Myth-Making Dolphins

by Chris Justice

9 July 2008

They're transporters of the souls of the dead, per Dante, transporters of tools and messages, per the US military, and friends to man, per the popular dolphinariums.
Photo found on Best 

OK, quick: do a free association with the word “dolphin”…what swims into your head? The wind chimes shaped like dolphins on your back porch, perhaps.  Or their visage on your shower curtain?  Now, when thinking of dolphins, what doesn’t come to mind? Strangely, for this column, what doesn’t is fishing! As majestic, intelligent, and mythological dolphins are, sport fishing for them, fortunately, has never materialized.  For complex reasons, dolphins have transcended the sport.

Nevertheless, dolphins have a unique relationship to the angling world. The word ‘dolphin’ refers to two different species of fish: the marine mammals related to porpoises and whales, and dolphin-fish, also known as mahi-mahi or dorado, which are prized saltwater game fish and table fare. While on the open-ocean, anglers may marvel at the torpedo-like stealth of the former while casting top water lures feverishly toward the iridescent chartreuse of the latter.

Sharks, often the “white whale” for many ocean anglers, also share a unique relationship to dolphins. Contrary to popular myths, which often link sharks and dolphins as lethal adversaries, neither species preys on the other, and marine biologists agree that the two ocean dwellers generally tolerate each other. A hungry bull, mako, or great white shark may feed on a wounded or vulnerable dolphin, but in general, they leave each other alone. Consequently, tuna, a primary staple for many shark species, often swim alongside dolphins because, for many reasons, dolphins and tuna pursue similar prey and joining forces reduces the likelihood of a shark attack. Most sharks will ignore dolphins or large schools of fish and focus on smaller, more solitary prey.

Unfortunately for dolphins, their relationship to tuna has not been as advantageous. Since the two schools often intermingle, commercial fishing has caused many problems for dolphins because the industry’s sprawling nets often snag them, a tragedy that has caused many animal activists to protest this traumatizing practice. Subsequently, in the 1980s, commercial tuna fishermen were forced to deliberately avoid casting nets upon dolphins, which they did previously without recourse. Average citizens encountered the byproduct of this environmental controversy in their local grocery stores when ”dolphin-safe” labels were placed on tuna fish cans.



Arguably the most popular dolphin, Flipper, made his debut on American television sets in the mid-1960s. Flipper was an intelligent dolphin and the unusual pet of a park warden living on a Florida marine reserve. Flipper helped the warden manage the park, enforce its rules, and occasionally dolphin-sat his two sons, Sandy and Bud. The lyrics to the show’s theme song reveal the reverence dolphins earned early in popular culture.

The NFL’s Miami Dolphins have trademarked one of the most indelible dolphin images in American culture; the football helmet-adorned dolphin muscularly leaping in the air.  In addition to their popularity in television and Miami football paraphernalia, dolphins also are featured in dolphinariums, a popular attraction in many major tourist destinations.

In literature dolphins have received much attention. In science fiction, dolphins figure prominently in Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern series; the Known Space fiction of Larry Niven; Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series; and David Brin’s Uplift series. In the fantasy genre, you’ll find them in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy; Karen Hesse’s The Music of the Dolphins; and Ken Grimwood’s Into the Deep. And in children’s literature, they’ll be swimming along in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Mary Pope Osborne’s Dolphins at Daybreak, to name but a few.

Superstitiously, dolphins swimming alongside a ship represent good luck. For fishermen, this luck usually equates to bountiful catches, probably because the presence of dolphins often means they’re herding and feeding on baitfish such as mackerel, herring, mullet, cod, or squid; most likely, sport fish such as dolphin, tuna, sailfish, or shark may be nearby. Dolphins are also believed to transport the souls of the dead, and the great Italian poet, Dante, cast them poetically in the underworld by comparing suffering souls floundering in hell to dolphins rolling playfully on the ocean’s waves. He writes in Canto XXII:

With the ten Demons on our way we went;
Ah, fearful company! but in the church
With saints, with gluttons at the tavern’s mess. 
Still earnest on the pitch I gazed, to mark
All things whate’er the chasm contain’d, and those
Who burn’d within. As dolphins that, in sign  
To mariners, heave high their arched backs,
That thence forewarn’d they may advise to save
Their threaten’d vessel; so, at intervals,
To ease the pain, his back some sinner show’d,
Then hid more nimbly than the lightning-glance.

Many classical philosophers and orators including Aristotle, Pliny, and Cicero have studied and alluded to dolphins in their writings and speeches. Plutarch, the Greek biographer and moralist, wrote, “to the dolphin alone, beyond all other, nature has granted what the best philosophers seek: friendship for no advantage.”

In fact, Aristotle may have been the first cetologist (a person who studies cetaceans or marine mammals such as dolphins, porpoises, and whales). According to Dr. Alexandros Frantzis of Greece’s Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (PCRI):

(C)etology…was born in Greece about 2,350 years ago. Aristotle was the first to observe cetaceans in their environment and to…take notes of his observations. He actually scientifically published his results. He not only took notes, and this is amazing, but he took notes about the methods he used…Aristotle was the first to put together the basis of a very modern method used in modern cetology…called ‘photo-identification’. So Aristotle didn’t have a camera during that period, but what he did in collaboration with fishermen, when there was a dolphin captured and entangled in the nets but still alive, before releasing it, they created an artificial notch on the dorsal fin of the dolphin. So in this way, dolphins that were resident in an area could be re-sighted for many years.

Dolphins were arguably the most popular animals in ancient Greek mythology, art, and iconography, and the mammal appeared on many Greek objects including buildings, frescoes, currency, and jewelry. As Frantzis states, “the image of dolphins then, like nowadays, probably had some relaxing effect toward humans and were probably a symbol of the harmony and the health of the marine environment.” Dolphins were never perceived as quarry for anglers, but rather, as a mysterious symbol of some larger, complex marine ecosystem. In essence, because of their intelligence and social behaviors, dolphins were perceived as more human-like than fish-like (of course, they’re not technically fish, but mammals), which is why some myths portray them as former humans, and some gods used their imagery or morphed into their form.

Image from

Image of dolphin fish from Land Big

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