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

28 February 2010



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 it's 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. It's the sort of thing that's 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 it's the kind of thing that we don't actually know for sure why they do it.

They certainly do get a power boost. They're 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 - that's 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. That's one possibility. But then there's 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. That's 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 they'd 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 there's 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 it's 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 that's also a possibility. There's all sorts of things for us still to discover about these wonderful creatures.


Consider this: They have to remind humans not to run directly away from a tornado, rather run perpendicular to a tornado, because the natural reaction is to run in the exact opposite direction. Dolphins, while surely intelligent, are likely running directly away from a "pursuing" object. The fact they get a 'boost' from the bow wave gives them further impetus to continue in that direction. Why don't they dive? Remember, they are mammals and if pursued would eventually need air, even more if they are exerting themselves, so they can't go far beneath the surface. Also, they likely wouldn't fully comprehend that the creature or thing pursuing them can't also dive. All just things to consider.

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