We look around, and suddenly dolphins are appearing everywhere. Some of them come to join the boat, swimming here and there, in perfect synchronicity.
I have been studying wild dolphins in their natural open ocean habitat for the past 12 years. The focus of my research is solitary dolphins — wild dolphins that choose to interact with humans. They have invited me into their world to share their lives, allowing me to gain unique expertise, insights and understanding about wild dolphins.
The ocean is my second habitat.
I get into the sea year round, weather permitting, enduring hail storms, snow and lashing rain, and enjoying the sunshine and rainbows that often follow.
Some of the dolphins choose to live in one place; others have been traveling at various distances.
Fungie, a dolphin who lives off the west coast of Ireland, has made a small town his home, where he has lived for more than 25 years. He accompanies boats and plays with sailors, often he can be seen jumping.
Another dolphin, Dony, was first spotted off the coast of western Ireland. He has since been seen off the coast of several European countries, exploring yacht and commercial harbors, crowded beaches and remote islands.
Some of the dolphins stay for decades; others might be around for a few months. It all varies, as it is what they choose to do. I have been with several of the solitary dolphins as they joined a dolphin pod and allowed me to be part of their group. They even introduced me to the other dolphins, bridging worlds between their own kind and that of the human — two species they know so well. During those encounters the dolphins often come into shallow waters. Sometimes they have left me in the open ocean and other times they have accompanied me back to shore.
The dolphin I spend the most time with is a female bottlenose dolphin named Mara. Witnessing Mara in her aquatic environment has opened up new horizons for my understanding of wild dolphins.
Freediving in the sea with dolphins is a form of nonverbal communication. It involves listening to them, watching them closely, tuning into their minds and being open-hearted and blank-minded at the same time.
Mara has visited many places in the past decade. She has spent time in both busy beaches and remote places, participating with people as they bathe, surf, dive, kayak and boat. Mara likes to guide me and show me around, sometimes in caves and canyons, which can be exciting new playgrounds. Like the other dolphins, Mara has made many friends. The art of play is a great way to get to know each other. Some favorite games around rocks and in canyons and kelp forests include hide and seek and catch-me-if-you can (have a guess who wins).
Dolphins have an incredible sense of humor and can be a big tease. When Mara mimics the human way of swimming, it is hilarious. She likes to surprise me by jumping over me then landing at the tip of my fins and looking at me with eager anticipation of an “ocean race,” during which we criss-cross and continue our way along the ocean shore.
Interspecies interaction and communication is a privilege the dolphins are sharing too: On a bitter, cold New Year’s Day I spotted Mara far out at sea. Something else was there, but what? I was curious, but I didn’t want to swim too far out to sea. Mara noticed me and came to say hello. She made her way into the ocean again, inviting me to join in. I followed her, realizing she was in the company of a seal, who had just caught a pollack, and was pleased about me joining in. I swam with the seal and the dolphin for two hours before my body told me it was time to go back to shore.
Mara has offered me a gift of live salmon several times. I appreciated her offers but declined each time, as I am a long-time vegetarian. Mara took the hints and now she picks me seaweed — like sea-spaghetti — and brings it to me, watching me eat it. She has perfect teeth, as she consumes her natural food, which is live fish. It is interesting to me that she will not eat it fish that is no longer alive.
There was once a television crew with Fungie. They threw him fish from their boat, thinking he would eat it. Fungie collected the dead fish he was thrown and threw them back onboard to the crew. Then he got his own fish of his choice and disappeared into the big blue.
I feel very fortunate to have met many thousands of people and witnessed their interaction with wild dolphins. The dolphins‘ complex social skills and cognitive and affectionate abilities are easily recognized in these encounters, and it is hard to grasp the breadth of their abilities until you have seen them firsthand. When cetaceans are confined in concrete tanks in controlled circumstances, they are disconnected from anything that is natural. A true encounter and real research about these magnificent mammals can only be conducted in the wild, on their terms.
Wild dolphins have their own minds; they do whatever they want to do. Sadly, we humans are conditioned to think that we are superior to other animals, particularly those from the sea. It is easy to find examples of mankind’s many impositions on animals: dolphinariums, pet stores, fish farms, factory fishing operations. What is rarer to find is the understanding that, just like our finned friends, humans’ only true dominion is over our own actions. The idea that humans can outsmart nature and bend it to our will is a grave misconception, as evidenced by the collapsing ecosystems on our planet.
Food, clothes, cosmetics and building methods, to name just a few, are choices we can consciously make for ourselves so we can live in more harmony with nature. Responsible lifestyle choices honor the lives of the dolphins and of all life forms on the planet.
In my home by the Atlantic Ocean there is not much habitation, yet there is quite a lot of man-made pollution — to the extent that you can taste fertilizers, detergents and shampoos in the ocean at times. There are objects like aluminum cans, bags, angling gear and plastic materials that the dolphins collect and bring to me to dispose of. It is not hard to see why one of the subjects of this year‘s American Association for the Advancement of Science conference was the discussion of dolphins as non-human persons.
It is through my experiences with wild dolphins that I got into raw and then living foods. Another reason I embraced “real food” was to keep my body in balance and more easily cope with long exposure to chilly sea temperatures.
I heard about the pioneering research of Hippocrates Health Institute and was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Brian and Anna Maria Clement in Ireland, which deeply resonated with me and made me decide to come to Hippocrates.
Fins crossed that an animal-friendly, conscious lifestyle works out dolphinously well for you as well.
Learn more about Ute Margreff and her cetacean friends at www.dolphinuniverse.com.