Cute, friendly dolphin brings warnings from experts

- A curious dolphin surprised a man and his grandson during a fishing trip on the Wando River in South Carolina. 

The dolphin was captured on video next to the boat popping its head out of the water and interacting with the man and his grandson to the delight of both of them.

The video, though adorable, is a dangerous sign, wildlife experts say, that the dolphin is getting too used to humans, and even may have been fed by them in the past. 

"This behavior is not a wild dolphin behavior," NOAA Bottlenose Dolphin Conservation Coordinator Stacy Horstman told FOX 13. "This behavior is a classic begging behavior," she said.

The dolphin on video seems to open its mouth as a hand moves over its mouth. 

It does not appear from the video that the people on the boat fed the dolphin, but wildlife experts want to remind everyone that it's illegal to feed the dolphins, and it can actually cause a damaging domino effect.

Not only will feeding the dolphins change its feeding behavior and it will incorporate begging into its feeding strategy, Horstman said, but begging can be passed down from mother dolphin to calf.

Dolphins can also be injured by boats because when they're begging, they're no longer paying attention to their surroundings. 

There is also the possibility that the dolphin can accidentally bite or become aggressive with humans while begging. "We have a tendency to forget that they're powerful wild animals," said Horstman. "They're powerful animals with sharp teeth," she said, warning that there have been injuries reported to people in Florida who have been bitten by dolphins as they tried to interact with them.

Panama, a dolphin rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, whose mission is to rescue, rehab, and release, was unable to be released back into the wild because of her reliance on begging people for food.

Panama was the oldest dolphin living at Clearwater Marine Aquarium before she died in 2013. "She learned she didn’t need to hunt on her own and was solely relying on people on docks and boats to feed her," said Robin Bates, Marine Mammal Manager at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. 

There are ways humans can help dolphins like the one captured on video to return to its natural behavior.

First, experts say you should keep hands and feet inside the vessel if a dolphin approaches, and do not touch or reach out to encourage this behavior. "This is important to the safety of people and the dolphin," Horstman said. 

Never, ever feed or attempt to feed the dolphins, Horstman says, because it's both harmful and illegal. "Eventually they're not going to be rewarded, they'll leave on their own," she said. "If people aren't reinforcing that begging behavior that dolphin is going to go back to its natural foraging."

Also, when people are looking for a dolphin eco-tour, make sure to look for companies that participate in the Dolphin Smart Program, Bates says. "This program encourages responsible viewing of marine mammals," she said.

If a dolphin begins to jump in a boat's wake, which is a natural behavior, Horstman says boaters should maintain the course and speed if the dolphins are naturally doing it. However, do not try to corral the dolphin with the boat or swerve the boat to play or interact with the dolphin or encourage the behavior. 

"We need to change our human behaviors to help change the dolphins' behaviors," Horstman said. 

More information about how to interact safely with the marine life can be viewed and shared from the NOAA website.

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