National Geographic Grantee Whitney Friedman is studying some of the smartest creatures in the sea- dolphins. Their complex alliances and social interactions may be more similar to humans than any other species. Follow her expedition on Explorers Journal as she joins a 30-year study on male alliances among bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia’s Shark Bay.
It’s our second day out and we already found some of our focal males! We approached a leaping and porpoising (similar to leaping, but the dolphin’s body does not come all the way out of the water) aggregation who were foraging on yellowfin bream – a prized fish for dolphins and fishermen alike that usually “run” this time of year. Three males in the “Krokers”, a “second order alliance” we are focusing on this season (see ‘Welcome Aboard‘!), Quasi, Deet, and Pong, were consorting a female, WHN.
While foraging, the males made a distinct lateral line with WHN between them and zig-zagged across the bay, occasionally converging excitedly as one caught a fish. As often happens in these kinds of foraging events, these four dolphins were not the only ones around. Four other males in the Krokers (KS) alliance were foraging in the same area, as well as another eight dolphins who are often found in Red Cliff Bay.
There is a long history of human inhabitants of Shark Bay, with evidence for resident indigenous communities dating to 30,000 years before present. A local guide taught me that the indigenous people knew the yellowfin bream were running when they could look out from the cliffs and see the dolphins (or “irrabuga”, in the Malgana language) leaping and porpoising like the group we saw today. In the Malgana language, the name for Shark Bay is “Gathaagudu”, which means “two bays.”