Dolphin Blues

In the Greek myth that tells how dolphins came into the world, Dionysus, God of the party’s and drinking, plays a leading role. He was kidnapped by pirates who thought he was a prince and worth a fortune in ransom. They tied him to the mast and set sail for Turkey, where they hoped to sell their catch. Having no idea who they had on board, they got a big fright upon hearing a flute playing and suddenly seeing grapevines growing up the mast. Then the oars changed into wriggling snakes and their prisoner into a black panther (in other versions of this myth Dionysus changed into a lion). Apparently not having the same courage as Pi (who decided to survive on a small boat with a tiger) they all jumped into the sea. Dionysus took pity and changed all the pirates into dolphins.

And so, even today, dolphins like to swim alongside boats and with their jumping to amuse people. Mythology has plenty of stories where people are saved by dolphins and even now you will hear stories of those saved by these angels of the sea.

This also happened to Arion of Lesvos, who was born around 650 BC in Mytilini and was known for the creation (or refining) of the dithyramb, a hymn sung for – yes, indeed – Dionysus. Arion was so famous in his time that he toured the world with his music. Herodotus tells that one day Arion set sail for Corinth after winning a kind of Eurovision song contest on Sicily, and received plenty of prizes and gold. The crew decided to rob him of his treasures and throw him into the sea. In those times the cigarette did not exist so as a last request Arion asked to sing a song. The crew, happy at the prospect of their coming booty, accorded him this wish; Arion took his lute and sang a hymn for Apollo, God of poetry. Happy to hear the song, dolphins gathered around the ship and when the song was finished, Arion jumped into the sea and one dolphin took him on his back and carried him all the way to Corinth. 

For lots of people, not living at the seaside and not be able to regularly see dolphins, spotting these animals can be a mythical event. But not all people are amused seeing dolphins in the waves; because dolphins like to eat fish, just as we all do.

Dolphins are clever animals, so they know when seeing a fishing boat, that fish must be around. They stalk the fishing boats, wait until the nets are thrown into the sea and then play a cat-and-mouse game with the fish who are trying to escape the nets, or they just try to pry out real fat fish from the nets. This is not an easy task; they need all their strength to make holes into the nets. Well, you may have guessed already: fishermen do not always like to see dolphins.

Normally dolphins are like nomads roaming through the seas, looking for fish. Modern studies are showing that more and more dolphins remain in a specific area, for example a group of about two hundred dolphins around Lesvos. They are attracted amongst other things by the fish farms, which for them are like brightly lit shop windows displaying plenty of delicious snacks. When some fish escape, dolphins will feast on them. But they may also have become rather lazy, mucking about in areas where people usually come to catch their fish.

Lots of fishermen are thwarted by the hunting of the dolphins: after a confrontation with these mammals they may need as long as three days to repair their nets (and sometimes the nets cannot be repaired at all). There is also a risk that these jumping fellows get stuck in their nets. In the past when killing dolphins was not forbidden, that was no problem, but nowadays dolphins are protected animals and as bycatch is not appreciated. Many fishermen also strongly believe causing the death of such a mythical animal can bring you bad luck, so there are fishermen, who upon spotting dolphins, immediately return to the harbour because they are afraid of wounding a dolphin or of having a three day session of net repair.

There are other sides to the tale. Last year the Royal Society Biology Letters published an article about a study of dolphins, in Laguna (South of Brazil), cooperating with fishermen in order to catch fish: they drive the fish towards the fishermen and signal where and when to drop the nets. The dolphins don’t even gain fish for this service, meaning further research is required to find out why they do it. But it is a fact that makes you wonder. 

The are many stories about how governments train dolphins as lethal weapons (Ukraine) or mine detectors (US). Would it not be a better idea to train these big mammals to help the fishermen? – to teach them to swim in front of the boats, looking for fish, instead of behind. It is proven that they are intelligent enough to learn a lot. Are there no dolphin whisperers who can help the fishermen of Lesvos to train dolphins?