For months, Zafar has been known in the Bay of Brest for his unabashed playfulness, even allowing people to hold onto his dorsal fin as he takes them for rides, the Telegraph reported. But the dolphin’s interest in humans now appears to be driven by the need for company of an intimate nature, the French newspaper Ouest-France reported. “He is in heat,” one marine mammal expert told the news site.
Zafar has been seen trying to rub up against swimmers and boats or kayaks, Le Telegramme reported. In other instances, the dolphin prevented a female swimmer from returning to shore (she was later rescued by boat) and lifted another woman out of the water with his nose, according to the French news site.
While his name translates to “victory,” Zafar’s various attempts to satisfy his needs have not only fallen short but prompted Landevennec’s mayor, Roger Lars, to issue a bylaw banning swimming and diving near the village’s shoreline whenever Zafar is seen in the area, Ouest-France reported.
Visitors and locals, Lars said, were becoming “frightened” by Zafar’s behavior, according to Ouest-France.
“I issued the decree to preserve the safety of people,” he said. According to the Telegraph, people are also now “forbidden” to get within about 50 yards of the dolphin.
The “aggressive” and “pushy” antics are not unusual for a dolphin in Zafar’s situation, Elizabeth Hawkins, lead researcher with Dolphin Research Australia, told The Washington Post. Zafar is what researchers call a “social solitary dolphin,” meaning for some reason he has been isolated from other dolphins and is now a “social outcast,” Hawkins said.
The dolphin is “wanting, needing, yearning social contact from cohorts, and that need isn’t fulfilled,” she said. “It can try different dolphin behaviors toward humans to try and get that social fulfillment.”
But, Hawkins added, that’s when “strange behaviors can come about.”
Given how social dolphins are, Hawkins said, the animals seek to form and reinforce bonds, often using sexual behavior. For solitary male dolphins isolated from their society, rubbing themselves on objects or people has been observed as attempts to meet that biological need, she said.
“It’s been observed that dolphins and different whale species will rub themselves against objects with what appears to be some type of sexual satisfaction coming about,” Hawkins said.
According to one chapter of a 2003 book “Marine Mammals: Fisheries, Tourism and Management Issues,” researchers found that of 29 “lone, sociable dolphins,” at least 13 had “periods of misdirected sexual behaviors towards humans, buoys, and/or vessels.”
The way Zafar’s behavior has progressed is also common among these lone dolphins, said Lars Bejder, director of the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology’s Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“The animals slowly become more and more habituated to human activities, which humans then like, but in that process they typically become more and more aggressive, which sounds like exactly what’s happening now,” Bejder told The Post.
In the marine mammal book, it was noted that at least 18 of the lone dolphins had directed aggressive behavior toward people.
No one has been injured by Zafar yet, a fact that has motivated locals such as Erwan Le Cornec to challenge the swimming ban, Le Telegramme reported.
Le Cornec, a specialist in environmental law who enjoys swimming with Zafar, told Le Telegramme he plans to take legal action against the “excessive” decree.
“This animal is not dangerous,” he said. “There have never been any mishaps noted in the natural environment between a dolphin and a human. You just don’t do anything in his presence and don’t go swimming with him if you’re a bad swimmer.”
In an interview with Ouest-France, Le Cornec claimed that the mayor wants to paint Zafar as a “ferocious beast, totally unpredictable, likely to drown people.”
“It will turn the legitimately positive approach that people have to dolphins into a fear of these intelligent animals, and make this fear into a panic and this panic into a real psychosis,” he said.
Lars, the town’s mayor, told Le Telegramme that the decision to impose the ban was made only after consulting marine mammal experts.
Hawkins and Bejder praised the mayor’s actions.
“With an adult dolphin doing this kind of behavior, it can be very insistent, very pushy,” Hawkins said. “It can actually increase the harm to swimmers themselves, and the dolphin male may not mean to inflict harm upon swimmers, but it’s several hundred kilos of a fairly rambunctious animal trying to fulfill a need.”
Bejder said dolphins ramming into humans can lead to a variety of serious injuries, including broken arms, legs and ribs.
The ban also serves to protect Zafar from an unfortunate fate common to solitary dolphins: untimely death at the hands of humans.
Habituation, or becoming used to human contact, can lessen a dolphin’s natural instincts to be aware of potential threats, leaving them vulnerable to getting hit by boats or abused by people, Hawkins said.
“There’s horrible stories of how people have interacted with these animals,” she said, noting examples of people stuffing cigarette butts into a dolphin’s blowhole or pouring beer into their throats.
Based on the description of Zafar’s behavior, Hawkins said it appears the dolphin is already at a “very high level of habituation” and that authorities stepped in at the right time.
By staying away, people can do their part to help save him, Bejder said.
“The best thing you can do for this animal right now is to not interact with it and hope it can resume natural behavior again,” he said.
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.