Observing Dolphins

Have you ever wondered how trainers and researchers can tell one dolphin apart from another? This page will help you learn about what to look for when observing dolphins.

Dolphin Observation Techniques

Accurately observing dolphin behavior can be tricky if you can’t tell the individual dolphins apart. Who just ate a fish? Who is nursing a baby? Was it the same dolphin? Was it a different one? Anyone who works with dolphins, whether it’s a dolphin trainer at Dolphin Connection or a wildlife researcher out at sea, needs to be able to identify individuals within a group in order to do their job well. While all dolphins may look alike to you the first time you see them, there are uniquely identifying characteristics of each animal that can help you to tell them apart.

Nicks and Notches - The dorsal fin on the dolphin’s back provides stability for the animal as it is propelled quickly through the water with the power of the tail flukes. Neither the dorsal fin nor the tail fluke has bone inside of it, only connective tissue similar to the cartilage in your ear. Because of this softer structure, these appendages are prone to receiving nicks and notches as the animal interacts with its environment and other dolphins. These nicks and notches serve to create a unique “fingerprint” for each dolphin, allowing them to be identified with just a quick glimpse as they break the surface of the water.

Colors and Patterns - Between varying shades of grey and different patterns of freckles and stripes, each individual dolphin really does look different. If you’re lucky enough to get a close look at a dolphin’s head, you’ll see stripe patterns across their melon and even around their eyes. If the dolphin rolls over and gives you a glimpse of its stomach, you’ll see skin that ranges from light grey to white to pink, and may or may not be covered in freckles. All of these variations in appearance can help you to identify different dolphins.

Onsite Activity

Now you try it! - While visiting with us at Dolphin Connection, you can spend a few moments quietly observing the dolphins in the Dolphin Connection lagoon. See if you can determine a way to tell the individuals apart. Once you’ve learned to distinguish one animal from the others, you are ready to do some real science! Making note of the dolphin’s physical characteristics will help to ensure that you’re always observing the same dolphin. Making note of the dolphin’s behavioral characteristics can provide data that may useful to scientists and students for years to come. Most of what we now know about wild animals came from people who took the time to quietly watch those animals for hours, days, even years. To learn more about results from studies of wild dolphins using these same observation techniques, visit the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program at www.sarasotadolphin.org.

Attention Parents and Teachers: Click here to view our Educational Curricum section where you can download our Dolphin Observation Activity.