Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Too Smart To Be “Nice” – Pacific White-Sided Dolphins Interact With Dall’s Porpoise Calf

Before you read further, a reminder:  There is no “good” or “bad” in Nature. There is only perfection. Animals do what they do for a reason. We humans may not understand their behaviour but to impose judgement is ridiculous. There is always a net gain for some of the animals involved.

Yes, this is me making very clear that to either typify dolphins as “good” (the Flipper phenomena) or “bad” is sheer anthropomorphism and does nothing to enhance the understanding of animal behaviour.

Dolphins are dolphins and they do what dolphins need to do.

Dall's porpoise calf hit from below by Pacific white-sided dolphin.

Dall’s Porpoise calf hit from below by Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. ©Jackie Hildering.

Okay, now that I have made that very clear, I dare share the exceptional encounter I stumbled upon today. I found two adult male Pacific White-Sided dolphins negatively interacting with a Dall’s Porpoise calf.

I know there were only two dolphins as they had distinct dorsal fins allowing me to track them as individuals. I know they were adult males since the fins of adult males tend to be chunkier and are often more scarred. I perceive that it was a negative interaction since the two dolphins were corralling the Dall’s Porpoise calf; hitting it with their tails at the surface; pushing down on the calf’s head and hitting it from below.  It was an encounter that I witnessed for 10 minutes and was very persistent and intense.

I also saw what I think were only two adult Dall’s Porpoises repeatedly surfacing some 30 to 40 metres away from the interaction between the calf and the two Pacific White-Sided Dolphins.

In years past, I have seen this species of dolphin kill a Harbour Porpoise and a Pacific Harbour Seal pup. It is quite a regular occurrence for these dolphins to interact with fish-eating (“Resident”) Killer Whales in such a way that the Killer Whales dive longer, go silent and group up. Their interactions with Humpback Whales most often lead to the humpbacks “trumpeting”, rolling on the surface and slapping with their long pectoral fins. Such interactions are categorized in science as “harassment”. 

Dolphins are smart. Very smart.

I put forward that interactions like this allow them to learn, to feed their hungry brains.  If this does not sound plausible to you then you don’t have a younger sibling! Those of us who do have younger siblings know how “provoking” also allows young humans to learn. It allows them to find out “What happens when I do this?” “How about this?” “And when I do this?”

Dolphins are extremely social animals too. I believe such interactions allow the dolphins to exercise social bonds and strategize. The males of some well-studied dolphin species (e.g. Spotted dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins) have been found to have “coalitions” / “alliances”; social units that allow them to group defend, group feed and group mate.  The Pacific White-Sided Dolphins off the coast of British Columbia are only beginning to be studied as individuals so science has yet to confirm what sort of social structures they might have.  My hypothesis is that the two Pacific White-Sided Dolphins from today’s interaction have an alliance.

I cannot give you a conclusion to the interaction I witnessed today. When I last saw the porpoise calf, it was alive. However, as fate would have it, I had boat engine difficulty and therefore “lost” the animals as I dealt with my boat woes.

I have annotated the photos at the following link, leaving them in chronological order so that you can see how the interaction developed. I have also provided notes that will help you discern the two dolphins as individuals. Photography was challenging due to wind and the speed of the action.

Remember, no judging the wild. 

Click here for the photos.

Click here for a study documenting “porpicide” of Harbour Porpoise by Bottlenose Dolphins.
Click here for article about Southern Resident Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters) harassing Harbour Porpoise.
Click here for the population studies by Erin Ashe (Oceans Initiative) published since my writing the blog = Ecology of Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) in the coastal waters of British Columbia, Canada (2015)

15 Responses to “Too Smart To Be “Nice” – Pacific White-Sided Dolphins Interact With Dall’s Porpoise Calf”

  1. jacqui Engel

    Someone needs to buy you a boat motor! maybe we can take up a collection? Incredible images, and great advice.

  2. gillian Butler

    first of all haven’t I seen you dance and sing once before? how much money do you need?

    and wow what a scene to encounter! no wonder those Dall’s are the fastest cetaceans, with friends like PSW’s who needs enemies.
    Interesting, good comments.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    • jackiehildering

      You have seen my sing and dance before, just about every time you and I have had an encounter! So what do you think, could my rendition of “Fish is Back” to the tune of Elton John’s “B. is Back” about the Fraser River sockeye earn me enough for a 4-stroke or E-tech?

  3. Yvonne Postma

    Again, fabulous pictures. I’m still dreaming of coming to those waters of yours and seeing this all in real life 🙂 I was wondering: if the porpoise calf died what would the dolphins have done with it? Is it their intention of killing it?
    You must have an absolutely stunning camera by the way. You take the most amazing pics Jackie! Luv your posts, am always keen on reading what’s next :)! “See you” next time! xx

    • jackiehildering

      It is so beautiful Yvonne but I suspect these rich, cold waters would be a shock to your warm-climate-system. It was 8 degrees C that last time I dived!

  4. Yvonne Postma

    Maar ik ben bikkel!! Jeeezzzz 8 degrees?? I’m not sure what the waters are like here but I went swimming this morning (1km I just HAVE to brag lol) and it must have been out 25/26 degrees. There’s another problem though. I can only snorkel as I’m not allowed to scuba dive 😦 But hey…. I can watch from the boat. I know someone with a snow white ski suit I could wear 😉 lol xx

  5. Ted Fisher

    Hi Jackie,

    Quick question, any idea why the two other adult Dalls didn’t interfere or interrupt the PSW’s abuse to the calf? I would have thought they would protect their own…

    Thanks for all the updates you send us, we all really miss the coast and you help us feel connected and involved with our previous home.

    Luv the Fisher family.

    • jackiehildering

      Hello Ted. Means a lot that your super family are reading these. I of course missed what happened that led to the calf being separated and what the Dall’s adult might have attempted then. There may also have been something happening underwater that I missed. But I think the Dalls are entirely built for “flight” rather than “fight”. I believe that the Dall’s are not only physically limited in how they could fight back but also that they do not have the “cunning” and level of teamwork/group behaviour that the dolphins possess. I believe the two male dolphins had an “alliance” and likely have much experience of working together and undertaking “battles” (possibly why they have the scars they do). I carefully offer the analogy (with all its shortcomings) that it might be somewhat like 2 German shepherd dogs experiencing a surprise attack from wolves.

  6. Whalebones PG

    It is absolutely amazing what nature brings us. Thank you for sharing your incredible experience!

  7. Lucy

    I am so drawn to dolphins,porpoises and whales. I watch sea vidieos and I just finished watching blue whales from crittercam. Bye, Lucy


Leave a Reply to jackiehildering Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s