Ask a lifeguard: Why do lifeguards keep swimmers away from dolphins?
A question similar to this was posed to me in an email from a reader at the end of last summer. He has a good point, in that we don’t hear about dolphin “attacks” per se. So, what’s the danger? Why shouldn’t we interact with dolphins that swim by? After all, both dolphins and people are intelligent, naturally curious and playful creatures. Dolphins may want to investigate us as much as we want to check them out, too.
However, we both possess another common behavior.
Do you remember learning about the fight-or-flight instinct in science class? We have it, just as all animals have it. We each can be spontaneous about when we choose to fight.
The ocean is the dolphins’ territory. That being said, dolphins — and almost all other sea creatures — are very gracious hosts to us when we swim and wade as guests in their realm. We all get along very well as long as none of us feels threatened.
Consider this: If sizable spiders enter your home all the time, eating moths and other bugs you don’t want in your house, you may let the spiders keep coming and going. Yet, if a big spider in your home crawls toward you — or tries to crawl onto you — your reaction may suddenly be different. You may instinctively defend yourself by either moving away from the spider, forcefully moving the spider or killing it.
This natural instinct is similar in dolphins. They would rather move away from us first. But they can become more confrontational if they feel they need to be defensive. There have been scattered world-wide reports of dolphins forcefully pushing, whacking and biting people whom they see as getting too close. (Read or watch reports in videos clips on animalplant.com, dontfeedwilddolphins.org and waterplanetusa.com.)
Thankfully, these physical confrontations between people and dolphins have not occurred locally due to lifeguards and others teaching people to keep a respectful distance from the wild dolphins.
No live dolphin attractions or “swim with the dolphins” programs are at our local amusement parks. In fact, there are no totally tame dolphins around here. Most folks realize that our dolphins are migrating hunters. Their whole way of life would be changed for the worse if people fed and treated the dolphins as pets.
But if you really, really, really want to seek out and spend time with dolphins, do it the right way.
Every July there are local events to count and monitor dolphin activity along our beaches. And, yes, you can volunteer!
The Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute organizes the dolphin census and study along the Delaware beaches. For a couple of hours, you can spot dolphins and record what they are doing. You will also record the water conditions and other factors that may affect the dolphins’ behavior while you watch them. Contact the MERR Institute to volunteer, at (302) 228-5029.
Want to do it again? The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., leads an annual Maryland Dolphin Count. Join members of the aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Program to fill out a form about the dolphins you see in Ocean City, Md., over a few hours. Check the National Aquarium’s Web site at www.aqua.org for more information. This year’s count will be on Friday, July 20.
In fact, by taking part in these counts, you will actually provide scientists with data to help them learn more about our migrating dolphin population. This benefits the dolphins and satisfies your curiosity without endangering either of you.
If you won’t be here during these dolphin counts, you can also respectfully observe dolphins in our waters. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard and paddle out with your eyes peeled to watch the dolphins swim by. Or, just watch dolphins from the sand or a boat deck. Check for dolphin-watching tours out of Lewes and Ocean City.
Thanks for not swimming out to touch the dolphins. The dolphins may just swim closer to shore because you made it safe for them. Thanks, also, for teaching your family members to watch from a distance. This makes every dolphin sighting as special and exciting as the last.
Dana Schaefer has been a local ocean rescue lifeguard for 15 years. Do you have a question for a lifeguard? Ask her at email@example.com.