I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noted the sizeable pod of dolphins hanging out just south of the Newcastle Beach flags recently - at least a dozen last count.
Their presence has been a welcome balm to my lingering shark fear; swimming out past the breakers I rest in the assumption that they are busy keeping the great whites at bay. The other morning a disconcerting thought arose that this theory may be nothing but an urban myth, and in truth I know very little about the creature.
Along with the stereotype of the shark as an evil killer, dolphins have been equally mythologised.
Flipper comes to mind immediately, the smiling giggly do-gooder of afternoon TV. It’s an image supported by the fun park variety, and the walled photo me as a 6 year old in matching tracksuit gingerly holding out a fish for the performing Seaworld pet.
There’s the miracle healer dolphin, and the uber-intelligent telepathic one discussing philosophy underwater in long clicking sentences.
On the opposite spectrum is the ‘dark dolphin’ story depicting thugish males.
Analysts might say that this is an example of how we project outwards our ‘shadow’ sides – both the light and the dark. Ocean fauna are easy targets for this simply because we can’t see them, and fill in the gaps with our imaginations.
So what are they really doing over there mere metres from me? Throwing wild parties? Reading picture books to their calves? Strategically hunting?
Some small amount of Googling revealed the unsurprising fact that at any one time dolphins are generally feeding, flirting, sleeping, mothering or asserting territory.
The species of bottle-nosed dolphin found off our coast commonly swim in groups of 2 to 15 individuals. Within these communities, males and females generally prefer to associate with the same gender, with the lads forming longer-lasting alliances. They work together to get a feed, using echolocation to locate and surround a school of fish, before taking turns todive in and scoop them up.
They can be quite aggressive, with males known to fight so violently that they have killed each other. Males have also been documented killing juveniles of their own species if found to be cuckolded.
Altruism is also a trait, with dolphins known to aid ill or injured peers by standing by and vocalizing, or physically supporting them at the surface so they can breathe.
While the intelligence question is debatable, there are some indications of their potential: they are fast learners and can generalise like pigs, and learn to understand complicated language-like commands like apes.
As for the shark question, while they have been known to give chase, by no means are they reliable guard dogs of the beach.
When I join the pod again the next morning, it isn’t so much these facts that come to mind, but what I read about how the elders of the Worimi people at we know as Port Stephens would regularly speak with dolphins, or guparr, about where the food resources were and other matters. And again I feel safer in their company.