Why Do Dolphins Follow Boats?
Dolphins can often be found swimming alongside boats in the open sea for several reasons including exploiting the current created by your boat, to try to get food, or perhaps even just for the fun of it. It’s one of the most exciting and memorable experiences you can have as a boater, and no matter how many times it happens it never really gets old. But it’s true that the reasons why a dolphin or an entire pod of them may choose to swim along with your boat can be hard to figure out at first, and not just because we lack the ability to communicate very clearly.
Sometimes Dolphins Swim Near Boats To Relax
One of the most practical reasons that can motivate dolphins to swim near your boat is that it actually allows them to spend less energy to travel even faster through the water. The wake of your boat when you’re traveling at speed allows the dolphins to take advantage of the currents and ride them right along with you. This actually gives them a speed boost while simultaneously allowing them to expend less energy. Basically it’s like heading downhill on a bicycle, you have physics doing most of the heavy lifting while you sit back and just enjoy the ride.
The way dolphins can ride the wake of a boat is not too different from how a surfer rides a wave. They still need to maintain control, but it’s the water that’s allowing them to keep moving forward rather than their own efforts. You could say that dolphins bow ride when they are behind a boat or when they swim alongside boats to take advantage of currents and wake. It’s not that dolphins surf exactly, but it’s pretty close.
This also plays into the next point which deals with the playful nature of dolphins. This would be a lot of fun for them and, honestly, if you’re on a wakeboard behind a boat what are you doing back there? Having fun and enjoying the ride, right? Seems to be the same for dolphins.
Marine Mammals Are Naturally Curious
Another reason you may attract the attention of dolphins is that you’re just interesting to them. Remember, dolphins are considered some of the smartest animals in the world and their intelligence is often compared to human intelligence, at least as far as we can compare concepts like that. Even though dolphins are very different than we are, they are considered potentially the second most intelligent species after us in the entire world.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine that, as delighted as we are to see dolphins in the water, they may be just as delighted to see us. Dolphins have the intelligence to understand we are another species traveling in their territory and what we’re doing, not to mention how, could be very exciting and interesting to them.
The sound of a boat engine in the water will get the attention of dolphins from a good distance away. It may be a sound they haven’t heard in a while or are not totally used to, so they’ll want to come and see what’s going on. Remember too that, in the water, they hear things much differently than we do, including different frequencies. Everything from the motor to the wake to the things happening on the boat could pique their interest.
Try to imagine what a dolphin might think of a colorfully dressed crew on a boat, maybe listening to music or talking and laughing and moving about on deck. That could be a lot of fun for a species known for its playfulness. And so the answer may be that simple in some cases. Dolphins follow your boat because they’re just relaxing and having a good time with you until they get bored and leave.
This is also why dolphins are willing to approach a boat that may be big, loud and seemingly dangerous. While many smaller animals and fish would flee from most boats traveling at speed in the same way your dog or cat might panic when you use the vacuum, a dolphin is smart enough to understand that a boat in and of itself is not a threat. They know from experience that if they are cautious around it they can get close and see what’s going on without putting themselves in harm’s way.
One way to tell if the dolphins are curious about you is to watch their behavior. If a dolphin spy hops, which is what it’s called when they seem to stand up on their tails, they are likely checking you and your boat out to see what’s going on from a higher vantage point.
You’ll notice sometimes it’s not just dolphins that behave this way as seals will also occasionally follow after boats and even hop on deck if they can get away with it. And whales too seem to give in to curiosity now and then and surface close enough to boats that people can even lean over and pet the animals which they don’t seem to object to many times.
When you remember that these animals are intelligent then the idea that they are as entertained by you as you are by them makes a lot more sense.
Dolphins Can Get a Quick Meal
There’s a chance that dolphins trailing behind your boat are also exploiting you for a quick and easy meal. This is much more likely with a fishing vessel which could actually be trailing fish from full nets. But even a non-commercial fishing boat or cruising vessel can represent an opportunity in a couple of ways. This kind of relationship between fishing boats and dolphins has gone on for literally hundreds of years at this point. A hungry dolphin knows that commercial fishing ships and those big commercial fishing nets are often bursting with sea life that they can get a sample of if they’re in the right place at the right time.
