Monday, January 04, 2010

Moko playing up, dolphin experts warn

Jill Austin with a younger Moko at Waikokopu Bay, Mahia, last year.

IN RECENT months a sub-adult bottlenose dolphin has become increasingly interactive with visitors and locals off the coast of Gisborne (as he was with people in the waters off Mahia last summer). This interaction is popular but there are concerns about the risks involved, for people and for Moko, the dolphin.

So, what's up with Moko, why is he seeking human contact and do we need to be concerned?

The bottlenose is one of several species of dolphin found in New Zealand waters. They are highly social animals that usually live in groups that have a hierarchy. This hierarchy is dynamic and changes over time as younger dolphins grow and as individuals interact with one another. An additional characteristic of this species (and indeed other social mammals) is that "play" is an important way animals explore and learn. Play has a function in developing and improving important skills – such as swimming, hunting and interacting with one another. Similarly, the motivation to explore and investigate (what we usually describe as curiosity) is also an important means by which dolphins learn to understand the world in which they live.

So, for younger ones developing independence from their mothers and transitioning to adulthood, play, exploration and testing strength are typical and important behaviours.

This is what we are seeing with Moko and it is normal developmental behaviour. He is becoming increasingly assertive and testing his strength and his ability to dominate his social cohorts but, of course, in this situation his social cohorts are people and not other dolphins. In essence, how a dominance hierarchy is tested and reinforced is by one individual being able to impose its will on another – this happens with access to food, desired objects, mating, and so on. So, when Moko is not letting swimmers return to the shore or keeping objects for himself, in effect he is testing his ability to dominate the interaction. This is entirely normal for Moko and should not be characterised as misbehaviour.

What is different about this dolphin is that he is not exploring, playing and socialising with other dolphins – he is doing this with humans. This is an unusual, but not unique, situation. There have been a number of cases of individual dolphins becoming "sociable" with humans in different parts of the world. Interestingly, the majority of these are bottlenose and most are sub-adult males. The consensus is that these individuals have separated from their natal group – the group they were born into – and, as a consequence, they have sought social interaction with others. When such exploration is encouraged by humans a pattern of increasing interaction can occur.

Ad Feedback
Historically, there are at least nine cases of lone "sociable" dolphins in New Zealand. The most famous of these was Opo, also a bottlenose that interacted with people in the Hokianga Harbour during the summer of 1955/56. Unfortunately, Opo was found dead in early March of 1956 and, while no direct cause of death was confirmed, suspicions of human interference were raised. Other lone sociable dolphins have been documented at Napier in the late 1970s, at Whitianga in the early 80s, at Port Underwood in the late 80s and early 90s, at Onekaka near Takaka in the early 1990s, and off Kaikoura and the Marlborough Sounds over a similar time period.

In most cases these dolphins eventually move on from their regular interaction with people and presumably rejoin groups of other dolphins. However, there are cases where sociable dolphins have been injured – either deliberately or accidentally – by people and there are rare cases where people have been injured by sociable dolphins.

The risks of such injuries are much greater when there are large numbers of people seeking in-water contact with the dolphin. This is currently the case with Moko as the peak summer period approaches and he is near to people for many hours.

Although many will argue that this interaction is initiated by Moko, it is important we consider the potential implications of such contact for Moko's long-term health and independence.

Our view is that Moko needs to be given space and left alone. Although his social needs and desires are being met by humans, his motivation to seek out and interact with his own kind is lessened. He is not and should not be viewed as a playmate used for our entertainment and benefit. This is not in Moko's best interests. If people really care about this dolphin, they should put his interests and long-term welfare ahead of their own desires or happiness.

A local "Moko Minders" group is being established with the support of businesses and surf life saving club members in the Gisborne area. This group intends to monitor Moko's behaviour and to help educate and manage people's behaviour around him. We applaud this initiative and encourage people to support and follow the group's directions. With a responsible approach, the likelihood of Moko growing into adulthood and becoming a healthy, independent dolphin are greatly enhanced.

Mark Orams, PhD, is based at the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute at AUT University.

Rochelle Constantine, PhD, is from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. The pair completed PhD research which looked at the impacts of human interactions on bottlenose dolphins and they have been involved in a wide range of research on marine mammals both in NZ and internationally.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If people actually took the experts advice and left Moko alone it would cause more problems than it would solve. For a start he simply does not leave anyone alone in the sea. If ignored he can soon let you know what he wants. It's not that he is aggressive, simply assertive, and being big he can knock the wind out of you with a playful bunt.