Stinky the dolphin gets close to Michael Maes. – PHOTO: ELLEN CUYLAERTS
The Cayman Islands Department of Environment is stepping up its appeal to the public to avoid feeding or interacting with an amorous solitary dolphin that has been approaching snorkellers, swimmers and scuba divers in the waters off Grand Cayman.
The dolphin, who was recently filmed bothering a group of divers on a dive site in West Bay, has become bolder in recent months, acting sexually aggressively toward humans and snapping its jaws at them.
Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie said: “Reports to the Department of Environment suggest that the dolphin is becoming increasingly persistent in seeking out interaction with swimmers and divers. Continued human interaction, especially feeding, will worsen this problem and discourage the dolphin from reintegrating with the wild dolphins that occasionally pass through our waters.
“As the dolphin could inadvertently injure a swimmer or diver during an interaction, the DoE is continuing to advise the public to avoid entering the water to swim with the animal,” she said. “Anyone who is approached by the dolphin while diving, snorkelling, or swimming should leave the water as soon as possible.”
She added that the Department of Environment is consulting with international marine mammal experts about the solitary dolphin.
Videographer Michael Maes, diving at Hepps Wall off West Bay in Grand Cayman with his wife and a friend last week, fended off the dolphin with fins and underwater filming equipment when the dolphin tried to pin him to the seabed floor.
Mr. Maes uploaded a video of his encounter of the creature to YouTube to warn other divers and swimmers to get out of the water if they come across the dolphin and in a bid to discourage others from seeking out the animal and interacting with him. The video, by Monday morning, had more than 95,000 hits.
The dolphin has earned a few nicknames, including Stinky, Humpy and Randy, since reports of his amorous approaches to swimmers emerged earlier this summer.
On Monday, when Mr. Maes, along with his wife Ellen Cuylaerts and marine biologist Alex Mustard, who are both underwater photographers, were on a boat dive with Off The Wall Divers, at about 60 feet, when the dolphin showed up.
Mr. Maes said he heard the dolphin before he saw him and thought there might be a pod nearby. Suddenly, he was face to face with the lone dolphin. “His eye was right there next to me, just inches away ... I screamed,” Mr. Maes said.
At first he did not realise this was the same lone dolphin the Department of Environment had warned people to keep away from, but Ms Cuylaerts and Mr. Mustard, who were a little above him in the water could see immediately that the dolphin was alone and tried to beckon to Mr. Maes to start to surface. “I could see it was the loner dolphin and knew we had to surface and get back to the boat,” said Ms Cuylaerts.
But, the dolphin had other ideas.
As the trio started to go shallower and began to abort the dive, the dolphin held onto Mr. Maes, “courting him”, said his wife.
At one point, the dolphin pinned the videographer to the seabed floor, at about 25 feet. Mr. Mustard went back down to help, distracting the dolphin with his dive fins and drawing attention away from Mr. Maes, as both men started to surface.
“This is an animal with 500 pounds of pure muscle ... It’s seven feet long and it’s got amazing strength. I dive with sharks and I know a couple of tricks you can do to make sharks keep their distance. They’re shy. This dolphin was not. I tried those tricks, but he tackled me on every single one of them. They’re very intelligent. Don’t play with them – you’re on the wrong side of the odds,” said Mr. Maes.
“If you see a dolphin in the water, don’t get in. If you’re in the water and a dolphin approaches you, get out of the water,” advised Ms Cuylaert. She also warned against acting aggressively toward the dolphin. “You don’t want to hurt him, just keep him at a firm distance. If you get aggressive with him, he’s a dominant male, so he’ll just get more aggressive. Don’t go slamming into him,” she said.
Ms Cuylaerts said the dolphin also charged her at high speed, trying to get her out of the way, and she also used her camera equipment to ward off the animal.
Despite their adrenaline-filled 10-minute encounter with the amorous creature, the couple say they harbour no ill will toward the dolphin.
“My greatest worry, one, is something happens to somebody and, two, there will be retaliation against the dolphin which he does not deserve that. He’s there, it’s his place and he’s just acting naturally,” Mr. Maes said.
He said he decided to film the dolphin’s behaviour to show people that these young male animals can be aggressive due to their sexual appetites.
“A lot of people don’t understand why we posted the footage on YouTube and Facebook. It’s not because we want something to happen to the dolphin, it’s because there are people on this island who think ‘Great, it’s a dolphin, let’s jump in’,” Ms Cuylaerts said.
The couple said they believe this is the same young dolphin that was first spotted in the North Sound four years ago, when it was reported that a wild dolphin was hanging out near the then new dolphinarium. The dolphin was known as being playful, but now as he matures, his sexual needs are increasing and because he does not have a mate, when he gets aroused, it is best not to be in the water with him.
The three divers managed to return safely to their boat, which other divers in their group had already boarded after being approached earlier by the dolphin. The boat picked up another three shore divers who had also attracted the dolphin’s attention.
Sue Rocca, a marine biologist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in the United States, said solitary dolphins had been known to interact with humans in the wild because they have become accustomed to human company and because people feed them. It is now illegal to feed a dolphin in the wild in the United States, she said.
“Feeding dolphins is not a good idea. It habituates them to humans and to getting handouts,” Ms Rocca said.
Getting too close to humans can also end badly for the dolphin, Ms Rocca said. “One dolphin was found with a screwdriver in his blow hole,” she said, referring to a case in which a bottlenose dolphin was found dead near the Florida-Alabama border in Perdido Bay in June.
Ms Rocca said there had been cases in the US of orcas and whales being moved away from areas, but she said she thought if Cayman’s solitary dolphin were moved, it was likely he would simply return to local waters.
“It sounds like the government there is taking the appropriate measures and giving the right advice by telling people to stay away,” Ms Rocca said.
The Cayman Island Tourism Association has contacted its water sports members to encourage them and their customers to keep their distance from the dolphin.
Jane van der Bol, executive director of the association, said: “It is amazing that a solitary dolphin has chosen the warm wonderful waters of the Cayman Islands to visit. While this is fascinating to many of the snorkellers, divers and boaters, we must always remember that this dolphin is a wild animal in an unknown habitat.
“The CITA stresses to our water sport operators, curious visitors and locals to observe this solitary dolphin at a distance and not interact with him,” she said. “It is our wish that our visitors, locals and solitary dolphin remain safe.”
The Department of Environment is appealing to anyone who encounters the dolphin to report their observation by e-mail to DoE@gov.ky or call 949-8469.