An Uplifting Dolphin Story. Literally.

I’ve always found friendly interactions between animals of different species to be oddly reassuring. After all, the world can’t be all that bad a place if two animals, separated by differing genetic backgrounds and behavioral imperatives, can find a way to reach across the biological divide and share something, something joyful and positive.

Because of this, I’m an absolute sucker for all of those YouTube videos of cats curling up with mice, horses who befriend sheep, elephants and dogs who are inseparable, and the like. You know the ones I mean.

Many times, though, these are artificial pairings that spring up after we humans have altered the environment, habituating or even confining the animals with one another. While these human-influenced relationships can be incredibly heartwarming, it somehow seems even more magical when animals forge connections across species boundaries in the wild, in their native habitats and without any human intervention.

With that background, I’d like to introduce a paper published last year in the journal Aquatic Mammals1, which reports on two separate playful and – as you’ll see – uplifting encounters between bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

The first took place on a January afternoon off the northwest coast of Kauai, when a group of eight bottlenose dolphins met up with a pair of humpback whales. Two of the dolphins – apparently adults – approached one of the whales, first appearing to surf the pressure wave created by the whale’s head as it swam, and later taking turns lying perpendicularly across the whale’s rostrum when it surfaced to breathe. Then, while one of the dolphins lay balanced over the end of its rostrum, the whale stopped and slowly lifted the dolphin high into the air. The dolphin maintained an arched position and made no effort to escape, allowing the whale to continue lifting until it was nearly vertical in the water, at which point the dolphin slid down the whale’s rostrum, dove into the water, and porpoised back to its fellow dolphins.

Here’s a color photo of the dolphin just about to go whale-sliding:

Look Ma, No Hands! (photo credit: L. Mazzuca)

And here’s a black and white series of shots that captures the full adventure sequence:

The second encounter also occurred on a January afternoon, this time off the northwest coast of Maui, when an adult female bottlenose dolphin swam up to a mother humpback whale and her calf. After diving underwater, the dolphin and mother whale resurfaced with the dolphin resting across the mother whale’s rostrum. The mother then proceeded to lift the dolphin a total of six times over 8.5 minutes, with the dolphin either lying on her stomach or right side during the lifts, which varied in length from four to 45 seconds. Again, the dolphin made no attempt to escape and held her position in such a way as to facilitate the whale’s lifting.

Here’s a sequence of photos showing this second duo demonstrating the proper technique for lifting a relaxed-looking dolphin:

The authors of the Aquatic Mammals paper considered alternate explanations for these interactions, including whether they represented an aggressive whale response to an antagonistic dolphin approach, whether the whales were demonstrating concern regarding perceived distress in the dolphins, or whether the cetaceans were simply playing together. They found the first two hypotheses to be unlikely – among other things, the interactions were too cooperative and relaxed in pace to be aggressive, and the dolphins were in good health and showed no evidence of distress. In the end, while the authors didn’t rule out the possibility that maternal instinct was involved in the whales’ lifting behavior, they concluded that the best explanation was that these were simply instances of interspecies play between the bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales.

Further, these bouts of play between dolphins and whales may not be all that uncommon, as back within the friendly confines of YouTube I was able to locate a video documenting another episode in which a bottlenose dolphin went for a ride on the rostrum of a humpback whale:

Play may serve a number of important purposes – for example, it may provide an avenue for intelligent, social animals like dolphins and whales to experiment with their surroundings, hone their physical skills and learn how to interact collaboratively with others. But aside from any practical evolutionary significance, I like to think of these encounters as illustrating how animals can, on occasion, take a few minutes away from the serious business of survival to share some pure joy and wonder with a fellow being, even a fellow being of a different species.

So, all of this is comforting. If dolphins and whales (and other animals who form interspecies bonds) can find a way to communicate playfulness with each other and to share experiences without any kind of a common language, perhaps we humans can do a bit better ourselves. Maybe some of the divides we see today – political discord, religious conflict, international posturing, cultural and racial inequities – aren’t so unbridgeable after all. Perhaps all we need to do is to remember an uplifting dolphin story or two.


ResearchBlogging.org1Deakos, M., Branstetter, B., Mazzuca, L., Fertl, D., & Mobley, J. (2010). Two Unusual Interactions Between a Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and a Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Hawaiian Waters Aquatic Mammals, 36 (2), 121-128 DOI: 10.1578/AM.36.2.2010.121.

