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Do dolphins really swim in front of ships?

Dolphins swimming in front of ships is a common sight for sailors and passengers on cruise ships or ferries. The graceful marine mammals often ride the bow wave of large vessels, leaping in and out of the water as they keep up with the ship’s speed. This behavior has led to many theories as to why dolphins do this, with ideas ranging from play to communication to seeking food. In this article, we’ll explore the science behind dolphins swimming in front of ships and examine the possible reasons for this curious interaction between wild animals and human transportation.

Do dolphins really swim in front of ships?

The short answer is yes, it is well documented that dolphins do commonly swim in front of ships in certain conditions. Sightings of dolphins racing with ships have been reported for centuries. Here are some key facts:

  • Swimming in front of ships is most often observed in dusky dolphins, common dolphins, spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback dolphins.
  • Dolphins are more likely to swim with slower moving ships, such as bulk carriers, ferries, cruise ships, and oil tankers, compared to faster vessels.
  • This behavior usually occurs in areas abundant with dolphins, such as major shipping lanes that pass through prime dolphin habitats.
  • Dolphins are most prone to swimming with ships in warmer tropical and subtropical waters compared to cooler regions.
  • Cases of dolphins racing with ships have been documented across the world’s oceans, including the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

So while not an everyday occurrence, dolphins fronting ships under the right conditions is a well-known and observed phenomenon, captured clearly in countless photographs and videos. Scientists have been studying this behavior and propose several explanations for why dolphins exhibit this swimming pattern.

Why do dolphins swim in front of ships?

There are several hypothesized reasons why dolphins commonly swim in front of ships:

Surfing the bow wave

The bow wave that forms at the front of a ship as it moves through the water forms a sweet spot that dolphins can surf and ride on. By positioning themselves in front of the wave, they can ride the high-pressure area without having to actively swim, allowing them to keep up with fast moving vessels with minimal effort. This wave ‘surfing’ is likely a key factor drawing dolphins to large ships.

Feeding opportunities

The stirring up of water and marine life in a ship’s wake creates a beneficial feeding ground for dolphins. Fish and squid can become disoriented and flushed out from hiding, providing the dolphins with easy pickings as they swim alongside. Ships may act like a moving dinner buffet.

Play behavior

Dolphins are highly intelligent and social creatures. Swimming with ships may simply be a form of play and thrill-seeking, allowing dolphins to interact with novel moving objects and showing off their speed and agility. The seemingly playful leaping and criss-crossing in front of the bow observed indicates they may enjoy the activity.

Energy saving strategy

Swimming along with boats may allow dolphins to minimize energy expenditure. By riding the bow wave, they can keep up with minimal effort compared to actively swimming at fast sustained speeds. This can allow them to travel efficiently while expending less energy.

Social and communication

The ship encounter may be a form of social activity. Dolphins may take turns riding the bow wave and swimming alongside the boat with their pod. Additionally, the sounds from large ships may attract dolphin pods as a novel stimulus or interference to investigate.

Other benefits

Some additional theorized benefits of swimming with ships may include using the boat hull as a source of rubbing or scratching for the dolphins, or possibly taking advantage of the free ride to more easily migrate or move between areas.

Is this behavior harmful to dolphins?

While the activity appears mostly harmless, there are some potential risks or negatives to swimming with ships that should be considered:

  • Dolphins can get injured or killed by collisions if they miscalculate avoiding the ship.
  • Ship noise can disrupt dolphin communication and damage hearing.
  • Pollution from ships, like fuel leakage, can be absorbed by dolphins.
  • Being dependent on ships for feeding or play may alter natural behaviors.
  • Increased exposure to human activity may cause stress.

Overall the consensus is riding with ships is likely more beneficial than harmful in most cases, although more research is needed on the long-term impacts. Certain precautions like slower ship speeds through dolphin habitats can help reduce risks.

Do dolphins help guide ships?

There is no scientific evidence that dolphins intentionally help guide or navigate ships. While anecdotes of dolphins supposedly guiding boats exist, these stories remain unproven. Any guiding behavior is likely accidental:

  • Dolphins swim in front for their own purposes, not to show the way.
  • Their direction often does not consistently align with a ship’s intended course.
  • Dolphins do not possess navigational knowledge of safe routes and hazards.

Instead, any appearance of piloting ships is just an illusion, with ships perhaps briefly happening to follow dolphins that are freely swimming on their own agenda. Claims of dolphins guiding ships should be met with skepticism unless convincing proof emerges.

Notable historical accounts of ship-riding dolphins

Some well-known historical sightings and stories related to dolphins swimming with ships:

  • Ancient Greek and Roman coins depict dolphins riding ships’ bow waves.
  • Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote of dolphins “playing at the prow” of ships in the 1st century AD.
  • A famous outbreak of dolphins riding with ships occurred during the massive Anglo-American invasion fleet to France in WWII.
  • Whalers in the 19th century reported dolphins and pilot whales seemingly guiding their boats to the Arctic.
  • The 19th century Cutty Sark clipper ship crew claimed dolphins accompanied them from England to Australia.

These accounts demonstrate dolphins interacting with ships has been noted and documented by seafarers for thousands of years, although often imbued with questionable folklore.

Scientific research on dolphins swimming with ships

Increasing scientific interest and research on this behavior has emerged recently, with discoveries of:

  • Differences in sounds made by dolphins when ship-riding compared to normally swimming.
  • U-shaped sleep patterns by dolphins swimming with ships continuously for days.
  • Radio tagging showing individual preferences for boats with particular acoustic properties.
  • Observed increases in slow ship cruising reducing harmful dolphin collisions.

Ongoing research aims to learn more about the motivations behind this activity and its long-term impacts on dolphin populations to ensure their protection while also allowing sustainable shipping.

Key findings on why dolphins ride ships

Theory Supporting Evidence
Surfing bow wave – Dolphins position precisely at bow wave sweet spot
– Greatly reduces swim effort needed to keep up
Feeding – Fish abundance increased around ships
– Dolphins observed catching prey while ship-riding
Play behavior – Aerial behaviors, group coordination
– Common in juvenile dolphins


In summary, dolphins riding at the bow of ships is a well-documented marine phenomenon. Scientific evidence suggests dolphins do this primarily for the benefits of bow wave surfing, feeding, play, and social activity. While generally harmless, precautions are needed to avoid potential harm from collisions, noise, and pollution. Ongoing research continues to unlock the secrets of dolphin motivations and considerations for sustainable shipping and marine conservation. So next time you spot dolphins cruising at the front of a ferry or tanker, you’ll know why they truly enjoy the ride.