Bow-Riding (marine mammals)


One of the most fascinating behaviors of dolphins is when they ride the bow pressure waves of boats. Dolphins probably have been bow-riding ever since swift vessels plied the seas, propelled by oar, sail, or very recently in the history of seafaring, motor. The Greeks wrote of bow-riding in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas by what were most likely bottlenose (Tursiops truneatus), common (Delphinus del-phis), and striped dolphins (Stenella coendeoalba).

Bow-riding consists of dolphins, porpoises, and other smaller toothed whales (and occasionally sea lions and fur seals) positioning themselves in such a manner as to be lifted up and pushed forward by the circulating water generated to form a bow pressure wave of an advancing vessel (Lang, 1966; Hertel, 1969). Dolphins are exquisitely good at bow-riding, able to fine-tune their body posture and position so as to be propelled along entirely by the pressure wave, often with no tail (or fluke) beats needed. Bow-riders at the periphery of the pressure wave do need to beat their flukes, and so do bow-riders of a slowly moving vessel or one with a very sharp cutting instead of pushing bow.

There is often quite a bit of jostling for position at the bow, as dominant animals of a group edge others to a less favorable position, or as one is displaced from the bow by another one approaching (Fig. 1). It is great fun for a person to lean over the bow of a vessel and watch these interanimal antics, as well as the fine-tuning of positioning, effected by slight body turns and almost imperceptible movements of the flippers. Bow-riding dolphins also tend to emit what sounds to the human listener like a cacophony of underwater whistles and “screams,” sounds implicated in high levels of social activity (Brownlee and Norris, 1994). Bow-riding is probably the dolphin behavior most noted, and most enjoyed, by seafaring people the world over.

Of course, riding the bow also makes these animals susceptible to being lanced or harpooned in areas where they are taken by humans. Where this occurs nearshore and in apparent smaller populations, dolphins become shy of the bow (Norris, 1974), but on the high seas or in deeper water, probably in larger populations, dolphins often still ride the bow after tens to hundreds of years of (generally small-scale) human hunting.

While many species of dolphins, porpoises, and small toothed whale ride the bow, some do not; and in some species, certain populations do not. Bottlenose dolphins are well-known bow-riders the world over, but even they do not ride in some areas (even where they are not hunted) or on some types of vessels. For example, off the shores of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, they generally do not approach any vessel smaller than about 20 m long to bow-ride, apparently finding the smaller bows not worth their while. Instead, they “hitch a ride” on the oil tankers and freighters that ply in and out of major harbors, at times bow-riding for 20 or more kilometers at a stretch. Dolphins ride underwater, and must leave their position to breathe, leaping forward and at an angle to the surface before falling back toward the advancing bow in a welter of foam (Fig. 1). Dolphins also ride the stem waves (or wakes) of boats, which present a different hydrodynamic challenge than bow-riding; and in some areas, dolphins that do not approach the bow will nevertheless ride in the influence of a large (or fast small) vessel’s wake.

Common dolphins on the bow of a vessel off Panama.

Figure 1 Common dolphins on the bow of a vessel off Panama.

Most oceanic dolphins ride bow waves, with notable exceptions in areas of intensive hunting, such as by tuna vessels of the eastern Tropical Pacific, where vessels chase dolphins in order to net the tuna often affiliated with a dolphin school. However, riding the bow is also “mood dependent”; dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus), for example, will not approach vessels when they have not fed for 2 or more days. These same dolphins will race toward a boat from several kilometers during and after social/sexual activities that take place immediately after bouts of feeding on schooling anchovy (Wiirsig and Wiirsig, 1980).

Why do dolphins bow-ride? It has been proposed that it is a mechanism to efficiently travel from one place to another. However, this is unlikely, for one often sees bow-riding dolphins after some time heading back to whence they picked up the vessel. Instead, it is more likely that riding the bow is done for enjoyment, for the sport of it; in other words, play. This is of great interest to behaviorists, for there are not too many nondomesticated adult mammals that habitually engage in activities just for the fun of them, although the list is growing with detailed observations in nature.

Bow-riding was certainly not “invented” by dolphins as a sport when human-made vessels first came on the scene. Instead, it appears to have been adapted from other wave-riding forms. Dolphins ride on the lee slopes of large oceanic waves and on the curling waves (or surf) that are formed as oceanic waves touch near-shore bottom (these two “rides” are hydro-dynamically quite different; Hertel, 1969). Yes, dolphins “body surf’ much as do humans, but dolphins are generally much better surfers than humans. Dolphins also ride the bow waves of surging whales, such as of the larger of the baleen whales, and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Dolphins even “entice” whales to surge ahead by rapidly crossing back and forth a whale’s eyes and snout. The whale surges forward in response (and apparent annoyance), often blowing forcefully during the surge. An abrupt bow wave is formed, and the previously heckling dolphins are all lined up in that wave, apparently enjoying its momentary pressure effect. This activity can go on with one whale for 20 min or more, until the whale tires, the bow wave becomes less distinct, and the dolphins abandon it to try with another whale or to go about other activities. They have had their fun, and we are left to wonder what is going on in that large brain during these bouts of quite obvious play.

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