Nature is not always red in tooth and claw. I witnessed a group of dolphins bear the body of their dead companion on its last journey and I was moved by the solemn majesty of the spectacle.
We were busy installing marine lanterns at the sea off Futaisi Island. It was on a Friday morning and I was engrossed in the job at hand. Suddenly my friend Issa called for me from his boat some 50 meters away. "Horst", yelled Issa, "you must come and see what we’ve seen, come quickly, get on our boat and we’ll take you there."
I had no idea what could have caused such consternation, but knowing Issa to be a responsible person, I followed him without question, in the meantime sending my boat-driver back to my office to fetch my video and still-camera.
Dolphins guarding a single dolphin carrying a dead baby dolphin on its back
Issa began to explain what he had seen: a group of a dozen of dolphins guarding a single dolphin carrying a dead baby dolphin on its back. The ‘pod’ of mammals was heading for the north tip of Futaisi, an island located about five kilometers south of Abu Dhabi.
The mother struggled to carry her burden in the shallow water
We reached the scene in a matter of minutes and I saw for myself the incredible scene Issa had just described. An adult dolphin, carrying a dead juvenile on her back just in front of her back fin, was swimming towards the sandy beaches of Futaisi. The youngster was about 1,2 meters in length, and around 40 centimeters in diameter, and was obviously a heavy load for the mother. She struggled to carry her burden in the shallow water, which was not more than one meter deep and was restricting her movements.
It was the most remarkable funeral procession I had ever seen in my life
As we approached the scene within 30 meters, the water abruptly seemed to boil. A group of perhaps 10 to 12 dolphins swam around their comrade, clearly guarding and defending her from intruders. It was the most remarkable funeral procession I had ever seen in my life.
The accompanying dolphins were clearly protecting und guarding the laboring mother and made quite certain that we should not get any closer. By nervously swimming under and around our boat, they effectively closed ranks and separated us from her. I understood their message: ‘Do not come any closer, you are intruding!’
We shut down the boat’s engine and drifted with the incoming tide, more or less parallel with the laden dolphin about 20 meters away. Her panting and labored breathing were clearly audible, and I presumed her blowhole was partly blocked by the unusual load she was conveying towards the shore.
These wonderful animals work together to help each other
It was at this moment that I witnessed a miracle demonstrating how these wonderful animals work together to help each other. Another fully-grown dolphin (perhaps the father?) came alongside its mate and they transferred the load. And the accompanying dolphins encircled the new carrier. Besides the breathing of the pall bearer, silence surrounded us.
One strongly feel the sadness of these fantastic creatures
The moving scene in front of our eyes filled us with awe, respect and admiration. As we watched in the stillness I could very strongly feel the sadness of these fantastic creatures and was unable to speak – such a gentle and caring community accompanying their smallest member on its last journey.
I praised our Creator at this moment for giving me this opportunity to witness how wonderful nature can be.
A dolphin graveyard?
I asked myself, of course, why these dolphins were approaching this particular island, and why they were carrying their dead comrade ashore? There could only be one answer: they did not want the corpse of their fellow to be eaten by other fish. Perhaps they were similar to elephants in that they look for a special place to die, or to burry their peers, but ashore and not in the sea.
I have often asked what the name Arabian word ‘Futaisi’ means, but have never managed toobtain a precise answer. Some say the word means ‘smell’, ‘decay’ or something that rots away.
It is true that tons of man-made rubbish is swept on to the shores of this beautiful island every month as a result of tidal conditions and prevailing winds. Perhaps we now also can speculate that it is a dolphin graveyard.
Such things are sometimes hard to believe without seeing for oneself
If indeed I am one of the first witnesses of this miracle, it could well be that my speculation is close to the truth. I am convinced that if dolphins could handle a spade, they would have buried their baby ashore. I have read and heard many stories about dolphins, but such things are sometimes hard to believe without seeing for oneself.
Many questions raced through my head – was this a phenomenon that tied the dolphins to their ancestors, land mammals that existed millions of years ago? There is apparently still a great deal to be learned about cetaceans’ ancestry, and the mystery of how their land-based ancestors gradually became marine mammals is one of the enigmas in the study of the origin of this species.
I wondered too, about the cause of this poor dolphins demise. Its skin had blistered and peeled, maybe from sun exposure, but who knows? Our seemingly crystal clear waters play host to all matter of dangerous man-made pollutants. Perhaps it had been killed by a speeding powerboat, or trapped in a discarded net, a common occurrence. I didn’t want to dwell on these thoughts.
Anxious to record, what I could of this momentous events, I shot the remainder of my film and bitterly resented the redundancy of my video camera, the batteries of which had run out after a friend had borrowed it.
I felt sure that the next funeral would take place at night
We suddenly realized that our proximity was distressing the dolphins and disturbing their funeral procession, as they had changed direction and were heading back towards the open sea. We started the engine and left the scene slowly and cautiously, though with some regret.
As I looked back at the sad group from some distance away, I could see that they had altered their heading once more towards Futaisi. I felt we did not have the right to disturb them any further.
Deeply thankful as I was to experience such a wonderous event, I felt sure that the next funeral would take place at night with no more than the moon to witness the sad occasion.
Horst Liebl, Friesenheim/France, October 2004