I would be lying if I told you that this painting hadn’t haunted me. Not in the sense that gangs of bottlenose dolphins were chasing me in my nightmares (honestly a rather terrifying scenario), but because I actually started this about three years ago. And then I didn’t like it, so I painted over it and tried again. Then I tried again. Then I put it aside for a few months. And then picked it up again, painted over it, and tried again… you get the idea. Eventually it became my nemesis; when I would work on something else it would be there in the corner of the room, staring at me. I had to defeat it.
Bottlenose dolphins don’t seem to have the most interesting physical characteristics at first glance; certainly not as striking as orcas (sorry, I’m biased) or other members of their oceanic dolphin family (Pacific white-sided and hourglass dolphins spring to mind), but I’ve always been fond of those odd little lines on their melon and the subtle countershading. And it’s not like the general public doesn’t go crazy over the bottlenose – the species is synonymous with the very word “dolphin”. (Seriously, take a look… how many non-bottlenose can you see?) Because of the world’s unwavering fascination with them – whether it’s because of their intelligence or magical sparkly moon powers – bottlenose dolphins often get waved off as being overrated. While I’ll be among the first to admit that they’re not my favourite marine species ever ever ever, it’s important to recognise that animals like bottlenose dolphins can be key to effective conservation efforts.
Contaminants like PCBs and DDT are really good at accumulating in animal fats. What are marine mammals like dolphins completely covered in? Oh, yeah – blubber. This means that as these apex predators eat things and be generally good at what they’ve evolved to do, pollutants that originate in everyday things we use like pesticides and fertilisers actually build up in their bodies (a process known as bioaccumulation). And how do these pollutants end up in the dolphins’ food, exactly? Through runoff and industrial waste that gets pumped into marine ecosystems, which begin to turn up in organisms on the lower levels of the food chain as well as cause cause harmful algae blooms. Florida’s troubled Indian River Lagoon is a prime example of this, and its dolphins are part of an important collaborative research project – Health and Environmental Risk Assessments (HERA) – that looks at their health status. The dolphins are sentinels: their health, or lack of, tells us what’s going on. The results can then be used for action.
So why is it that I said dolphins can be key? Well, people love them. And if people love dolphins and want to help them have a healthy environment to live in, a lot more than just dolphins can reap the benefits (we like a healthy environment too, don’t we?). In the end, it’s good that these animals are popular – we just need a little less of the supernatural and a lot more of the educational.