Namibia's Whistling Dolphins

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Imagine if you had no name that was unique to you. How would your friends and family refer to you? What if all of us had no names? Life would definitely be complicated and chaotic! Nature has spared dolphins from such chaos by giving each dolphin a unique whistle that it can be identified by.

Dolphins are the teddy bears of the ocean – they are all gentle and cuddly. This is why humans swim with dolphins all the time and even exchange ‘handshakes’ with them by clasping their fins which they emerge head-first from the water. Some of these playful dolphins can be found in Namibia’s Walvis Bay. This coastal town is a natural deepwater harbor and its name literally means ‘whale bay.’

Walvis Bay’s dolphins are so fond of humans that they can even be seen in waters that are less than thirty metres deep. This reinforces the age-old myths of dolphins having special relationships with humans. They may not have unique names and birth certificates like humans, but just like homo sapiens, they do have unique identities that are expressed through their whistles.

In 2013, five researchers from Marine Mammal Science conducted a comprehensive research on the unique dolphin whistles and concluded that, ‘common bottlenose dolphins use individually distinctive signature whistles which are highly stereotyped and function as contact calls.’ This capacity for individual recognition further enhances the social instincts and habits of dolphins. They like hanging out together and their distinctive whistles help them to do so. The acoustic signals of the whistles travel quite well through water and provide a social networking whistle platform akin to Facebook.

Tess, Victor, Elizabeth, Michelle, Tadamichi and Vincent are the researchers that took a front row seat in the Atlantic and paid close attention to the distinct whistles of Namibia’s dolphins. They found out that the signature whistles last between 0.10 and 4.11 seconds. This discovery shows that unlike some humans, dolphins don’t waste too much time when introducing themselves. They just dive in and whistle their identity with brevity.

The common bottlenose dolphins that the research quintet focused on are not the only dolphins in Namibia’s waters.

Dolphins come in all shapes, sizes and species. Those that leap happily from Namibia’s water include: Humpback dolphin; Atlantic humpback dolphin; Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin; rough-toothed dolphin and of course the good old bottlenose dolphins. What a weird name! You may exclaim about the latter.

Well, they are so called because their bodies are shaped like fancy wine bottles with their noses appearing like the bottles’ slender necks. After seeing them, one almost feels like uncorking them! Namibia is mostly home to the common bottlenose dolphin although their cousins, known as the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins also visit from time to time.

Unlike these visitors, the heaveside’s dolphins can be found shimmying and swimming all through Luderitz and Walvis Bay in Namibia. Interestingly, these heaveside’s dolphins are endemic to Namibia’s Benguela ecosystem.

You can search all over the world but you won’t see these smaller dolphins as they can only found in the vicinity of Namibia’s coastline. In the early nineteenth century, a captain known as Haviside took a specimen of the dolphin from Namibia to the United Kingdom where the dolphin specie was seen for the first time ever and consequently named after him, albeit in a corrupted form. Maybe they should be renamed Nujoma dolphins, after Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s first president or Frankie dolphins after Frankie Fredricks, the retired Namibian track and field star.

Because they tend to leave in waters that are less than 100 metres deep, heaveside dolphins dolphins can easily be spotted near Namibia’s shorelines in early mornings. What a way to face a new day in Namibia – with a beautiful sunrise and pretty dolphins.

Tourists gazing at Namibia’s dolphins sometimes see the king-sized bottlenose dolphins that at 11 feet, are three 3 longer than Sultan Kosen, the world’s tallest man. Seeing such gentle giants leaping into the air for a breath of fresh air is a sight that is straight from heaven.

Ironically, the heavenly sight of dolphins has the potential of making their lives a living hell. A 2011 research by researchers from South Africa, France and UK identified the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and the Atlantic humpback dolphin as ‘the populations of highest conservation concern.’

According to IUCN, this concern hasn’t ballooned into a dire warning yet because, ‘despite ongoing threats to local populations, the species is widespread and very abundant (with a total population in excess of four million), and none of these threats is believed to be resulting in a major global population decline.’

The waters of Benguela ecosystem are not just special because of the playful dolphins but because they are a confluence of warm and cool waters and are thus swarming with fish. If you happen to take a dive into these deeps, you will find a vast array of fish including hakes, horse mackerels and pilchards. The sights of these fish are not as strange as their names. Rather, they are dazzling as they either run away from or alongside dolphins. These gentle giants are happily carnivorous and often retreat to the deeps to find a good meal of smaller fish. As they do so, their famous whistles course through the waters.

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Published in Marine Ecosystem

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