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Freediving N.49 - Apr / Jun 2007

In English.

Published on International Freediver and Spearfishing News, n. 49, Apr / Jun 2007, pg. 62 - 63

 

Playing with deep water dolphins

Steno bredanensis (G. Cuvier, 1828)

Text and pictures by Riccardo Andreoli

 

 

 

Itís late in the afternoon, the whole day spent trying once more to catch that elusive monster fish itís years avoids meeting with me. Long hours dangling in the blue, all alone, contemplating my lonely flasher dribbling its tiny clinking sounds and infinitesimal sparkles in the infinite ocean waters. To no avail at all.

At the scant glimpses out of the water the landscape was not much varied too. I was fishing in very deep water, where the bottom plunges directly from one hundred to three hundred meters, the coastline almost out of sight, a thin line easily swamped by the powerful swells. Only the mountain over there, bright ochre, was bringing colour to the endless blue-white symphony of the Ocean.

Iím tired, Iíve just now taken off my wetsuit, the hands wrinkled by the long hours of immersion, the body reacting slowly to the regular thumping of the prow against the waves. I do not really see the sunset thatís approaching its glory moment.

Suddenly the deck hand looks abruptly at his right. Dolphins! Dozens of dolphins, hundredths of them. Weíre quickly in the very midst of a huge school of spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata - Gray, 1846), showing off each other their physical prowess. Huge jumps, three, four times their body length, and from there plunging down with huge splashes in the water, arching the body so to be sure to DO the best splash ever seen. There cavorting and dancing, here four exactly matched dolphins breaking in perfect unison the surface, plunging effortlessly in the water, disappearing.

In the water, in the water, the weariness forgotten, the camera ready.

A swift breath, I dive. Abruptly, almost dizzyingly while awakening once more my marine self, a change of perspective. The dolphins are not anymore restrained to a mere plan, above or below the surface, theyíre free to roam ocean never ending three-dimensional depths, only by chance, now it seems, with a roof above us, over there.

Now I can see the dolphins are moving in tight little groups. Five, six, eight dolphins are slowly swimming down, already fading away in the depths, tails fanning. Around, what quickly seems an empty ocean.

But, Iíve seen them from the surface, theyíre not chasing something, theyíre not travelling, theyíre simply resting at the end of the day. And playing.

I sedately swim where apparently the centre of the school was and, unhurriedly, a group of six rises from deep down. I dive. They come close to me, looking at this strange, still Thing, briefly, before starting to recede away. I know however how to put up my best dolphin-manners, I start to swim rapidly, spinning around me again and again, my fins together. Theyíre interested, itís plain clear. Still in a close formation they turn and come close, accelerating. I take pictures and pictures. I swim faster, in a closing course, Iíve them at a couple of meters. Clearly, the long, slender beaks, the dark capes flowing on their shoulders and backs, the white, glinting bellies and the soothed tails, they swim by, fast now. Theyíre magnificent. The same little group swims toward the surface, jumps gracefully and oh so easily out of the water, enters cleanly and, body arching, disappears down.

In the next fifteen minutes, while in the world-of-outside the sun approaches the horizon, Iím in the water with dolphins all around me, constantly swimming at almost close contact, their pace sedated because of my heart-stopping slowness.

 

Suddenly, they were not there a moment ago, two very different dolphins under my fins. Theyíre not certainly any kind of Stenella I can place, theyíre not also even the common Tursiops. Faint echoes of long-ago read books, perhaps, could it theyíre the rarely seen deep water dolphins?

The eye is something Iíve seen in whales and never in dolphins, big, round, with little round creases around it. The melon, that particular round shape on dolphins head is totally missing. The flippers are big, the bodies stockier, bigger than those of dolphins, the body colour darker, only the very belly and a faint outline of the ďlipsĒ itís white.

The skin is very thin, delicate. Itís deeply scratched, spotted, cut. The one nearest to me has a slash over the right eye. Itís harsh living into the ocean, even for the dolphins and all their family supportÖ

They accelerate when they approach, tails slapping powerfully the water. I revolve, swimming with joint legs and fins. They too rotate. The farthest away looks at me with a glance from his right eye that smacks me as almost identical to that one of a dog looking from the corner the eye at you, tail wagging, searching your intentions for a hoped-for game. The thin white lips give every appearance of smiling. So I plunge into the game.

I accelerate at the maximum, spinning madly, arching my body, trying to imitate, albeit poorly, their swimming motions, shooting pictures after pictures, enchanted. And they play too. Every time they approach me, they accelerate, every time nearer than before, our mutual route bringing us together in the ocean womb. Minutes of happiness and strongly believed-in affinity.

Another couple of those strange dolphins appear, following the commotion. They materialize near the surface, and, not sure about this new Thing playing with others of them, they stop and prudently sprinkle me with powerful echolocation sounds, as all dolphins do. Whatís strange, and something Iíve never seen before in dolphins is that, instead of arching their body, theyíre bending only their neck and head. And in doing that, I nearly choke with laugh, they show deep wrinkles exactly similar to those on the cape neck of fat children peeping up at you.

They resonate strongly in my lungs, those asking sounds: ďWho are you? What are you made of?Ē. After that they mingle with my playmates and, all together, we play again, round and round again.

One of those new dolphins is almost certainly a she, shows a rounded belly, itís protectively kept, it seems, away from that friendly but still unknown Thing from the outer world, thereís always someone between us. Not this keeps her from swimming at the identical breakneck pace when swimming by me, almost brushing against me.

And so times passes, human and dolphins cavorting and playing together, the human one totally forgetting about the unknown depth under his belly, the boat, the thin line of the shoreline miles and miles away, the fat red sun almost squashed against the horizon line in the fast approaching tropical sunset.

Till the humanity, alas, slowly reasserts itself. Iím cold, Iím tired, I do not see well in the creeping gloom under me, itís a long time I forget about pictures because the light was so faded out to render useless my camera. And finally the other humans, those on board of the vessel, at last discover me and come to pick me up and to bring me away from my playmates in their huge underwater playground. Bringing me back to, merely, humanity.

Mom, can I come play again please? Soon? 

 

Steno bredanensis (G. Cuvier, 1828) for the science

The common English name is rough-toothed dolphin, name related to the faint but visible vertical ridges in the 20-27 teeth in each jaw. The species has a conical head with little demarcation between the melon and the beak. Itís a robust dolphin: adults are up to about 2.8 m long and they can reach weights of up to 150 kg.

The skin is very delicate, and often deeply scratched and cut. The body is dark grey, with a narrow darker dorsal cape. The belly, ďlipsĒ, and much of the lower jaw are white, sometimes with a pinkish cast.

 

The rough-toothed dolphin is not widely studied, little is known about the species, and very rarely is seen by a diver.

Itís believed to be a tropical to subtropical species generally found only in deep oceanic waters, mainly where the bottom is 300 meters deep or more. They seem to prefer water with a temperature not below 25 C degree.

They are mostly seen in group of maximum 10-20 even if sometimes different groups join in a herd of over 100. They seem to occasionally associate with other dolphins or tuna.

They reach sexual maturity at 10 year for the females and at 14 for the males. Itís believed they live up to around 30 years.

They feed on deep water cephalopods and fish, that they catch with their long bottom time, around 15 minutes, including large fish as dorados (Coryphaena hippurus). In 2002 has been suggested that, at least the Pacific population, can be a specialized predator of them.

 

Riccardo A. Andreoli

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