There’s a chance that the motion of the boat itself and its motor will catch some prey fish unaware and stun them or churn them up in the wake which dolphins can then catch and eat more easily. This may also explain why you see dolphins to the side and even in front of boats as they may catch fish that are disturbed in the bow wake of the boat.
But there’s also a more easily apparent reason for dolphins and that deals with learned behavior. Remember, these are smart animals. Many dolphins have learned that humans enjoy their presence, at least enough to encourage it. Boaters who see dolphins will frequently throw fish to them to keep them around. Dolphins are certainly not above accepting a free meal by following behind a vessel that’s willing to toss out some fish for them to enjoy.
Dolphins Like to Have Fun
This is very much related to the speed and power boost and the fact that dolphins are curious, but there’s another level to it. Dolphins legitimately like to have fun. There is ample evidence to show dolphins are capable of playing games and they are very social with each other. Dolphins have been observed alone blowing rings in the water and swimming through them just for their own pleasure. So a boat in the water can represent a fun distraction that they can play with in any number of ways that we may not even fully understand. The sounds and vibrations may be interesting to them, and they may truly just enjoy interacting with humans and seeing our reactions.
Some dolphins have been observed traveling in pods of different species. These larger groups of wild dolphins can sometimes seem even more playful and will show off their jumping or diving skills as they swim.
Dolphins May Use Your Boat for Safety
This is a much more rare reason but there is some evidence for this and it has been observed in other species as well, notably seals. Dolphins don’t have a lot of predators at sea but they do have to be cautious around larger shark species and killer whales. If you ever get a chance to observe a wild dolphin you may notice that many of them have scars from near misses with sharks, so they constantly have to be on their toes.
Boats can offer protection in a pinch from a predator. Since killer whales and sharks are wary around boats, dolphins will occasionally use that to their advantage when trying to escape a predator. It may only give them a brief respite from an attack but in many cases that may be all that they need.
A Note of Caution About Dolphins
It’s really amazing to see dolphins swimming with your boat and there are even cases where the dolphins will allow you to get close enough to interact with them. One thing you need to remember is that dolphins are wild animals. People often forget, or actively refuse to acknowledge, that a dolphin that acts friendly isn’t necessarily friendly in the way we think. Yes, they are intelligent, but they do not think like us because they are not us.
There is an abundance of evidence that suggests dolphins who seek human interaction aren’t just doing it to be friendly. In many cases this is related to things like sexual aggression or outright hostility. There are times when dolphins have attacked men in the water because they were attempting to isolate women. In other cases dolphins have actively abducted swimmers, literally dragging them further into the water.
Most media about dolphins relates to the stories of them being fun and friendly, even protecting people from sharks or retrieving lost cell phones, which is great. But these stories paint a false picture that these animals are always benevolent. They aren’t. They’re wild, and just like a wild dog or a bear, a situation could become very dangerous. In the past, dolphins have attacked people with enough force to burst their internal organs, break ribs and other bones, and in one case even kill. It’s rare, but it does happen.
The flip side of this is that there is evidence many of these dolphins are provoked, but they end up suffering the consequences rather than the humans and some are killed as a result. So keep that in mind if you’re ever tempted to interact directly with dolphins in the water. What seems like fun at first could become dangerous in the blink of an eye. It’s safer for you and the dolphins to keep your distance.
The Bottom Line
Because there are a handful of reasons why dolphins might follow your boat, ranging from dolphins just wanting to have fun, using your wake for a speed boost, or looking for a quick meal, there’s no real way to know for sure why they might be following yours. Your best bet is to simply enjoy it for what it is if it ever happens, maybe grab some pics and video, and enjoy the memory. If a dolphin swims alongside your boat or in the bow wave, just consider it a fun little addition to your day on the water.
For the sake of safety, don’t try to get in the water and interact with them. As always, stay safe and have fun.