Dolphins – Spy In The Pod

Last year, Penguins – Spy In The Huddle, which had robot spy cameras filming penguins in their natural habitat and was narrated by David Tennant, proved to be a hit. So it’s not that much of a surprise that we have a repeat of that format. But how can you follow penguins? What other animal is as cute, funny and popular? Ah yes, dolphins.

Possibly because they had to film in the sea this time, which is much more vast than land, there were almost of army of spy robots in this, in contrast to Spy In The Huddle. It was a bit like Gerry Anderson’s Stingray. We had Spy Clam, Spy Nautilus, Spy Turtle, Spy Tuna, Spy Dolphin, Spy Baby (Dolphin), Spy Ray, two Spy Puffers, and Spy Squid, which had its own mini-narrative of being pursued by various potato cod, and eventually broken apart by them when they attempted to eat it.

Dolphins have long been a symbol of New Age and hippy fashions, possibly because of their cute appearance and friendliness towards humans, even though they are a predator animal. In the ’90s a lot of trip-hop and trance music featured dolphin imagery. They are known for being highly intelligent as non-human animals go, and are occasionally depicted as being more intelligent than humans, such as in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy where they are able to figure out that the Earth is about to be destroyed and escape in time even though humans weren’t. In Finding Nemo the sharks dislike dolphins because they see them as  show-offs who think they’re cute. We often see dolphins performing tricks, which saw them being called “the clowns of the sea” in The Simpsons Halloween Special segment Night of the Dolphin, which had one of their most horrific portrayals of them coming from the sea to take over the land. But what are they like in the wild?

It’s no doubt they are impressive animals. The programme pointed out that they have a natural sonar, which allows them to beam sound waves from their heads, and to use the returning echoes to create a clearer picture. Their milk is six times richer than a cow’s milk. Each dolphin has its own signature “whistle”, which seems to be similar to how humans have names to identify each other. They can leap up to six metres in the air. One thing about them which people generally don’t seem to know is that they are very sophisticated hunters. A lot of people who have seen dolphins have probably seen them as part of theme parks where they perform tricks such as literally jumping through hoops for fish, or have fed them fish themselves. Dolphins aren’t ones to turn down an easy meal even in the wild, they are shown here waiting outside fishing boats to catch fish which slip through the net, and waiting on the surface ready to open their mouths for unwanted fish which are thrown off the boats. But they are more than capable of hunting for their own food.

We saw many times in this programme where the different of species of dolphin can herd fish to the water surface or to mud banks, picking them off there. There are skills which seem specific not just to particular locations but to certain pods of dolphins as well. In the Florida Keys a pod of bottlenose dolphins stir up a U-shaped mud cloud with their tails which causes a blackout for fish, allowing the dolphins to swim through and eat them. They go further with this trick if they work as a team, where one creates a circular mud cloud which causes mullet to leap out and into the mouths of waiting dolphins, then they repeat the process and wait for passing fish to go in. Apparently, this particular pod is the only one known to use that technique. Dolphins tend to learn hunting techniques suited to their area, and they are passed on through generations.

Bottlenose dolphins are the most famous dolphin, and the majority of this programme focused on them, and specifically followed a sort of Bambi-ish story of a baby dolphin, in that it was in two halves; in episode one, it was him learning skills from his mother, and in episode two it was him making his own way in life. In most species of dolphin the males leave the pod they grew up in after two years to join a pod of bachelor males, while the females tend to stay with their family, although for male and female pods membership isn’t set in stone, they often drop in and out of the group as they please.

The pods of young male bottlenose dolphins were characterised in this programme as ladz on tour, boisterous, rowdy, and described as “boy racers” and “teenage tearaways”. One group we meet in episode one were shown lusting after a pod of females. When the males went over, the females protected the baby dolphin, as it’s not uncommon for the males to kill a calf which is getting in their way. The females eventually fought the males off, so the pod of males started headbutting the spy cameras. They were later shown enjoying surfing in the sea waves before coming back to the pod of females and taking a more romantic approach by offering seaweed like bouquets of flowers. One of them dropped the seaweed for the female to catch, which she did. They were flirting together while other males tried to get in with her.

The baby bottlenose in episode two had left his pod, and seemed very lonely. Dolphins are extremely social animals and crave companionship. He tried to bond with Spy Baby, but didn’t have much luck. Then he made friends with a different species of dolphin, a humpback.  They seem very close, but this unlikely friendship doesn’t last. They encounter a gang of other young male bottlenose dolphins. The bottlenose tries to join them, and the humpback dolphin keeps close at first, but the dolphins in the gang drive the humpback away. The bottlenose has to make a choice, and ultimately he chooses to be with his own kind. He has to perform an initiation ritual before becoming a part of the gang though, which involves him flirting with them like a female dolphin, and the others all performing mating rituals on him.

