San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Dolphin superpods party off Osa Peninsula

When you are looking at more dolphins than you can count, you are probably seeing a dolphin superpod. A “normal” dolphin pod might number 20 or fewer for some species and as many as 120 or so for others. When a few of these clans get together, you get a superpod. When a few superpods come together, you get the even larger megapod.

Shawn Larkin

Shawn Larkin

The animals get together to party. The fiesta-loving dolphins chatter at each other more and faster than any Spanish speaker may seem to. There are clicks, whistles, groans, squawks, whinnies, trills, vibratos, arpeggios, warbles, quavers and more flying through the biggest and bluest auditorium on the planet – the open ocean.

The extremely social dolphins also do a lot of high-energy acts, like flying a few meters into the air with grace and style. They might choreograph a vast three-dimensional sort of underwater ballet among dozens of dancers. The fate of any school of small fish that might happen upon one of these parties is sealed – gone. And then the party rolls on.

The dolphins also have a lot of sex during these massive aggregations, even more than they do normally in their smaller pods, and with way more partners. This may be one of the main reasons the dolphins form these super- and megapods. Likely, members of each wildly dispersed clan are mostly related to each other, as sometime happens in remote small human villages. Unrelated clans getting together makes for an excellent opportunity to prevent genetic bottlenecks and the resulting birth defects.

Healthy genetic diversity is not the only reward of high dolphin concentrations. Like any good party, this is also an opportunity to network. Hunting strategies, dance moves, hit songs, food location and perhaps a connection to a new pod could be exchanged at a good party. Alliances of all sorts might be strengthened.

So there are a lot of reasons to make a megapod of dolphins. The oceanic conditions offshore of southwestern Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula and Caño Island make this area one of the best places in the world to find dolphin megapods. 

The secret long kept by the tuna fleets is now out among film crews. In 2000, the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet show “The Quest” took Corcovado National Park Director Stanley Mora out to swim with a spinner dolphin superpod, inspiring the expansion of a marine protected area. Former Environment Minister Roberto Dobles went up with a MarViva helicopter to find multiple species of dolphin super- and megapods within a few minutes’ flight from Caño Island, for the supposedly most expensive documentary ever produced, “Oceans.” The upcoming “Wild Horizons” captured the spins of spinner superpods with the latest technology in high-speed digital film. Some major productions are hoping to film more super- and megapods later next year.

Sportfishing boats have long trolled though the pods, with each captain having his own magic speed to keep the tuna below on the hook as fast as they can be reeled in. More and more ecotourists are making the trip offshore just to observe the grand spectacle of so many large mammals in one place. With superpod waters less than an hour’s boat ride offshore of Drake Bay, and just a little more from Golfito and Puerto Jiménez, guides and captains here are used to giving tours other operators dream about.

Those tours could be made better and more plentiful, and make more money for more Costa Ricans. Today’s daily helicopter flights to find tuna could be changed to one daily plane or drone flight to inform tourist boats where the superpods are, and to give biologists valuable information. Hopefully, as more Ticos learn about these dolphins and marine tourism progresses, more and more ships, boats and yachts will make the day trip out to see one of the most fantastic wildlife phenomena on Earth: Costa Rican super- and megapods of dolphins frolicking in the transparent big blue. 

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