Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins

All photos Copyright 2009 by Barry Fackler

One of the truly special and amazing things about living along the Kona coast is being able to see Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris) frequently and at close range. These mammals are essentially nocturnal, feeding in the deep waters of the open sea at night. As daylight breaks, many of them seek sanctuary in shallow bays and coves for the specific purpose of resting. Upon entering a bay the dolphins exhibit their trademark behavior of leaping out of the water and spinning on their long axis up to seven times before crashing back into the water. If you are in the water during this period, you can hear their distinctive clicks and whistles. However, within an hour or so, they settle down. They stop leaping and vocalizing as they enter their rest cycle.

This rest period is critical to the health and well-being of the dolphin. They are negatively buoyant (they sink instead of float) and they don't breathe automatically like we do. As such, dolphins sleep one hemisphere of the brain at a time. The hemisphere that remains conscious keeps the dolphin swimming (so it doesn't sink) and surfacing (so it can breathe). This makes it appear that the dolphin is active and awake. Despite appearances, the dolphins are sleeping and need to remain undisturbed during this time.

Dolphins are beautiful and graceful animals that elicit strong feelings in people. Seeing them in the wild is exciting and simply incredible. If you are lucky enough to be in the water when they pass by, you feel a sense of awe and wonder as well as a feeling of being truly privileged to see such a beautiful sight.

The bond people have for dolphins is not always a good thing. Often they are mobbed by swimmers and kayakers as soon as they enter a bay and are either driven away or deprived of sleep. Some people also have "unique" ideas about dolphins, ascribing to them spiritual and even extra-terrestrial characteristics and powers. This leads them to do odd and harmful things to dolphins such as pressing crystal amulets against them and trying to physically "bond" with them. A few years ago, there was a woman at Honaunau who would swim topless with the dolphins, attempting to rub her breasts against them. It wasn't pretty. It takes all kinds, I guess. I encourage anyone reading this to use a common-sense approach with dolphins. They are powerful, wild animals with numerous, big teeth that live in an environment that humans are not well adapted to. And, regardless of some people's fantasies, they can be aggressive and injurious to humans as well as to each other. Respect them and they are likely to respect you.

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