The gang later engage in what looks a bit like recreational drug use! They play catch with a puffer fish which had inflated itself into a ball, and then the puffer fish releases a neurotoxin, which seems to make the dolphins “blissed out”, and they pass the puffer fish along each other. After they are all affected, the puffer fish leaves.

The bottlenose who’s story we have been following gets a new “best mate”. “Bromances” in bachelor male pods are extremely common, some last for life. When this pod encounters another gang of males and a territorial gang warfare fight breaks out, our bottlenose and his new friend drop out of the pod for a bit and leave finding a group of females. Our bottlenose finds a female who shows she’s interested by turning pink and slapping her fins together, and, to continue using human slang terms, his friend acts as a sort of “wingman”, but more in the sense of fighting off other males who are trying to get with this female. He also manages to find a female who is interested in him.

So the programme had a storyline where it was very easy to personify the bottlenose dolphins, which if we’re honest, is large part of the appeal of these programmes. But there was also some good footage of dolphins. Some of it was cute, such as the baby bottlenose “eating” the bubbles which came out of the Spy Clam (though the scientific explanation for it was that dolphins ‘test’ everything with their mouths). Some of it was interesting, like some which was filmed using a camera on the back of a tame bottlenose dolphin, who was allowed out into the open ocean and would come back as he pleased, and at one point he rolled around in the sea and leaped into the air.

A lot of the footage in the programme was spectacular, particularly the scenes of spinner dolphins leaping out of the sea against a fiery sunset, and underwater with their “speech bubbles” coming from their blowholes when they do their signature whistles, which looked like sparkly magical glitter.

Spinner dolphins are so-called because of the twirls and corkscrew shapes they do when they leap in the air. We had a baby spinner dolphin which didn’t have as big of a “journey” narrative as the baby bottlenose, but we saw it slowly learning the complicated leaps.  It’s not clear why exactly they leap like this, although it seems to help them to get rid of parasites like remoras, a sort of suckerfish which attaches itself to dolphins and feeds on their leftovers. We saw a superpod of hundreds of spinner dolphins run into another superpod, and that merged into a megapod of 3000+ spinner dolphins, it was compared to a “free love” music festival.

There’s also something people never seem to consider a dolphin, the Orca. It looks quite different from other dolphins, it’s larger, black and white and has a more fierce looking appearance and reputation. It has a popular name the “killer whale”, which is another reason why they never seem to be associated with other dolphins. There’s also the fact that they like to eat other species of dolphin. But despite the “killer whale” name, orcas are indeed dolphins rather than whales. Yet another difference orcas have with other species of dolphin is that they tend to stay in families rather than in social groups, and the males stay with the family along with the females. The females always lead the way in the hunting expeditions, but males can be very good hunters, in one pod of orcas the best hunter was a massive 50-year old male. We see two different pods of orcas which are in the same area, one likes to hunt salmon, while the other likes to hunt seals and porpoises, and despite being the same species pods of orcas who hunt mammals and pods of orcas who hunt fish never interact, and apparently even sound different.

I liked seeing the way many of the ocean animals react to one another. We saw the female pod of bottlenose dolphins along with cobia fish and other stingrays following a small-eyed ray which could  detect electrical signs of fish buried underneath the sand. The smaller stingrays and cobia fish had to have the scraps of small-eyed ray, but the dolphins could use their own sonar to detect other fish under the sand, knowing they were in this area after the stingrays had led them there. There was also the way parasites of kingfish, which dolphins prey on, jumped from the kingfish onto the dolphin! There were two different but similar scenes of a lot of predators coming for a mass of prey, something you don’t really see in the same way with land animals. In episode one, we saw lantern fish get feasted on by spinner dolphins and giant Mobula rays. In episode two, we saw a migration of sardines eaten by a superpod of common dolphins, gannets flying into the sea from the surface, bronze whale sharks and a huge Bryde’s whale. In both cases, it’s a feast for the predators, and they eat until they are full. But for the prey, it barely makes a difference to their numbers because there are so many of them in a shoal. It’s always interesting with shoals of fish, like flocks of birds, is that they appear to move like a single organism even though they are a mass of individuals.

Visually speaking, this programme was often very beautiful, such as the gorgeous blue of the ocean. You can see why dolphins are well liked by people. There’s something soothing about the clicking and whistling sounds they make. They are very playful and seem to like having fun, and it is fun watching them. They are quite intelligent, which means they like to keep themselves occupied, and this is seen with their curious nature and that they seem to do things purely for the enjoyment of it. I think these are the reasons people personify dolphins so much, as they seem on some level closer to us than many animals are.

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