Dolphins can be found in almost every ocean around the world, except for the Arctic and Antarctic oceans, which are too cold. Common Dolphins such as the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin can be found all throughout the Atlantic Ocean, as far North as Norway, and as Far South as the tip of Africa. They will come as close as beaches and brackish water estuaries, and they can go as far out as the open oceans. Other kinds of Dolphins have more specific habitats, such as endangered Hector’s Dolphin, found only in the shallow coastal water of New Zealand. Some Dolphins, such as the Amazon Pink River Dolphins, strictly live within the freshwater ecosystem of the Amazon in South America.
What are Dolphins?
Dolphins are aquatic mammals that live in water for their whole lives and are a part of the Order Cetaceans which includes all Dolphins, Porpoises, and Whales. Dolphins and Porpoises are both toothed Whales. Toothed Whales have a very important tool that they use called echolocation. Dolphins use echolocation by making loud “clicks”. The sound waves made by the clicks bounce off objects around them and reflect back to the Dolphins, allowing them to “see” using the reflected sound. Dolphins also breathe out of a blowhole on the top of their heads. This acts as their nose and allows for quick breathing when Dolphins come to the surface. The main differences between Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises are small. Dolphins are smaller and more social than Whales and have a more streamlined body and longer beak. Compared to Porpoises, Dolphins are a bit bigger, and Porpoises have smaller beaks. Dolphins have conical shaped teeth, while Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth.
Dolphins are very intelligent and very social animals. It is said that Dolphins are the second most intelligent animals in the world, even ahead of our close cousins the Chimpanzees. Dolphins live in groups called Pods which can include 2 – 30 different Dolphins at a time. Dolphins are complex problem solvers and love to play. They even communicate with other species of Dolphins, Whales, and Porpoises. Dolphins, like humans, learn everything from their older pod members, who teach them all the skills they need to survive on their own. Because of their curiosity, Dolphins even tend to come up and interact with humans in the wild.
Dolphins are carnivores, so their diets consist mostly of fish, crustaceans, squid, and even jellyfish. Larger Dolphin species, like the Orca, will even hunt for larger animals such as Seals and Penguins. Dolphins are so intelligent; it is very common for Dolphin pods to follow fishing boats to catch the extra fish who may fall out of the nets or off the boat. However, this can also lead to some Dolphins getting accidentally caught in the fishing nets. Dolphins typically hunt throughout the day and frequently utilize their echolocation. Pods will usually work together to “round-up” schools of fish, which they will then eat. Some Dolphin species who live close to shore, will even chase fish into shallow waters to trap them.
Female Dolphins are ready to reproduce between 5 and 15 years old, depending on the species. Male and female Dolphins do not stay together once they have mated, and the female Dolphin has a gestation period of around 10 – 18 months. Once the Dolphin baby, which is called a calf, is born they will typically stay with their mother and her pod between 3 and 6 years. After this time, some Dolphin calves will stay within the pod permanently, while others will split off and join their own pod of other young dolphins. Dolphin calves learn everything from their older pod members. Mother Dolphins teach their calves how to hunt, navigate, avoid danger, and even to play. Calves are so reliant on their mothers and older pod members, that if they somehow become orphaned or lost, they will not survive in the wild.
Unfortunately, Dolphins, like many other marine species, face a lot of threats. These include getting tangled by fishing nets, noise pollution from boat traffic, changing ocean temperatures, boat strikes, loss of habitat, loss of food sources, and even more! Dolphins, just like people, can even get sick with different viruses, which have been more common with changing ocean temperatures. When a Dolphin, or group of Dolphins is sick, they will sometimes do something called “beaching”. They will force themselves up onto a beach or shallow area, and when the tide goes out, they will sadly die outside of the water.
Although the population status for common species such as the Common Bottlenose Dolphin are labelled “least concern”, meaning they are not endangered or threatened, there are many other species who are either endangered or critically endangered. Many endangered species are those who live in fresh water, like the Amazon River Dolphin and the Baiji Dolphin in China, who live in very close proximity with many people who also live on the river. Other species, like the Hector’s Dolphin who live off the coast of New Zealand are commonly caught in commercial fishing nets because of their small size, and closeness to the shore. However, through conservation efforts, it is possible to help Dolphin populations, like the Irrawady Dolphins, who live in the Mekong Delta of China. At one point there were fewer than 80 left, but thanks to large conservation efforts, their numbers are slowly rising.
How to Help
There are many ways to help support Dolphin populations everywhere!
Pick up your trash! When you visit the beach, or even when you don’t, make sure to throw all trash away in appropriate places. When objects like plastic bags or bottles get into the ocean, animals such as Dolphins may use them as toys or view them as food and ingest them. This can be deadly.
Help reduce pollution. Pollution such as chemicals used in yard sprays, gasoline, and oil destroy the ocean and river ecosystems that Dolphins live in. Not only are they losing valuable food sources and habitat, they are getting sick from exposure to these chemicals.
Buy sustainable and safe! So many Dolphins are accidentally caught in commercial fishing nets. Make sure to only purchase sustainably caught fish from fisherman who practice safe fishing methods.
Support Dolphin safe rules and regulations. It is illegal to feed or pet wild Dolphins. This is to protect the Dolphins, and yourself! When feeding wild Dolphins, they can become sick or reliant on humans for food. Because of this, they could starve on their own in the wild.