Practical Pirouettes of the Spinner Dolphin

04-01-2019

By Jessika Picnich, Expedition Guide

Darting under our kayaks, pale bellies flash and catch the mid-morning sunlight. To the left, to the right, in front of the kayaks. They are everywhere.

“Paddles up!” I bellow.

We glide to a halt and I swear, time stands still. The spinners surround us. And not a small pod either. At least a hundred spinner dolphins swim among us as we paddle the breathtaking Lanai coast, just south of Manele Bay. We can’t get away from them. It’s as if they want to hang out. I’ve never been so popular. Or so giddy.

So many creatures we see are named for unknown reasons or after the scientists who discovered them. Not these guys. Stenella longirostris - or the spinner dolphin - spins. And not just once, not twice but up to seven times in the air. Gleeful pirouettes of pure joy. These acrobatics accompany jumps, back flips and tail slaps—all surrounding our kayaks. Adults, juveniles, and the precious, flying, spinning footballs that are the babies. Perhaps these little newborns are just learning to spin. Maybe we are witnessing their first spins ever.

No one knows why these sleek gray and silver creatures spin. Joy? Jubilation? Are they itchy? Actually, that might be the very reason. Much of what is known about spinner dolphins is from research gathered in another iconic spot along our trip, Kealakekua Bay just south of Kona. A 25-year study led by Ken Norris and his colleagues provided an in-depth look into the secret lives of spinner dolphins. It was Dr. Norris who, through careful videography, noticed that when the spinners would jump and rotate at high speed, several remoras (fish with a sucker-like apparatus with backward-facing barbs digging into the skin) would fly off their bodies. Who knew that scratching an itch could be so fun and by that same token, who knew that watching them do it could be so thrilling?

 

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