In Greek stories and old sea stories, there are dozens of claims of dolphins helping drowning sailors, rescuing people from sharks, and making themselves useful as guides through treacherous waters. The “treacherous waters” guiding can be ascribed to the dolphin’s needing a similar water depth as many boats.
Dolphins and other cetaceans also help injured members of their family groups and newborn babies to the surface by swimming under them and nudging upward, just as some reports describe them doing with humans. Interestingly, there are some real reports of dolphins helping other cetaceans. In 1983 at Tokerau Beach, North-land, New Zealand, a pod of pilot whales ran aground during ebb-tide. The Zealanders who lived there came out and did their best to keep the whales alive, sponging their skin and calming them, until the tide came back in. But even then the whales were having trouble orienting.
Dolphins came to the rescue. Somehow, a pod of dolphins who were nearby figured out what was happening. They swam into the shallows, putting themselves at risk, and “herded” the pilot whales out to sea, saving 76 of 80 whales. Five years earlier, a similar incident had occurred at Whangarei harbor. If dolphins are smart enough and helpful enough to save other cetaceans in that manner, why not humans.
Real-Life Cases: Dolphins Saving Humans You’ve seen it in Flipper and other popular culture stories; dolphins rescuing humans from drowning or sharks, keeping them safe from harm. But does it really happen? The answer is, surprisingly often.
Several years ago, in the Gulf of Akaba, a British tourist was rescued by three dolphins from sharks. Near the Sinai Peninsula, a ship captain had stopped his boat so several passengers could watch dolphins playing. Three of the passengers decided to swim with them, and one stayed a little longer than the others. To his horror, he was bitten by a shark – and more were coming. Suddenly, three dolphins placed themselves between the tourist and the sharks, smacking the water with tails and flippers, and drove the sharks off so the man could be rescued.
In 2004, a group of swimmers were confronted by a ten-foot great white shark off the northern coast of new Zealand. A pod of dolphins “herded” them together, circling them until the great white fled. There are several other examples from the area of Australia of similar incidences.
In another case in the Red Sea, twelve divers who were lost for thirteen and a half hours were surrounded by dolphins for the entire time, repelling the many sharks that live in the area. When a rescue boat showed up, it appeared that the dolphin pod were showing them where the divers were; they leaped up in the air in front of the rescuers, jumping toward the lost people as if to lead the boat onward – as, according to old stories, they often did with endangered ships in treacherous water.
Because we can’t talk to dolphins, we can’t really fathom what their motives are in these situations. It is, however, very possible that they are indeed trying to help and protect fellow mammals in the ocean to safety. If this is true, it means that they are the only animals, besides humans, which show true altruism.