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Dolphins Gone Wild

In May, NOAA Fisheries issued a rare warning to avoid an aggressive dolphin—and is now trying to fix what people did to create the behavior
Dolphins are social creatures and may become conditioned to people over time, creating a dangerous situation.

Dolphins are social creatures and may become conditioned to people over time, creating a dangerous situation.

In late 2019, people started calling the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network to report seeing a dolphin that they thought might be trapped. Day after day, this dolphin was spotted in the same isolated cove area on North Padre Island in Texas. It was, well, an odd place for a dolphin to be.

The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network sent a team to check out the dolphin in April 2020 and found that it was behaving normally. “It was feeding on its own, it was showing boat avoidance, and it was definitely acting the way that a dolphin should act,” says Heidi Whitehead, the network’s executive director. “We determined that at high tide, it could leave the location, and it was seen leaving the area. NOAA made the decision to just continue to monitor the area.”

Just two years later, in late May, NOAA Fisheries—part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—issued a warning for the public to avoid the dolphin, which it now says is aggressive. “The dolphin has become accustomed to humans and is now displaying dangerous behavior. It should be avoided at all costs,” the agency warned.

It’s not the kind of warning that is regularly issued. Whitehead recalled one similar warning from her region, back in 2012 in Slidell, Louisiana, where NOAA Fisheries had to put out a similar announcement about a dolphin. There have been some others over the years in various parts of the world, and in them all, experts said the aggressive behavior was created entirely by humans. “Really, the primary issue is that humans have changed the course of this dolphin’s natural behavior,” she says of the animal in Texas.

Experts say aggressive behavior in dolphins has been created by humans, who should keep their distance from the animals.

Experts say aggressive behavior in dolphins has been created by humans, who should keep their distance from the animals.

Dolphins are social creatures. When there’s a lone dolphin, research shows, it can go through four stages of becoming conditioned to people. NOAA Fisheries says that in stage one, the dolphin follows people but doesn’t approach them. In stage two, the dolphin starts following boats and people, and people start to feed, play and swim with it. By stage three, the dolphin has lost its natural wariness to people and boats. At stage four, the dolphin becomes a tourist attraction with people coming to see and inappropriately interact with it, sometimes leading to dominant and aggressive behaviors.

The North Padre dolphin, NOAA Fisheries says, is now in stage four. And as Whitehead looks back on the past two years, she says it’s clear that the dolphin arrived at that stage exactly as research predicted it would—despite the officials’ best effort to stop people from pushing the dolphin along this behavioral path.

“As the summer of 2020 went on, we started to get more reports of social media posts with people attempting to swim with this dolphin,” she says. “We put out media releases with NOAA, urging people to leave the dolphin alone, to not try to change its behavior. We were very clear that it was against the law. Closer to Memorial Day of 2021, we started getting reports that the dolphin had some wounds from a boat propeller. We knew that if there was not a stop to the human behavior, there would not be a good outcome. We told people: If you care about this dolphin, we need to change the human behavior to keep it wild. Stop all forms of interaction. If it approaches your boat, leave the area. Do not put your pets in the water—because they were putting their dogs in the water to swim with the dolphin.”

The warnings went unheeded. People continued to put their own personal entertainment ahead of the animal’s interests.

“Just before Memorial Day 2022, we saw that this dolphin’s behavior had become no natural weariness,” Whitehead says. “Now, it’s seeking out humans, and it’s starting to be very persistent. If you’re ankle-deep in the water, it will come up to the shore and put its mouth around your ankle. It’s starting to encircle kids who are waist-deep in the water. It’s at the point where even if the people aren’t seeking out the animal, we urge them to leave the area if the dolphin is seeking them out. This is a 300-pound, 7-plus-foot bottlenose dolphin. It has the power to do some damage and injure people.”

The warning that NOAA Fisheries issued in late May was intended to stop boaters, riders on personal watercraft and fishing charter boats from seeking out the dolphin. Some of the charter boats, Whitehead says, are specifically searching for the dolphin on tours and feeding it leftover bait. They are intentionally flouting the law for fun and profit. “Most people are aware of the legal nature of it,” she says. “They’re also aware of fines. NOAA enforcement has been pursuing some of the people who have been interacting illegally with this dolphin.”

Going forward, NOAA Fisheries is trying to figure out what can be done to help the animal. A panel of behavioral experts has been convened, and Whitehead’s group is preparing to present all of its observations to date. She is grateful to boaters and others who have kept their distance from the animal while keeping officials apprised about the situation, and who are truly seeking to help—but she says that once the behavioral damage is done, it’s tough to undo.

“It’s really important, no matter where you are, to follow marine mammal viewing guidelines that are set by NOAA,” she says. “We need these animals to maintain natural weariness. It is very difficult to reverse this kind of behavior once it’s developed.” 

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue.

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