May 2018

Essential Dolphin Facts

By Mike Waddington

Although World Dolphin Day is not an official holiday (although it should be!), it is celebrated around the globe, and is used as platform for highlighting the threats that most dolphins are facing. Awareness meetings and rallies take place in many major cities throughout the world, placing a heavy emphasis on the annual dolphin dives in Japan and the Faroe Islands, and other important issues such as bycatch and ghost nets.

What are Dolphins?

Dolphins are a group of marine mammals that are members of the order Cetacea, which includes whales and porpoises.

There are 40 different species of dolphin, and you can find them throughout most of the world, including the polar regions. There are even a few species of fresh water dolphins that live exclusively in rivers.

These impressively intelligent mammals live in social groups known as a ‘pod’. The pod may only contain a handful of individuals, or it might contain more than 1,000. Often different species will even live together in the same pod. Dolphins form strong social bonds with their peers, helping sick or injured members of the pod, and even assisting pregnant dolphins give birth. They use inbuilt sonar and echo location to catch their food, and they are entirely carnivorous, with their diet consisting of fish, octopus and shellfish.

Are Killer Whales (Orca) Dolphins?

Despite the use of the word ‘whale’ in their common names, orca are actually the largest species of dolphin in the world, growing to an impressive ten metres in length. There are actually many dolphins that are given the name whale. Other well-known species include; false killer whale, short finned pilot whale, and the melon headed whale. The smallest dolphin species that has ‘whale’ in its name is the ‘pygmy killer whale’. These rarely seen and mostly undocumented dolphins have a similar appearance to an orca, however they grow to a maximum length of two metres.

Where can I dive with Dolphins?

Although most people know dolphins to be friendly and playful animals, they also tend to be quite shy and keep away from people in the water. As dolphins can be found almost anywhere in the world, a pod might turn up on your next ocean dive, however these locations listed below offer much higher chances of a dolphin encounter.

Red Sea, Egypt
The Red Sea is already famous for its deep oceanic canyons, healthy corals, and a handful of legendary ship wrecks. It is also home to a large number of dolphins which seem to have gotten used to divers. It is not something you will see on every dive, however it is not uncommon for a small pod to show up, and best of all, because they are not shy around humans, they often stick around to play!

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The gift that keeps on giving, the Galapagos Islands is defintely in the running for the best diving in the world. Not only is much of the wildlife unique, this archipelago is also one of the best places in the world for big encounters, and that include dolphins. There is a large number and variety of dolphins that frequent the Galapagos, and their characteristic whistles and clicks can be heard on most dives. Still, spotting them is much more difficult because it can be hard to distinguish where their sounds are coming from, and dolphins can swim extremely fast.

Sardine Run, South Africa
One of the world most famous annual events for diving, the sardine run – which takes place between May and July off South Africa – is a feeding free-for-all, as enormous shoals of sardine -up to 7 km wide- migrate north from colder waters. Believed to be one of the largest migrations in the world in terms of bio mass, the billions of migrating sardines attract all kinds of top predators, which includes sharks, sailfish and a variety of dolphin species. If you want to almost guarantee scuba diving with dolphins, this is the place to do it.

20 Amazing Dolphin Facts

1) The spinner dolphin – named from their amazing aerial acrobats – can jump over six metres in the air.
2) Dolphins can move their eyes forwards and backwards, as well as up and down, and each eye can be moved independently, giving them nearly 360 degrees of vision.
3) They can swim at a top speed of 35 miles per hour.
4) Militaries around the world have trained dolphins to work with them. They are most commonly used for mine detection, however, it was rumoured during the Vietnam War that the US Navy Marine Mammal Program had trained their dolphins to kill Vietnamese divers. A rumour the US Navy denies.
5) Dolphins – and all other cetaceans – closest living relatives are the ferocious African land herbivore, the Hippopotamus.
6) Although all dolphins have teeth, they cannot chew. They use their teeth to catch fish, which they will swallow whole.
7) Unlike humans, dolphins do not automatically breathe.
8) Dolphins eat constantly. A 120kg dolphin can eat up to 15kg of fish in a single day, which would be the equivalent of an 80kg human eating 9kg per day!
9) During pregnancy, the mother and baby dolphin are connected by an umbilical cord in the womb, which means dolphins have belly buttons!
10) Female dolphins will help other pregnant dolphins give birth. If the birth is difficult, the helper can assist by pulling the baby. Other larger male dolphins will swim around the expecting mother to protect her.
11) Baby dolphins are born tail first so they don’t drown.
12) The smallest dolphin in the world is the Maui’s dolphin. The average fully grown adult is just 1.2 metres long and weighs around 40 kg.
13) Just like humans, dolphins use sex for much more than just reproductive reasons, often engaging in sex and foreplay for no other reason than enjoyment.
14) Again just like humans, dolphins can be vain creatures. They recognise their own reflection and seem to enjoy looking at it.
15) When a dolphin needs to sleep, it will only rest half of its brain at a time. This is so the other half can focus on important tasks like navigation, watching out for potential predators, and breathing.
16) Dolphins have a specialised organ in the ‘bump’ of their head, known as the melon. This organ contains liquid fat which helps focus their clicking for echo location.
17) Although dolphins do have ears, they don’t really use them. Instead, it is believed that dolphins pick up most sounds from vibrations in the water, which pass to their inner ear via their lower jawbone and teeth.
18) Dolphins and porpoises are often confused with one another. The best way to tell them apart is by the shape of their teeth. Dolphins have conical teeth, while porpoises have spade shaped teeth.
19) Unlike most animals, dolphins are aware of death and their own mortality. Captive dolphins have been known to commit suicide by stopping breathing, or inhaling underwater. Aside from humans, they are the only animals known to commit suicide.
20) When a dolphin exhales, the air that is expelled from its blow hole can exceed speeds of more than 100 miles per hour.

If we have gotten you excited about diving the sardine run and seeing the greatest dolphin show on Earth, make sure to check out some of the dive companies offering the best trips in Kwazulu Natal.

We hope you enjoyed our dolphin facts, and if you have any of your own, or stories of your very own dolphin encounters, please leave them in the comment box below!

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Mike Waddington

I first discovered diving in 2008 after going snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. After trying diving at a flooded quarry in England I decided to head out to warmer more interesting waters in Thailand where I ended on the Island of Koh Tao completing my Open Water course. Instantly addicted with money to spend and plenty of time on my hands I decided to continue until I became a Divemaster so I could live what seemed as the perfect life.

After that I headed to the Caribbean to an island called Utila to complete my instructor course, I spent several months out there completing the MSDT internship, teaching students and leading dives. This is also where I discovered my interest in the technical side of diving, taking part in equipment repair courses and learning about blending gasses and running compressors.

With all my new qualifications it was time to head back to where it had all started, Back to Koh Tao where I intended on living the dream. Once I arrived I quickly found a job and started teaching straight away. During my time on Koh Tao I took part in all many technical diving courses, learning how to dive with re-breathers, in caves and even going down to 90m/300ft!


PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer
PADI/DSAT Tech Deep Instructor
PADI/DSAT Gas Trimix Gas Blender
PADI/DSAT Trimix Diver
TDI Intro to Cave Diver
TDI Advanced Wreck Diver
TDI Inspiration rebreather Decompression Procedures
PADI Professional Videographer
BSAC Compressor Operator
TDI Equipment Service Technician

Dream Dive Locations:

Silfra, Iceland
Cenotes, Mexico
Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia
Ice Diving in Russia