It’s official. PE is the Bottlenose Dolphin Capital of the World. Not surprising really, considering the huge pods of them in Algoa Bay…
Words: Keri Harvey
Pictures: Lloyd Edwards and Supplied
The city of Port Elizabeth lies in our wake and is just stirring on this Sunday morning. We, however, have been awake since early, to head out to sea before the wind whips up. We’re on a registered whale- and dolphin-watching trip to St Croix island in Algoa Bay.
Skipper Lloyd Edwards, owner of Raggy Charters, cuts the boat engine and we bob gently in the ocean on the lee side of the island. All eyes onboard scan the surrounds for dolphins, and the atmosphere is expectant. We’re at one of their favourite haunts, where Lloyd sees them on 95 per cent of his trips – it’s almost guaranteed.
“The huge schools of bottlenose dolphins patrol this side of the island,” explains Lloyd, “probably because it’s only six to eight metres deep and the big sharks can’t attack the dolphins from beneath. The dolphins are sheltered and protected here, so that’s why they are very relaxed – and why it’s also called Lover’s Lane, for obvious reasons.”
Lloyd is still talking when a bottlenose breaks the sea surface like a rocket. It clears the water and dives back in with a splash. There’s a synchronised gasp from all onboard, and full-face smiles. Within 30 seconds the sea starts boiling with bottlenoses. “There are at least 200 here,” I mutter under my breath.
“Not quite,” corrects Lloyd. “There are always more below the surface as they don’t all breathe at the same time. Those below the surface are echo-locating or looking out for sharks. A sight like this is very common in Algoa Bay. The smallest groups that we occasionally see are about 12-30 individuals.”
Research shows that the average size of a dolphin group here has increased over the past ten years from 20 to 75 animals on average.
By now the group of tourists aboard is all talking in lingua franca and hanging over the sides of the boat in awe. It’s a huge school of bottlenoses and Lloyd explains that, the bigger the shoal, the friendlier they are, simply because they feel safer. The dolphins have now surrounded the boat, and everyone aboard is suddenly silent, watching and smiling.
“We will stay put,” says Lloyd, “because moving the boat could injure a dolphin. As the registered permit holder for Algoa Bay, we are legally allowed to approach cetaceans to 50 metres from them. If they want to come closer to us, they can control this interaction.” And the dolphins do, jumping, diving and frolicking close to the boat.
“Why do dolphins love Algoa Bay so much?” asks an elderly lady with a British accent. “Probably because there is lots of bay is also protected and there is very little boat pressure as we only run one cruise per day and spend just 20 minutes with the dolphins,” answers Lloyd.
But research is still underway to investigate why dolphin schools in the bay are so huge. “We don’t yet know for sure,” says cetacean researcher Dr Thibaut Bouveroux, who is conducting postdoctoral research at the Coastal and Marine Research Institute at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
“In other countries, bottlenose dolphins are usually in small groups of six to 20 animals on average and they are found in shallow water quite close to shore,” continues Bouveroux. “But in Algoa Bay it’s completely different and groups can be huge. In 2015, the average group size recorded was 75 animals. My task is to understand why big group sizes are found here. The ecological drivers could be food availability and reduced predation risk from sharks. It’s my hypothesis that the large group sizes offer safety in numbers from predators because of increased vigilance. Usually dolphin group size increases when feeding, as different schools join to help each other catch fish. But this is not the case off Port Elizabeth. So there is evidence that their social structures are different here, compared to other parts of the world. For now, the thinking is that the large number of dolphins in the bay is because of plentiful food, shelter and protection from predators.”
Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins occur in the coastal waters of both the Pacific and Indian oceans. Also in Algoa Bay are common bottlenose dolphins that live further offshore and are widespread in the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
Port Elizabeth has plenty of both – about 2 000 to 4 000 resident bottlenose dolphins and tens of thousands of transient dolphins, according to research by scientists who photograph fins to identify them and their pods.
Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism CEO, Mandlakazi Skefile says that proclaiming Port Elizabeth the Bottlenose Dolphin Capital of the World has changed the perception that there’s not much to see and do in the city.
“It’s very important to us, and this accolade makes us a unique destination, with a very special attraction for visitors. We are so excited about it and have started marketing the city abroad as the Dolphin Capital. South Africa is popular for wildlife and our dolphins are now an added attraction to the biodiversity we offer visitors. When people see the dolphins in the bay, they really just can’t believe their eyes.”
Lloyd says people love bottlenose dolphins even more than whales. “They are charismatic and friendly and seem to smile. They are also intelligent and are not just entertaining but extremely interesting.” For instance, they are one of the few animals that mate for pleasure. And when they sleep they shut down one half of their brain and swim slowly.
“They have parts of the brain that deal with emotion that we don’t even have,” continued Lloyd. “We don’t have a clue what dolphins are feeling and how they suffer in captivity. So I would much rather take people to see them in the wild where they belong.”
Dolphin Spotting Made Easy
- Common bottlenose dolphins weigh up to 300kg and have a shorter rostrum or beak and a larger dorsal fin. They are a darker colour and have a white flash on the side.
- Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins weigh up to 180kg. They are grey and sometimes become speckled on their underside, as they age.
- Indian Ocean humpback dolphins stay really close to shore and are sometimes found around the harbour – they are nicknamed ‘harbour dolphins’. They have a small hump on their back from which the dorsal fin protrudes. Grey in colour, they develop a white blaze as they get older. Their average weight is around 200kg.
- Long-beaked common dolphins have a worldwide distribution and are found further offshore in huge schools that sometimes number 1 000-3 000.
- Killer whales are the biggest dolphins, piebald black and white. Any cetacean bigger than 4m is called a whale, but killer whales are actually dolphins.
- Licensed boat-based dolphin watching with Raggy Charters 073 152 2277 [email protected], www.raggycharters.co.za
- Dolphin viewing is well regulated in South Africa and you need a licence to operate.
- Plastic pollution is a great threat to dolphins and all marine life. Marine life, such as dolphins and whales can die from accidentally ingesting plastics, or becoming ensnared in it.
- Regular beach clean-ups are conducted by Lloyd Edward’s wife, Dr. Lorien Pichegru-Edwards, who chairs the Algoa Bay Hope Spot initiative.
- A procession of floats along the beachfront is planned, with floats made from waste plastic. After the event, floats will be dismantled, the plastic recycled and sold, and the proceeds donated to schools.
- There is a Humpback Dolphin Trail along the PE beachfront constructed entirely of recycled plastic timber (polywood). Roughly 370 tons of polywood made from 15.5 million recycled plastic bottles were used to construct this walkway.