Science Questions

Why do dolphins surf the bow waves of ships? Fun or food?

Sun, 28th Feb 2010

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Phillip Hill asked:

My question is why do dolphins surf the bow waves of ships? Fun or food?


The perceived wisdom is that they are very friendly and just having fun and I wonder about that.


I was on a Brittany Ferries ship out of Portsmouth to Santander a couple of years ago, and they are very big on whale watching etc. The ship is always full of "twitchers" with their high power binoculars. I assume they must get a season ticket deal of some sort.


Anyway, they run on-board presentations/seminars about whales, dolphins,

etc. and I got talking to the guy who runs it. He was intrigued when I

suggested that they might simply be hitching a ride to where they are going

to a new feeding ground. They get a speed boost from the bow wave. He said

he would look into it.


Why do they do this?


Helen -   Well itís a wonderful thing to see for yourself.  I remember the first time I saw a dolphin swimming in a bow wave and jumping into the air, and it was fantastic.  Itís the sort of thing thatís been observed way, way back in time.  I think the ancient Greeks were telling us about dolphins on bow waves.  They've been doing it for ages and itís the kind of thing that we don't actually know for sure why they do it.

They certainly do get a power boost.  Theyíre surfing, essentially, the wave that the boat produces, and if any of you surf, you know how much power you can get from just sitting on a board and racing down a wave towards the beach - thatís essentially what dolphins are doing.

There have been observations of dolphins doing this and maybe associating it with fishing vessels, so they can come along and get some fish for themselves.  Thatís one possibility.  But then thereís also been observations of dolphins riding a boat for miles and miles and then just coming all the way straight back again after they've hitched this ride, returning to where they came from.  Thatís clearly not going to be any energetic benefit for them. 

They might just be having fun - they are deeply intelligent creatures, we know that.  So why not just have some fun and hang out, and you can hear them talking and whistling to each other as they're going.

I remember something particularly wonderful:  Later on in my research career when I was doing my PhD, I had the lucky time of going to work every day, along on a boat ride across a beautiful emerald lagoon.  Every morning, the same pod of spinner dolphins would join us and I could recognise the patterns on them, and theyíd come along and ride our bow wave, on our way to our research site.  Then they would leave us, and later come back with us on the way back.

So, I do think thereís a lot of fun involved.  Occasionally, maybe they are coming to feed, but we don't necessarily know.  They're definitely up to something, and itís rather fun to be able to watch it.

Ben -   They are very intelligent animals.  We know they communicate with sound, but is there some truth that some of these jumps out of the water are actually communicative as well?

Helen -   It could be.  They do have very complex communications and very complex social groups.  It could well be that they're trying to say things to each other, and it's not all friendly as well!  I hate to break the news that dolphins can be quite aggressive, but thatís also a possibility.  Thereís all sorts of things for us still to discover about these wonderful creatures.


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Hi naked scientists community,
I care for this subject. I'm a professional day and night coastal fisherman skipper in a coastal town where i also work as a touristic operator, sailing speed boats and other kinds of vessels for sea live observations.
Wild dolphins are secular in this waters. I know them for many years, from birth, from death, from fights, they're predominant seasons and feeding areas as they're territorial areas also...and they're individual and collective behaviors, moods, personalities.
This accounts me to be an expert in the area, by the practical experience since i've meet the sea by my door at an young age up until now having some modest 44 years old.
Bull and cows start the mating season at mid July until mid September. A cow takes 12 months pregnant to give birth for one calf at the same season i've mentioned above.
Sardines are the favorite food of them so they come along after the sardines and for you to understand the dolphins you got to understand they're food chain...sardines start the migration from south Africa towards the Atlantic ocean and end up at the North cold waters above like spreading and fading around Norway, Denmark, Sweden, etc...
Sardines follow a current of sensitive temperature within a small window of variation not more then 2 degree Celsius exactly because of sardines own food chain affected by its you know, plankton abundance its affected by the availability of sun light, among and correlated with a collection of other climate factors in a 24h around the clock variations resulting in cycles so on and fourth...favorite food of sardines, at least here, in the south of Portugal, are krill, as you know krill depends of zooplankton in its own food chain and there we go further back again, only for you to have a notion about dolphins and other related aquatic mammals.
Why do dolphins surf the bow waves of ships?
Bulls, cows and calf's teach everything between them, like what to eat, what not to eat, swimming techniques, how to attack, defend or run away from predators, they also teach themselves about what are safe areas and territories...they have mating behaviors, where the bulls exhibit they're swimming and strength skills and the one more fit takes the charge in the hierarchy and so the priority to fight for the cow or to gain the respect to be the Alfa in charge of the entire pod of dolphins in its family from witch will be in charge of taking care.
Calf's and cows also mimic the bulls behavior...they follow the bow of a vessel up to a distance that marks they're territory. You can observe them at the bow wave of a ship going in turns, making love, fighting, bitting, speeding, etc...its they're opportunity to exhibit they're skills between themselves like you see any other land mammals acting...makes part of the permanent demonstration of the males to fight for take over the Alfa sooner or later in the hierarchy as to excite and conquer the cows respect and voluntary submission for mating and perpetuating the species with the most fit for they're sustainability in the environment.
Dolphins on the wild don't care nothing about humans on the deck of a vessel, so its totally human Hollywood fantasy brain wash induced ignorance to one clap, whistle, mimic chicken and bird sounds or other crazy things to some how interact with them...the best its to observe, appreciate they're amazing beauty and let go just like that, by not interfering with them where the best and or the worse one can achieve its watching them swim away in a blink of an eye.

