The following video and blog are recounted in my book The Voice of the Dolphins. They document four spotted dolphins protecting me from a hammerhead shark. This material is posted in support of PETA's lawsuit to expand the rights of killer whales.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of how the dolphins felt about us came in 1985 late in the afternoon after a day of filming. Howard Hall, Julia, and other members of the underwater crew had climbed aboard the Zodiak that covered us as we worked at any distance from the main boat. I lingered at the surface, enjoying the delirious late afternoon light, my camera hanging in my right hand. The blue skies above held huge, gleaming white cumulous clouds, and toward the western horizon, blazing orange rays of sunlight shone out of the sea. The water temperature was in the high eighties. I lay on my back and experienced bliss.
Half a dozen young spotted dolphins, including a band of juveniles we’d named the Gang of Four, swam slowly over the sandy bottom thirty feet below. Occasionally, one dolphin would bite another on the tail and begin a brief, friendly tussle consisting of darting, twisting, and jaw snapping. But mostly they were grazing for bottom fish.
In the distance, at the limit of visibility, another sleek, gray creature appeared, swimming in an unusual, sine-wave manner and hugging the bottom. Its tail was not stroking up and down; it was slashing from side to side. The tail fin was vertical, and the head broad and flat. This wasn’t a dolphin. It was a very large Atlantic hammerhead shark, one of the few shark species that will attack humans. The shark moved toward me, angling first to one side then the other as though following a scent, probably mine. It was swinging its eyeballs, stuck out on the extremities of the head, so as to see its target first with one eye, then the other, perhaps to gauge distance. I didn’t feel comfortable presenting the hammerhead with the sight of my dangling legs, so I jackknifed and dove toward the bottom, raising my camera. Not only was this a unique chance to document the behavior of dolphins around sharks but raising the camera also served to put some metal between the fast-approaching predator and me.
The shark was grayish brown and about eleven feet long. I could judge its size easily because it was twice the length of the subadult dolphins swimming nearby. It undulated across the bottom, its movements now excited and menacing. I’d been diving with hammerheads in the Pacific on numerous occasions and had never felt threatened, but Atlantic hammerheads have a nasty reputation, and this one displayed the agonistic postures that precede an attack.
I hung in the water five feet over the bottom, and sooner than usual, my lungs began to ache for air. In a moment, I’d have to return to the surface. The shark turned directly toward me and accelerated with a flick of its tail. It happened so quickly that I could only react by pulling my camera tight against my body, poised to thrust it against the shark’s sensitive rostrum if it struck at me. I turned the camera on.
Suddenly the undersea world came alive with high-pitched whistles and intense sonar bursts. Two juvenile dolphins, Chopper and Stubby, appeared over my left shoulder. I flinched as I felt the wash they created streaking through the water straight for the hammerhead. In an instant, two buddies joined them, bolting in from the right.
The Gang of Four worked as a unit, diving and turning in unison like a squadron of fighter planes flying precision maneuvers.
The hammerhead saw the onrushing dolphins and, looking harassed and perplexed, jerked to the side, away from me. With powerful beats of their tail flukes, the dolphins launched themselves toward the shark’s head, clicking and whistling intensely, turning away only at the last instant. Again and again the juvenile dolphins dived at the hammerhead, mobbing it the way sparrows do a hawk, using sonar bursts to attack the shark’s lateral lines, a highly sensitive component of the shark sensory system, disorienting the huge fish.
The shark now wanted nothing more than to escape from this sudden torment. It turned one way then another but the Gang of Four were allowing it to move only in one direction—away from me. The hammerhead disappeared into the blue-green distance, and the dolphins, now tremendously excited, swam for the surface to do a series of victory leaps. One after another, they launched themselves through the surface, reentering instants later. After perhaps half a dozen leaps, Chopper cruised up to me, whistling intensely. I swam with him at the surface, trying my best to move in a way that showed the same kind of exuberance he’d displayed, but my human body dragged in the water and he had to restrain himself to stay with me. He was too excited to maintain the slow pace and darted off with his friends.
I was frankly glad to have footage of the dolphins saving me from the hammerhead. Without it, there might have been quite a bit of skepticism about this event. Some people just don’t want to admit animals are capable of altruism.