It’s an immutable law of nature documentaries that footage of porpoising dolphins will be shot in slo-mo, set against a joyful soundtrack of soaring strings and triumphant trumpets. But nothing else from the brass section: trombone and tuba are, naturally, reserved for walruses and elephant seals.
Even given that dolphins tend to paint a silly smile across even the most hardened faces, what if this giddy crescendo is merely illustrating a perfectly ordinary moment in the Delphinidaean day? Like Pavarotti belting out ‘Nessun Dorma’ as an accompaniment to my trip to the dry cleaner? Or, more pertinently, to the larder to scare up some cheese and crackers.
Because to the dolphins all that’s happening is they are looking for a bite to eat. Granted, that’s usually going to be chasing down an elusively flashing school of fish rather than trotting off to the scullery to make a choice between Edam and Brie. But then again they are blessed with sonar, flippers, and immense underwater manoeuvrability, whereas I am not. Frankly, it’s a rare day I don’t crash into the microwave.
Yet the point remains: this profound and uplifting score actually serves to illustrate a bunch of cetaceans merely feeling a bit peckish.
Most recently this was spotted on David Attenborough’s ‘Nature’s Great Events‘, and as it’s David Attenborough I shall not labour the point. There is little with which he is involved that anybody can criticize, and this was a superb show, documenting the ‘Sardine Run’ off the south-east coast of South Africa, which occurs every time the cold Agulhas Current decides to push north.
This provokes a frenzy — but a strangely balletic frenzy — of predation among dolphins, gannets, sharks, fur seals and whales. Quite a competition, one might think, given that there are 5,000 dolphins involved just for starters, never mind the hordes of gannets Stuka-ing into the briny; until, that is, one is reminded that there are about 500 million sardines scurrying their way north with the colder seas.
These huge numbers are just as well. For while most of the aforementioned species pick off the fish one or a few at a time, a giant Bryde’s whale has been lumbering behind — the short bus of the seas, if you like — and announces its presence with one of those gaping upward-plunges that, in one mouthful, takes in seemingly half the school, a quarter of the ocean, and any carelessly passing shipping. “Om-nom-nom”.
Such is the grampus’s indiscriminate approach, it would be a surprise if his pals didn’t notice he’d wolfed down more than just a large number of sardines: “Uh, dude — bit of gannet stuck in your baleen, there”.
The charmingly slow-witted whale is, of course, hoovering up his meal on the back of the effort and intelligence of the dolphins. It is clear that no other creature has a clue how to actually catch and eat the fish until our mammalian cousins arrive and round them up them with that whole fish-rustling or rodeo routine at which they excel. The gannets even have to sneakily tail them just to find this natural bounty.
This kind of behaviour, and the fact that they mysteriously communicate in some cryptic submarine fashion, always engenders speculation as to just how intelligent dolphins really are. Well, at catching fish, jumping through hoops and parping car horns for the entertainment of sweaty Miami tourists they clearly have no peers. But I always make this point — if they were all that smart they would have invented the wheel, wouldn’t they? And have they?
No, Sir. No, they have not.
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