The Maldives rank among the top five places worldwide for watching whales and dolphins. Over 20 different species of marine mammals call the Maldives their home.
While cruising in the oceanic water surrounding the Maldivian atolls you may enjoy the encounter with the mighty Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the highly acrobatic Spinner Dolphin (Stenella longirostris), the Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus) or the powerful Orcas (Orcinus orca).
Such great abundance of cetaceans is due to the nutrient rich water which supports the feeding habits of cetaceans. In addition, the ban of any hunting activities by the Maldivian law and the establishment of the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary in 1979 has fostered cetacean populations.
Most of the cetaceans inhabit the deep waters of the open ocean near the atoll boundaries while others are more abundant in the shallower waters of the atolls. Actually, nearby Athuruga and Thudufushi it is not rare to see cetaceans, including pilot whales (Globicephala spp.), mostly during January to March, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) even if less common, and the spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) probably the most common sighting.
“Dolphin Check” is the typical tour focusing on searching for pods of dolphins to enjoy a magical encounter. Along the excursion, the marine biologist will include a detailed talk on board to unlock the mystery around the life of dolphins. The searching step is not random at all, we all know where to look for them! This is due to the fact that spinner dolphins follow a distinct daily pattern. They travel to shallow and protected lagoons during the day, to rest and socialize, while they travel outside the atolls using specific channels (called “Kandu” in Dhivehi, the local language) in order to get ready for the night hunt. They primarily feed on small fish and squids surfacing from the oceanic deep water during the night. It is also common to see a pod of dolphins swimming close to the Thudufushi house reef while having breakfast at the restaurant or the terrace of your watervilla.
Once the dolphins are spotted, we usually shout “koamas” which means dolphins in Dhivehi, and the captain will turn the boat towards the pod. At this moment the approach is slow and not directly towards the dolphins, they choose if they want to play with us or not. Usually, they start to swim in front of the bow of the boat. Spinner dolphins are particularly famous for their bow-riding preference Bow-riding is when dolphins position themselves in such a manner that they are lifted up and pushed forward by the circulating water generated by the bow pressure wave of an advancing vessel. It is not really known why dolphins bow ride. At times they may appear to bow ride to get from one area to another while saving energy. Bow riding is even something dolphins appear to enjoy doing and often do for fun, just like when people go body surfing.
Sometimes, instead of bow-riding we can enjoy different behaviour, for example, they may start performing acrobatic jumps, from which their name comes from. Skilled acrobats, the small dolphins regularly leap out of the water and perform complicated aerial manoeuvres. They can spin multiple times in one leap, which can be nearly 3 meters high.
The power of the spin comes from the tremendous acceleration under the water and the torque of the tail just as the dolphin breaks the surface. Dolphins may also make nose-outs, tail slaps, flips, head slaps and side and back slaps. The leaping and spinning likely serves several purposes, including the removal of irksome remoras. They also use their moves to communicate, each one signalling something different: “Let’s go” or “Danger!” or “I find you attractive”.
Despite our efforts in understanding and protecting these magnificent spinner dolphins and all the marine cetaceans, there are several threats to their survival. A big threat for spinner dolphins is by-catch. As they frequently swim together with schools of yellow-fin tuna or other commercially targeted fish, they may be trapped and caught in big nets as by-catch. Sadly, it seems that thousands of dolphins die every year because of by-catch.
On the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) their status is highlight as “Least Concern”, meaning that their population is not under sever threat, however data on global population status is missing, and adequate information is needed to make an assessment of its risk.
Surely, the best practice for protecting dolphins from by-catch is to buy “Dolphin safe” tuna can. In addition, a study, published in 2018 on Science, highlighted the best practice to reduce our impact on the planet and protect marine and land life. By reducing the consumption of meat and fish we can reach a sustainable use of the food resource worldwide.
If you want to know a little more about dolphins:
IUCN website on spinner dolphin global population:
On bow-riding and spinning:
TheGuardian article regarding the study on sustainable products consumption:
Suggestions on easy solutions: