When people think of friendly sea animals, dolphins are likely to be on the top of people’s lists instead of their larger cousins, the whales. Yet, these enormous animals, while not as playful as dolphins, have shown that they have the capability to form close bonds with animals other than themselves, as one group of sperm whales proved to surprised researchers.
When marine biologists, Jens Krause and Alexander Wilson, traveled to the Azores to study sperm whales, they were in for a surprise, for after locating a pod, they discovered a deformed bottlenose dolphin swimming among the giant whales. It wasn’t there for a few minutes or a few hours, but stayed with the whales for the eight days Krause and Wilson spent studying the group. During that time, the dolphin swam and ate with the whales, and even nuzzled them at certain points. The whales would occasionally rub back.
Exactly how or why the dolphin ended up with the whales remains a mystery, but it’s theorized that, having been bullied and ostracized from its original pod due to its S-shaped back, the dolphin set out on its own and eventually came across the whales, who seemingly allowed it to travel with them. What’s unique about this is that sperm whales are not normally seen interacting with other species outside of hunting them for food; bottlenose dolphins have even been seen chasing and harassing sperm whales, which makes the dolphin’s inclusion all the more interesting.
Yet, whale and dolphin interactions are not unheard of: In 2012, scientists observed two separate occasions of dolphins lying on the heads of humpback whales, who would then tilt their heads up, sending the dolphins sliding into the water, and both would then repeat the act up to six times. Scientists noted that the acts were not aggressive, a cooperative act for survival, or competing against each other, suggesting it was a very rare act of inter-species playing, and the first time it was confirmed to happen between whales and dolphins.
Still, the question remains about the deformed dolphin and its adoptive pod. Was it an act of friendship? Pity? A desire for social contact, or something else entirely? Biologists still aren’t sure why the dolphin stayed with the whales, or why they tolerated it, but it is nonetheless a touching example of two different species becoming friends.