In Search of Dolphins Down Under


 “IT IS the only creature who loves man for his own sake,” wrote the Greek essayist Plutarch. To what was he referring? To none other than the dolphin, a mammal closely related to the whale.

According to The World Book Encyclopedia, “many scientists believe that dolphins rank among the most intelligent animals, along with chimpanzees and dogs.” Yet, as Plutarch noted, dolphins are not drawn to humans just to be fed. On the contrary, it seems that many of them simply enjoy our company. “Though the dolphin may not need man,” notes the book Mysteries of the Deep, “he is curious and quite possibly gets as much pleasure from watching our antics as we do his.” Of the 32 species of marine dolphins, 4 find a home in New Zealand: the common dolphin, the bottle-nosed dolphin, the dusky dolphin, and the world’s smallest—the Hector’s dolphin. *

Dolphins abound in the Bay of Islands, a scenic coastal area of New Zealand. We are eager to visit, so we depart by boat from the town of Russell. Our guide tells us that besides bottle-nosed and common dolphins, we may see killer whales and pilot whales—all related to the dolphin. She suggests that to locate them, we should watch for either their blowhole spray or their dorsal fin. “Sometimes,” she notes, “they find us first!”

Swimming With Dolphins

Before long, the huge dark shapes of bottle-nosed dolphins—up to 13 feet [4 m] long—appear before us, their dorsal fins cutting effortlessly through the waves. As they frolic, they get a free ride on the boat’s pressure wave. The boat stops, and the guide and I carefully slide into the deep, green water, where the wild dolphins allow us to swim with them.

Surrounded by dorsal fins and not sure where to look first, I take a deep breath and gaze in apprehensive wonder at the gray shapes moving beneath me. One dolphin emerges from the depths to inspect me and then rolls over slightly, showing me its white underbelly. Although the dolphins stay out of reach, their sonar whistles are clearly audible. Seemingly  unimpressed by my attempts to mimic their sounds, the dolphins retreat and then reappear to continue circling.

Fishing and Playing

Once we are back on board, the boat follows the dolphins to a sheltered bay. There we see more dolphins than we can count—leaping and splashing everywhere! Actually, they are fishing. Their diet consists mainly of squid, fish, and crustaceans. We even observe what appears to be a fishing lesson in progress. The mother seems to stun a small fish with her sonar, and the baby apparently attempts to catch it by slapping it with its tail. It seems that the baby may need a few more lessons!

Dolphins spend much of their day playing and socializing. One glides past, proudly displaying some seaweed on its dorsal fin. Our guide explains that seaweed is a favorite toy of dolphins. They will put it on a fin or snout and play with it for ages. When one is finished, another will pick it up and have a turn.

‘Sound Pictures’

To “see” their underwater surroundings more accurately, dolphins use an echolocation, or sonar, system, which operates on a frequency similar to that of an ultrasound scan. The dolphins send out clicks, and the “pictures” they receive enable them to locate food and other objects of interest—including us. Dolphins communicate with one another using high-pitched whistles—transmitted at frequencies ten times higher and four and a half times faster than human speech. Rather than using a language as we know it, dolphins seem to create ‘sound pictures.’

Clearly, there is much yet to be learned about dolphins. Perhaps one day we will fully understand them—how they think and what they think of us. Filled with wonder and affection, we leave this lovely deserted bay, with its misty cliffs and white sandy beach, to the dolphins. We have a newfound respect for these creatures and increased awe for their Creator.—Revelation 4:11.


^ par. 4 Other species that visit New Zealand are the hourglass dolphin and the finless southern right whale dolphin.

 [Box/Picture on page 18, 19]

Bringing Up Baby

Dolphins are not fish but mammals. Hence, a baby dolphin feeds on milk that is produced in its mother’s body. Over the three-year period that the mother nurses it, she will teach her baby what it needs to know to survive. For example, she will teach it how to use its echolocation, or sonar, system, including the distinctive “signature” with which it will end each “sentence.” She will also teach it how to fish, how to mate, and how to interact with other dolphins.

A dolphin calf is born tailfirst, having been folded in half inside its mother. Vertical lines are visible on newborn calves, which show where they were folded in the womb. A baby will suckle on the run, all the while remaining close to its mother by taking advantage of the hydrodynamic effects of her swimming.

[Credit Line]

© Jeffrey L. Rotman/CORBIS

[Map on page 19]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)


Bay of Islands

[Picture on page 17]

Bottle-nosed dolphin

[Credit Line]

© Jeff Rotman

[Picture on page 17]

Hector’s dolphin

[Credit Line]

Photo by Zoe Battersby

[Picture on page 18]

Dusky dolphin

[Credit Line]

Mark Jones

[Picture on page 18]

Common dolphins

[Credit Line]

© R.E. Barber/Visuals Unlimited