There is much more amazingly interesting to tell about dolphins, its nothing complexed, once understood turns simple, i could not tell all in one post...i do it when i'm with guests on board the first person. I do love biology, nature, aquatic live and its wonderful creatures...there's nothing left for me to read, i've searched for all that talks about dolphins and i found that scientific registrations are far away from reach and complete the details...only one that spends from 8 to 16 hours a day during 12 months observing dolphins can collect enough material to fill some vague answers and even that its not enough...less than this its only a job for the statistics to promote the spread of a false knowledge for the generations to come unfortunately.
I hope that you found an answer and enjoyed my testimonial.

My best regards for the community :) The Sailor, Tue, 11th Aug 2015

Hi again naked scientist community :)
SO now you know why dolphins surf the bow waves of ships (the same goes as to why dogs chase cars, lol). Today i come to share how bottle nose dolphins behave at Lagos, Algarve, Portugal coastal line during the mating season (mid July up to mid September).
Cows are pregnant and delivering one calf...once one calf takes 3 years for maturity, during that 3 years goes together with its mother. But its mother delivers one brother each year, so one mature cow takes along side 3 calf's, being males or females, doesn't matter.
In one year they grow pretty fast. Not anyone can see the difference between males and females, teenagers and mature or from young to very old dolphins...takes a lot of daily interaction, a passionate dedication with urge amounts of dedication observing them along as many years in a row as its possible...its easy to tell they're age also by they're size, of course, they return year after year to the same areas and can be very well identified by they're birth signs, scars, personalities, behaviors, etc...
Cows form pods or packs of cows, separate from bulls...Bulls form they're pods or packs between themselves and they're unique action its to mate, measure forces for they're own hierarchy and further ahead be the one's to guide the family for protection from predators and searching feeding areas. Females support each other by taking care of the young ones, also they support each other by the more experienced cows helping the less experienced ones when they're giving birth for the first time and so on and fourth...
Cows get together to keep males by the distance, they do it in the force of cow alone can not avoid 3 or more bulls chasing them to mate, but in number of 3, 5 or more cows, there's no male alone that can chase one unwilling cow.
Bulls are very aggressive in exhibition between them and also very aggressive to mate any available cow, may the cow like or not, its simple pure natural raping...but no cow its stupid, a mature one can easily deal with a couple of bulls by hurting them whenever necessary and keeping them by a respectfully distance. When a cow as got its calf's, can be notorious aggressive to protect them, no matter if its from humans, predators and other bulls and even parent cows around...
Usually Cows form a circle around the calf's and have two scout mature ones ahead to distract touristic boats from the pack guiding those boats to the opposite direction area when they don't feel like to be disturbed. Occasionally we find one or two bulls scouting instead of cows, usually because they whore adopted, by being alone and lost, having lost the place in the hierarchy of they're family, or kicked out from the struggle among other bulls fighting for a territory of they're owe. They don't stay alone for much time...they interact and adopt each others in the pack easily, about that theres a lot to tell, i know what, but its a long history to write another detailed captains log book.
When they are feeding, they use many sorts of technics to keep the fish surrounded, slapping the tails over the water and doing many sorts of jumps and splashes, guaranties the fish to be dizzy near the surface and then they feed all together or by turns, very times synchronized. Often different families get all together to share the meal and when they're satisfied, go back again in separate ways. I talk about numbers from 5, 7 12, 20, 50 up to 100, 200 and the record i've seen was around 600 and up to 1.200 hundred bottlenose dolphins. Its like humans going to shopping in a big surface and at the end go back to they've own houses...its the way dolphins socialize. And like humans, there are individual dolphins with a bad sense of humor and others more sympathetic, so as the same to distinctive families of them.
Whistles are eared laud because they're organizing themselves in communication and also using they're radar echoing the meal and surroundings.When a cow its giving birth, its very tired, the labor takes a lot of effort to her...other cows and even bulls surround the area from any sign of dangerous to protect that new mother and its new son...they are very, very affectionate during the process...i keep a long distance from such situation for many reasons, one its to don't disturb them, other its to no one spot the place to call dozens of other touristic boats...people are very unconscious and not one single one separates Disneyland from this very serious wild beautiful animals. New born calf's are very curious and unaware of all its happening, can swim in all directions for curiosity, even into a boat propeller and get instantly killed...the next moths of its live are very decisive to learn all from the mother and the other cows around. You know about new born elephants, horses, lions, canguru, etc...they're totally vulnerable...they are pushed to the sea surface by the mother to learn how to breath for the first time and learn to swim...many dye drowned...because humans interfere disturbing the process for the stupid wish of video recording (nobody as got a bloody clue or notion but many so called touristic operators work for the bloody tips, money, they don't give a dime for the dolphins, and many other so called maritime biologist are more ignorant then any other person without PhD or with a PhD based on theorist myths spread at schools for the sake of the economic compulsive consuming of artifices)...and they rush the boats around stressing the dolphins all around so as any other sort or kind of sea live, just because it was the way the whore told to do by other employs in the company...others only like to show of "i'm in a speedboat doing dolphin trips for some bucks, i'm so important, look at me mommy! I have the power to tell anything i like to tourists, as long they don't ask a refund back after the trip so that i can keep my 3 months job drinking a barrel of bear by the sunset and return back with an hangover for the next couple of days!"
I hope you did like to know best regards, wish you the best. The Sailor, Wed, 12th Aug 2015

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