Leave a comment


  1. how beautiful is that….

  2. Perhaps the world would be a much better place,if we were less selfish as humans.

  3. Great story. It makes me break out into a smile, though I can’t imagine that first sliding dolphin would have much to smile about, considering all of those barnacles. I notice the fluke end was raised. Was that to minimize the scratching, I wonder? They like a good rub, but barnacle scratches? The Natural History of the Whale (Matthews) lists a number of the humpback’s barnacle species, including some on top of others. I also note the the female in the other set wasn’t attempting to slide. Perhaps one slides only the first time or by losing balance. I’d vote for “play,” too. Dolphins are such a playful lot and are known to have relationships with other species–us, for instance. Champion swimmer Lynne Cox tells a fascinating story in her book Grayson about a lost gray whale calf who came to her while she was swimming off the California coast. She stuck with the calf for hours until the mother returned, and the relationship built over that time was quite remarkable, including the thank-you of the mother. I’ve seen a wild eastern garter snake turn around when I started talking softly to a box turtle in my hands. He came over to my feet and looked up at us. Was he curious at our interspecies friendship? The turtle canoed down to him and tried to bump noses, which I didn’t permit. (I’ll let you know when I get the story published, if that happens before my book, from which it’s adapted, comes out. It includes other interspecies relationships of the turtles in my lab. It’s the story that came close to winning the Creative Nonfiction animal story contest and almost got in their book of animal stories, but the book project didn’t happen. Time to start sending it out . . .)

    • It makes me smile too! Do let me know when you publish the story about the turtle and the snake; also, I’m very much looking forward to reading your book when that comes out!

  4. Reblogged this on animaltranslation and commented:
    Too fantastic not to share! I have wracked my brain but can find no functional purpose for this behaviour, except of course ‘because it’s fun!’. Brilliant.

    • Thanks for reblogging, and I think “because it’s fun” is a perfectly wonderful reason if you’re a playful, curious, sensation-loving and adventuresome dolphin! :)

  5. thank you for posting,” Trust” is the theme of this story?

    • Trust would certainly seem to be part of the story – it would take a lot before I’d be brave enough to let a whale lift me like that!

  6. Wow, that’s exactly the same thing that happens at our house. Only with dogs. They don’t have a whale, of course, but they ride on the couch in very much the same way.

  7. New York Limousine ?
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  8. Joan

     /  December 18, 2011

    What do dolphins do all day? – eat, play sex! Not a bad life, yeah? So playing with whales seems completely in character. Check out surfing dolphins below (and penguins and orcas). :)

  9. Kaitlyn McKee

     /  December 20, 2011

    Woah!!!! Both of the whale riding dolphins episodes happened on January 25 which is my birthday!

  10. I found this from a link in my surfeited email and I’m thrilled to read all the articles! I will certainly be bookmarking your page! Thank you for the amazing information!

  11. Lisa

     /  December 29, 2011

    Or it could just be about joy – and having fun.

  12. Great post, I love it!

    I’ve seen the photo, thanks for sharing the rest of the story and assembling all the other pictures and video.

    I’m fortunate to interact with wild dolphins on a regular basis as I bring groups to swim with them in Hawaii and the Bahamas, and I’m always amazed at the generosity and playfulness they share with us… bringing their babies to show us, playing seaweed tag with us, opening our hearts to the joy and oneness that unites us all…

    I’ve had similar encounters with humpback whales, sting rays, manta rays, etc; all of Nature reaches out to us when we are open and receptive!

    Thanks for championing our interconnectedness; to me its even mroe evidence of our collective awakening!

    Joe Noonan

    • Hi Joe,

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and it sounds like you have an absolutely wonderful job! (I’m not jealous, no, not a bit! :)

  13. Ester AckermanKarli

     /  January 3, 2012

    Thank you for these pictures. Indeed we have much to learn from these beautiful creatures.

  14. Vasily

     /  May 7, 2012

    Забавно, и в то же время мило.

  15. DeeAnn

     /  February 11, 2014

    This is just beautiful and put a huge smile on my face and in my soul. With everything going on with the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan and watching the docu, Blackfish and The Cove and constantly following “blue cove” days as well as the heartbreaking “red cove” days…..this is exactly what I needed. Thank you. And I shared this moving article w/ all my friends and loved ones, as well as twitter. Again, my soul thanks you. 💙🐬💙🐋💙

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