatures with a contagious ‘laughter.’
Just like your uncle Bob, so nice and gentle, who’d often stop by unannounced at your parents’ home to lend a hand, and who turned out to be a mass murderer who buried countless bodies in his garden, under blossoming petunias. Well, not quite but behavior caught on camera in the past 10 years or so have shown a mean streak we never know it’d be possible coming from dolphins.
KILLING FOR SPORT
Up to a few decades ago, there was a consensus that animals were incapable of killing other members of their species, without a social purpose, either to protect their young, food and resources, or mating partners. Then research about elephants in the 1970s showed that young bulls, left to roam free without the natural restrains of a strong social group, would act that, well, teenagers.
Except that they were a few tons heavier than boys, and their target would be younger bulls and rhinos, whose badly broken carcasses began to appear in the African savanna. That was the peak of the poachers’ rule, who would pry on elder elephants for their tusks. Typically, without parenting, the bull would be free to ‘go out and have fun,’ often leading to their own demise.
So important are family bonds for elephants, that without the matriarchs, the kids simply went wild, a reality that only now has been slowly reversing. In the meantime, a few years ago footage of big dolphins, up to 12 feet long, began to make the rounds, showing them slaughtering in group a large number of porpoises, a smaller species. All just for fun, apparently: they’d make the kill and move on.
But not before having a grand time in the water, throwing their prey high up in the air, before breaking their backs on their way down, or viciously biting them. The footage, naturally, unmasked and buried those who’d jumped at the chance of lecturing us on the pseudo ‘divine’ origin of dolphins and how such enlighten creatures would usher us to a new era, and on and on, plus tax.
We couldn’t help it, but that did make us happy. By attempting to brand dolphins with some kind of mumble-jumbo devotional belief, as others have done with whales, those eager to believe and follow were obviously ignoring the true nature of these wild animals and the beauty of their individuality.

CHIMPS & GOODFELLAS
Prof. Connor and his team made some interesting observations during their six-year research. Like chimpanzees and other highly-evolved animal species, dolphin groups are led by two or three males with a strong bond with each other. They also collaborate among themselves to keep the group intact and within a certain territorial boundary.
But then the similarities stop right there. While chimpanzees, for example, are openly hostile to other communities, and fiercely territorial, several groups of dolphins in the over 5,000 square-mile Shark Bay overlap and wind up establishing group alliances that sometimes last decades. No other species partake of their fluid concept of territory and family bonds.
During mating season, males from different groups may engage in a battle for the females, and many of such alliances are forged in these up to 20-dolphin imbroglios. It’s this ability to form strong ties and collaborate with outside groups that led researchers to compare them with the Sicilian famiglias-style of social organization. But it’s obvious an exaggeration.
Much more needs to be learned about dolphins to be able to understand their complexities as a species and as a social group. If this anthropomorphization trap we fall into so often has anything left in the tank, then perhaps one day we may hear from the dolphins themselves (as many expect from whales too), about what makes their fins to swing.

THE 30 & THE 900
Dark side or not, dolphins still enjoy an enormous amount of goodwill from people, who pay top dollar to go swim with them and even report having mystical experiences while in their company. Such goodwill was at full display last month in Arraial do Cabo, a Brazilian beach, when about 30 dolphins wound up stranding themselves right in front of beach goers.
When it became clear they were not capable of freeing themselves back to deeper waters, those around decided to give them ahead and dragged each of them away from the sand. It was a spontaneous and thrilling event as would be the rescue of a drowning victim; all dolphins swam safely away, unharmed, and the whole moment was captured on video.
Almost on cue, the flip side of such a heart-warming footage are the pictures of over 800 of them, that have been washing ashore in the past four months on the Pacific side of South America, in Peru’s San Jose, Piura and Lambayeque. These are not the mass beachings that dolphins and whales often engage into, when they seemingly on purpose head straight to shallow waters and died stranded.
In the case of Peru, the animals are already dead and the sheer number and relatively close proximity indicates that it may be something happening in the waters off the coast. Tissue samples and toxicology exams are being conducted as we speak but the sight is truly disheartening. We can’t help but state the obvious: there may be some pollution-related element to the deaths.

SOMETHING IN THE WATER
Going back to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, its impact on marine life is still being measured, and no one knows the extent of the damage and impact on the region’s ecosystem. But as we told you here, dolphins may be among the top casualties of this man-made mishap that cost several billion dollars, took away the livelihood of thousands of people, destroy small businesses and which has yet to send a single person to jail.
After two years, and another obscene bundle of cash, the U.S. Dept. of Justice managed to point the finger, er, file an indictment against a single culprit for the whole disaster, a lowly former BP engineer. As for the giant British oil concern, which seems to be dragging its feet to reimburse many affected by their wrongdoing, it’s doing really well, and may post another record profit this year, thank you very much for asking.

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