Beauty, Brawn and Brains

“…on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

Probably one of the most spectacular sights that Waterfront Charters guests can experience is the sight of a pod of dolphins cruising effortlessly through the ocean. Their grace belies the speed at which they move, evidenced by their effortless breaching as they power right out of the sea in a silver-blue flash, diving back into the water with scarcely a splash. The dolphins seem to play with our vessels, with individuals cruising alongside and underneath the hulls, showing off their aquatic skills before moving on. Even viewed from the shoreline, a group of dolphins playing in the surf line will leave any human wave-rider green with envy: they have the ultimate shape for catching the swells, and with tails that operate like outboard motors they will never miss the break.

Indohyus is a genus of extinct digitigrade artiodactyl known from Eocene fossils in Asia. This small chevrotain-like animal found in the Himalayas is a close relative of whales.
– image by hedoghedo from Wikipedia.

In evolution, there is a common wisdom that land-based animals evolved from aquatic species, which is generally true. The dolphin, however, evolved from a land-dwelling species, returning to the sea some 49 million years ago. That land species was an Artiodactyl, or even-toed ungulate; more commonly known these days as a hoofed animal. Among the better known of the current range of roughly 220 species of even-toed ungulates are pigs, hippopotamuses, camels, deer, giraffes, antelopes and cattle. Interestingly, dolphins have larger brains than humans: we reckon they saw what was going to happen to the ungulate species when humans appeared and thought “Oh, no! Back to the water for us.” At that time they were a furry little species called Indohyus, about the size of a cat. They developed thicker skins initially to adapt to aquatic conditions, with a bone structure was similar to those of a hippopotamus. The bones were heavier than most land species too, which helped reduce buoyancy and enabled them to remain underwater for up to four minutes. And then there was no turning back: isn’t it amazing what can happen in a mere 49 million years?

Leaping out of water assists them to maintain a high speed by reducing friction, and is known as logging or porpoising.

Watching the dolphins now, we see glistening torpedo shaped creatures that are perfectly designed for cruising beneath the waves. The front pectoral flippers – used for steering – still contain the remnants of Indohyus digits, and some dolphins have rudimentary hind appendages which may contain remnant feet. But it’s their tail flukes that provide the power: the dolphins muscular rear body and tail move up and down vertically like a fan – a dolphin at full tilt can hit 56 kph. That’s motoring, even above water in a Waterfront Charters speed boat. Leaping out of water assists them to maintain a high speed by reducing friction, and is known as logging or porpoising. It is also part of their of playful activities; dolphins show a wide range of play-behaviour, and have even developed their form of dolphin rugby where a group will carry an item along – anything from a seaweed frond to an unlucky fish – and pass it backwards and forwards as they head for some watery goal line.

But it’s their intelligence that fascinates us most. Dolphins are known to teach, learn, cooperate, scheme, and grieve. Measuring that intelligence is a tricky proposition, however, as we cannot truly identify a way of gauging intelligence except in human terms. Who knows what goes on inside those big brains? What has been established is that dolphins show self-awareness, and this is a prime function of intelligence. Cogito, ergo sum, as Rene Descartes muttered in 1637.

A sight that will set your heart racing and leave a smile on your face that will last for days.

Whilst I was kayaking in Hout Bay a while ago, a pod of dolphins cruised past me. As I lifted the paddle from the water, one of the group cruised right beside me, matching my speed. I stroked its back and dorsal fin. It undulated gently, made a circle, and came right back for more. This went on for about five minutes, although it felt like time was standing still. It’s difficult to put into words the emotions that an encounter like that evokes, but take it from me, they are very powerful.

There is a great deal more that can be said about the amazing attributes of the dolphins, from their communication skills to their group behaviour. And the fact that when they sleep, only half their brain switches off: one hemisphere at a time goes into slow-wave sleep, allowing them to continue breathing and watching for predators (like sharks and humans.)

But for now, let’s just say that it is a privilege to be able to see these intelligent, beautiful, creatures in their natural environment. A Waterfront Charters cruise is always an adventure, but when the dolphins make their presence known, it just adds that extra magic to the moment. With summer heading rapidly towards us, Clifton Cruises beckon; Sunset Cruises are amazing all year round; Coastal cruises and Sailing in the Bay are equally exciting, and an Ocean Safari – perfect. You won’t get to stroke them, but when they appear they are a sight that will set your heart racing and leave a smile on your face that will last for days.