Dolphin answers whales' SOS call
Published Date: 13 March 2008
Source: The Scotsman
View GalleryBy MARTYN McLAUGHLIN
THEY famously attempted to warn mankind of the Earth's impending destruction in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, only for their behaviour to be dismissed as playful acrobatics.
But now, solid evidence has emerged of the dolphin's altruistic nature. In a act of selflessness which has astounded experts and confirmed the friendly nature of the species, a bottlenose came to the rescue of two whales stranded on a beach in New Zealand.
The dolphin – nicknamed Moko by local residents, who said it spent much of its time swimming playfully with beachgoers – helped two pygmy sperm whales, facing imminent death after becoming stranded on a sandbar, swim to safety.
Until Moko's arrival, rescuers feared the mother and calf would have to be put down to prevent them suffering a prolonged death on Mahia beach, about 300 miles north-east of Wellington.
Malcolm Smith and his team from the New Zealand Conservation Department had tried in vain to rescue the animals for an hour-and-a-half. With their effort faltering, it seemed only a matter of time before the operation was called off.
"They kept getting disoriented and stranding again," Mr Smith said yesterday. "They couldn't find their way back past (the sandbar] to the sea."
Just as it seemed all hope was lost, Moko appeared. The dolphin approached the whales, leading them 200m along the beach before navigating them out to the open sea.
Mr Smith believes the dolphin heard the whales' distress calls and came to their aid.
"It was looking like it was going to be a bad outcome for the whales ... then Moko came along and fixed it," he said. "They had arched their backs and were calling to one another, but as soon as the dolphin turned up, they submerged and followed her.
"I don't speak whale and I don't speak dolphin, but there was obviously something that went on, because the two whales changed from being quite distressed to following the dolphin willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea."
Another rescuer, Juanita Symes, added: "Moko came flying through the water and pushed in between us and the whales. She got them to head toward the hill, where the channel is. It was an amazing experience. The best day of my life."
Anton van Helden, a marine mammals expert at New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, said the reports of Moko's rescue, while "fantastic", were believable because the dolphins have "a great capacity for altruistic activities".
He cited evidence of dolphins protecting people lost at sea, and their playfulness with other animals.
"We've seen bottlenose dolphins getting lifted up on the noses of humpback whales and flicked out of the water just for fun," he said.
"But it's the first time I've heard of an inter-species refloating technique. I think that's wonderful."
Since the rescue, Mr Smith said, the whales had not been spotted, although Moko soon returned to the beach and joined in games with local residents.
"I shouldn't do this, I know we are meant to remain scientific," he added, "but I actually went into the water with the dolphin and gave it a pat afterwards, because she really did save the day."