Dolphin Watching

Like whale watching, observing wild dolphins and porpoises is becoming a more and more popular pastime. Anyone who lives near the ocean or takes seaside holidays can see them. The secret is to become a student of dolphin habits and find out which species can be seen precisely where and at what time of year. A good naturalist guide or a guidebook can also help. Whether observing from shore or from a boat, you will find that binoculars, a camera with a long lens, warm clothes, sunscreen and a thermos with a hot drink are all helpful.

Watching from shore is the simplest and least expensive method, but it may require more patience. For good visibility, choose a day when the ocean is calm and there is little or no fog. Throughout the northern hemisphere, the two aquatic mammals that are most commonly sighted close to shore are bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises. Despite their name, harbour porpoises have mostly abandoned harbors and other urban or industrial areas as habitats, perhaps because of excess traffic and the scarcity of fish in these polluted areas. Try to select sections of coastline with clean water - especially places that are known for good fishing. A high headland or pier is ideal.

Some promising regions from which to observe harbour porpoises, especially in summer, include: - New Brunswick and Maine on the Bay of Fundy
- Quebec in the lower river and the Gulf of St Lawrence
- the coast from central California to British Columbia

The best regions for summer sightings of bottlenose dolphins are: - southern Virginia and North Carolina, from Cape Hatteras to Cape Lookout
- along the Atlantic and gulf coasts of Florida
- the Moray firth of Scotland
- southern California

Other dolphins that swim close to shore include orcas (off British Columbia and Washington State), spinner and spotted dolphins (around the Hawaiian Islands), Atlantic white-sided dolphins (near Cape Cod, Massachusetts) and Dall's porpoises (from British Columbia to southeast Alaska).

Many dolphin and porpoise species, however, remain offshore most or all of the year. A guided boat tour can escort you to areas where dolphins are known to feed or socialize. Tours may be offered as part of seabird- or whale-watching trips, but dolphins and porpoises are the cetaceans most likely to be seen. Contact provincial, state or national tourist boards, or check nature magazines for up-to-date listings of such tours.

An experienced naturalist guide with a specialist tour company not only knows where to go but can also provide background and insights into dolphin behavior. For the inexperienced observer, it can be difficult to interpret fleeting glimpses of dolphins at the surface. Since dolphins spend 95 percent of their time underwater, some guides carry portable listening systems to keep track of them and to tune in to their underwater sounds.

Dolphins and porpoises can also be seen in aquariums and marine parks. the first bottlenose dolphins were captured and exhibited during the 1860s, but success in keeping them was limited until the 1950s. Since then, attempts have been made to keep members of half of all dolphin and porpoise species in captivity. bottlenose dolphins are the most commonly shown, with almost 3,000 captured to date for display in aquariums. More than any other dolphin or porpoise, bottlenose dolphins have bred successfully in captivity. They are second in popularity only to orcas, which draw millions of people every year to 17 parks in Canada, the United States, Japan, Hong Kong, Latin American and Europe.

Whether or not it is right for humans to put dolphins on display and to train them to perform has become a controversial issue in recent years. Performing dolphins have entertained millions of people and have introduced them to a fascinating mammal of the sea. In fact, the only close-up experience most people have with a dolphin is at an aquarium. Directors and owners of aquariums call captives "ambassadors for their species" and argue that people will not be interested in saving something they do not know.

But what do we really learn from captive dolphins? Dolphins are trained to perform the same acts over and over again. In captivity, they can no longer hunt; instead, they circle and pace a small, bare pool several times their length, a tiny fraction of their range in the wild. Their social life is severely limited compared with the large families of the wild. The quality of food and the standards of medical care are high at the best marine parks and aquariums, yet certain animals simply cannot adjust to such restricted conditions and suffer excessive stress, sometimes dying prematurely.

Some valuable scientific studies have been conducted on captive dolphins and porpoises, but they have been undertaken primarily at the few institutions that emphasize research. Knowledge gained by studying dolphins in captivity may one day help save those in the wild. But if science is the purpose of keeping them captive, far fewer dolphins need to be captured. In fact, performing dolphins have been mainly a money-making attraction.

Rather than capturing dolphins, some people say, we should get to know them through quality films and books. If we want to see the animals firsthand, we can go on dolphin- and whale-watching tours and observe them from land-based lookouts.

Should dolphins and porpoises be regarded as "resources" to be used for our entertainment, education and scientific knowledge? Or should they be left alone - mostly or even completely - to live their lives in the wild?

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