San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Giant Dolphins Offer Swimmers Gifts of Fish

IF only animals were smart enough to not take food from strange creatures like us. As you know, animals the world over have been tricked and enslaved or even killed because they wanted something to eat. Wild animals may be degraded to beggars who can no longer hunt for their own food. Once little ones learn to beg, they grow up not knowing how to get wild food.


Hungry beggars, used to handouts, may even attack people who bring no food. For these reasons, feeding animals in parks in Costa Rica and the world over is illegal.


You might think that people would not take food from strange creatures. Or wouldn’t they? If a giant dolphin swam over to your boat and offered you a large, live yellowfin tuna – picture tuna sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi – would you take it? What if the giant dolphin brought you other kinds of tasty fish as well?


Fish gifts to people happen occasionally in the waters off the Osa Peninsula, on the southern Pacific coast. Some people have accepted the gifts; others did not understand a fish was being offered. Once, a fish had to be returned.


The giant dolphins that give out meals to humans are called pseudorcas (Pseudorca crassidens), also known as false killer whales, despite the fact that they look nothing like killer whales. They do look somewhat like pilot whales, however, and many longtime guides and captains still confuse the two. Once thought to be extinct, long-term studies of this strange creature do not exist.


NO animals anywhere are quite like pseudorcas. They are as spectacular as any creature in existence. Extremely muscular and lean-looking, the beasts can weigh in at 3,000 pounds and may reach 20 feet long.


Pseudorcas make sharks flee for their lives. They are the third-largest members of the family Delphinidae, the oceanic dolphins, after orcas and pilot whales. Of all the whales and dolphins seen in Costa Rica, pseudorcas are perhaps the least fearful and most curious toward people.


Pseudorcas here are often not afraid of people at all. They may come right up to you in the water and look directly into your face from a few inches away. A group of them might decide to inspect you in this fashion all at once, surrounding you and taking turns looking in your eyes.


The sounds these animals make are among the most beautiful I have heard.


Think of ringing, long metal wind chimes, except the notes do not fade away; they may be sustained, and the crystal-clear and pure pitches fluidly rise and fall. Often the sounds are so loud they can be heard on the boat, over the noise of running two-stroke outboard motors.


UNDERWATER, if you hum a few notes into your snorkel, they may repeat the same notes back to you, with the same pitch and timing, but in the sweet pseudorca tone. They may blow fine streams of bubbles from their blowholes as they do this. The inter-species music might go on for as long as some human songs last.


Pseudorcas surf the waves of boats with a fervor bordering on frenzy. They often fly completely out of the water, right next to a boat. This is especially impressive when the animals are larger than the boat.


While the massive mammal hangs in the air next to your boat, it may open its mouth, showing big, rounded white teeth set in huge jaws, then snap its jaws shut before diving back into the water. A group may surround your moving boat doing various similar stunts. The curious creatures often make a visit to every boat in the area.


You never know when you will see pseudorcas off the Osa Peninsula. They may be in the general area every day for two months, or they may disappear for months at a time, any time of the year. You might see them from beaches and rocky points hunting roosterfish just off the rocks, or they may be far offshore chasing tuna. For several years at least, these amazing animals have been reported to bring gifts of large fish to boats and people off the peninsula. An 88-pound roosterfish presented still alive to one boat was the biggest rooster anyone in Drake Bay had ever seen. The hunters bring jack, tuna and snapper, alive but injured. The gifts have been accepted many times, the tasty fish feasted upon by numerous people.


NO one should feed pseudorcas, but  one time we had to give a fish back. Heading back to Isla del Caño, an island and biological reserve off Drake Bay, after diving Bajo del Diablo, we were having a normal classic session with some pseudorcas, the giant dolphins leaping and surfing around our slow motoring boat. The animals began blowing bursts of bubbles all around the boat, so we stopped to see what they were up to. One pseudorca swam over to the boat with a large, injured big-eye jack in its mouth. Several animals blew massive bubble fountains around the boat, and the one carrying the jack released it under the boat. I filmed the animals with the jack under the boat for a moment, and then one took the jack in its mouth again and held it at the surface next to the captain.


The captain took the fish from the pseudorca. The animals blew bubbles. Then we remembered we were in Isla del Caño Biological Reserve waters, where fishing or taking anything is illegal. No ranger would accept the excuse that a giant dolphin gave us the jack; we could be in big trouble, and perhaps lose our license to guide at Caño. Put the fish back, we decided. The captain put the fish in the water and the pseudorca swam back over.


The dolphin blew a large bubble signal and then slowly approached the fish. Ever so gently it reached over, opened its massive jaws and delicately took the gift back and swam away. The other pseudorca, which had stayed alongside the whole time, blew a minuscule bubble trail and swam off with its companion.


ARE they giving gifts as a tribute for hunting in “our” waters? Or are they trying to trick us to into boating around and burning fuel to make nice surfing waves for them? Who is the ignorant savage? Is it right or wrong to accept gifts from the giant dolphins?


Did we offend the animals by refusing the gift at Isla del Caño? They gave me a tuna last time, so I like to think that they figure I’m a little picky, and will not bring me any more jack. I much prefer the tuna, anyway.



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