Producers of the Emmy-Winning Great White Shark Return to the Sea Saturday, February 13, 1999, 8:00 p.m. ET on NBC
Forget about that perpetual grin made famous by Flipper in the 60s. This is the 90s dolphin. It may look like it is laughing, but its darker side is exposed by the never-before-filmed behavior in Dolphins: The Wild Side, a new National Geographic Special airing only on NBC, Saturday, February 13, 1999 at 8:00 p.m. Cunning, powerful, and relentless, Flipper’s kind, it turns out, are consummate predators.
Paul Atkins and Grace Niska Atkins, the Emmy-winning producers of the 1995 National Geographic Special, Great White Shark, have followed dolphin populations around the world for two years to get one of the most complete pictures ever made of dolphins in the wild. Paul photographed and directed; Grace produced Dolphins: The Wild Side. Nicolas Noxon is the executive producer. Stacy Keach narrates.
A marine biologist-turned-filmmaker, Paul Atkins said, This has been the toughest film we’ve attempted, even more difficult than Great White Shark. The animals in each location had unique behavior that we had to first identify, then actually film. Grace Atkins continued, We’re image-busting here. Harem building, violent aggression, lessons in predation for the youngsters, even an anchovy round-up all reveal the real story.
From the largest dolphinthe killer whaleto the familiar bottlenose, each dolphin species has developed its own hunting and predation techniques. Those skills are passed down from parent to offspring. For example, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, the Atkinses caught on film a group of dolphins flinging themselves up on the beach. The reason for the rush up on the mudflats is to create a bow wave that drives schools of small fish ashore. After snatching a mouthful, the 400-pound (149 kilograms) dolphins shimmy back into the water. This dangerous behavior tests the intelligence and skill of the mature adults; inadvertent beachings can be deadly. It is a showcase for how these air-breathing mammals use their intelligence to devise or change strategies to suit their environments and to survive the dangerous world of the oceans.
Teamwork and constant communication between team members is critical. Spinner dolphins leap in what appears to be a magnificent display of exuberance. What is actually happening is probably a signal to others to join them or to coordinate movements of the pod. It’s a long-distance call in an area where the distances are vast: The high seas.
Closer together, dolphins speak to each other through clicks and whistles. And through constant touching. Like humans and some chimpanzees, dolphins use sex for reasons other than procreation. Sex is as frequent as it is casual, a social tool used to strengthen and maintain bonds.
But beneath the harmony lies a darker side of dolphins. Gangs of strong males pick on younger or smaller dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are even known to kill for reasons other than hunger.
Cinematographer Paul Atkins, diving in the Bahamas with wild dolphins, heard the first sign of trouble before a particularly intense fight. Jaw clapping is a bone-chilling, audible threat to those around. The encounter that ensued–including head ramming, biting, and blows from powerful flukes–is surprisingly violent.
In another hemisphere, Dr. Richard Connor, studying dolphins in Shark Bay in Western Australia, has documented cases of males kidnapping and holding females captive, sometimes for months at a time. Dolphins are complex, intelligent, social animals and that carries with it a range of behaviors from the nice to the not-so-nice. Just like in our own species.
Dr. Connor is especially intrigued by relationships between the males. To him it’s like cracking the code of a secret society. These alliances can last for a dozen years or more. The strategy is designed to keep females from mating with other males so that the alliance will have the most offspring.
The king of the dolphin world is the orca. It is at the top of the food chain and is clearly one of the most intelligent and powerful predators on earth. Besides its sheer size, the killer whale-like all dolphins-also has one of the most formidable weapons in nature to aid in successful hunting. Echolocation is a sophisticated sensory system that every species of dolphin has, superior even to the most advanced military sonar.
The oceans are dangerous, day or night, so frequently dolphins will swim silently, with their sonar turned off. The best defense can be to stay together in a podkeep silentand listen, using the powerful hearing to detect either predators or prey.
Dusky dolphins off the coast of Argentina have developed a highly organized predation technique that has rarely been seen by human eyes. Small search parties are sent out to locate prey, leaping high out of the water to get a better look at the sea ahead. Once spotted, a huge herd of southern anchovies are corralled into a ball. Perimeters of the ball are guarded by duskies blowing bubbles, which seems to frighten the fish and keeps them together in their school.
Soon the massive ball is clustered so tightly, the fish’s escape response breaks down. Oxygen levels in the ball drop and the fish become confused. At that point it is a matter of gobbling down as much fish as possible. The duskies are joined by other sea creatures for the feast; sharks and sea lions partake in the bounty.
To ancient mariners, dolphins were legends of the sea and their mastery of the ocean world seemed magical. They were cast as heroes. Today, we know better. The dark side of dolphins is part of their true nature. They are complex mammals with a range of behavior, much like humans.
National Geographic Television (NGT) is a world leader in the production or award-winning documentary specials, series, and docudramas. NGT is one of the few producing companies in the world that has a filmmaking unit devoted exclusively to natural history. The Natural History Unit has its own team of scientists and area specialists with connections to the best scientists and filmmakers around the world. Since 1995 the National Geographic Specials have aired on NBC.