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Dolphin watching

And other marine activities

Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.{f}

The waters around St Helena provide ample opportunities for all sorts of marine activities

The coastal waters of St Helena support large numbers of bridled dolphin Stenella attenuata; smaller numbers of bottlenose dolphin Tursops truncata, and occasional visits by spinner dolphin Stenella longirostris.

Watching dolphins

To see dolphins in the wild and at arm’s length is a rarity and should not be missed. Watch them cavort and dance as nature intended!

Here are some recent dolphin watching vessels:{1}

Dolphin watching and other marine trips are offered on a variety of vessels with the selection constantly changing, so we advise contacting the Tourist Information Office to choose your operator. All vessels also do costal tours.

Feeling more adventurous? How about diving around St Helena?

The island’s Bottlenose Dolphins have developed an interesting technique for hunting one of their favourite foods: flying fish. These are hard to catch because, of course, at the approach of a predator such as a Bottlenose Dolphin, they simply fly away.

The technique is to assemble a pod of several dolphins, and begin by moving in on the fish from out-to-sea, herding them towards Jamestown. The dolphins then circle frantically, confusing the fish and driving the schools toward the concrete wharf where the flying fish lift off, impact with the wall and hit the water, stunned. The dolphins then simply lunge in and swallow their prey.

Viewers can stand on the wharf and watch this spectacle, but only if they dare to risk being hit by a flying fish! The fish that go above the wall and land on the concrete can be rounded up and eaten, or thrown back (away from the dolphins). The herding usually occurs just after dark, commonly in August or early September{2}.

Whales, Whale Sharks, etc…

Below: WhalesWhale Sharks


Humpback Whales Megaptera novaeangliae are common around St Helena, and can often be seen from the island, mostly from June to December. If you are lucky you may be able to get close to one.

SEE ALSO: The article ‘Breaching Season’ (below).

In the 19th Century whales were hunted off St Helena. Learn more on our page Whaling.

Whale Sharks

Whale Sharks visit St Helena every year from December to March, possibly to breed. They are so important they have a page of their own.

And while you’re out there…

Why not explore some of the islands and islets that surround our coast: Speery Island, Egg Island and many more. All are within 1Km of the shore. Egg Island is visited by most of the dolphin watching trips run from Jamestown, and some make it out as far as Speery Island, though the sea can be quite rough once you get out of the sheltered waters to the North-west of the island.

Dolphin Fishing

Incredible as it may seem, with dolphins now not only a protected species but also part of our tourism industry, as recently as the 1980s dolphins were hunted for meat. This is from The ‘Blue Book’ for 1935:

Fishing from shore and dinghy is indulged in. Large fish such as albacore, dolphin, wahoo and yellow-tail are obtained not far from the beach, while cavally and cod abound everywhere.

In 1815 Leutenant W. Innes Pocock, writing about the island, says that dolphin was only eaten by the lowest of the community. In ‘St Helena: A Physical, Historical and Topographical Description of the Island{3}’ we read:

Some small boys, when bathing, encountered one, within a few yards of the landing steps, and, laying hold of its tail, towed it ashore, in spite of its efforts to tow them out to sea. Being thus succesful, they carried their prize round the town in triumph, and eventually sold him to me for half-a-crown.

For more see William F. Perrin, ‘The Former Dolphin Fishery at St Helena{4}’, Reports of the International Whaling Commission, Vol.35 (1985).

World Dolphin Day

World Dolphin Day, on 14th April, is not at all celebrated on St Helena, unless you happen to be out on a Dolphin Watching trip on the day and the tour operator happens to know about the day{5}.

For more annual events see our page This Year.

Read More

Below: Delphinus, the DolphinArticle: Facts about Dolphins

Delphinus, the Dolphin


Delphinus, the Dolphin is a constellation visible in the night sky above St Helena. It has five primary stars. Four of the stars form a conspicuous diamond whilst the fifth star dangles from the diamond in a way that suggests a dolphin’s tail. When looking at this tiny constellation, imagine a porpoise at the crest of a leap, about to plunge back into the ocean. It is close to Cygnus the Swan.

Article: Facts about Dolphins

Abridged from the International Dolphin Watch website{4}

Below: How do dolphins communicate and do they have their own language?How does dolphin sonar work?What and how much do dolphins eat?How old can dolphins get?How deep can dolphins dive?How fast can dolphins swim?

How do dolphins communicate and do they have their own language?

Dolphin group

Dolphins communicate mainly by means of sounds. These sounds include whistles, but also so-called pulsed sounds, which are often described as squawks, barks, rasps, etc. But they also use breaching (jumping and falling back into the water with a loud splash) and pectoral fin (or flipper) and tail (or fluke) slaps (hitting the flipper or fluke on the water surface). Body posturing and jaw popping also have a role in communication. As for language, we do not know if they have one. Several studies have demonstrated that dolphins can understand a structured language like ours. This same has been demonstrated for a number of other animal species as well (gorilla, bonobo, California sea lion, parrot). Some studies also indicate that dolphin vocalisations are complex enough to support some form of language. However, to date it has not been demonstrated yet that they can undoubtedly communicate among themselves. On the basis that dolphins have large brains and their primary sense is acoustic, Dr. Horace Dobbs has speculated that dolphins send holographic sound images to one another.

How does dolphin sonar work?

Dolphin sonar

Dolphins (and other toothed whales) can produce high-pitched clicks. When these clicks hit an object, some of the sound will echo back to the "sender". By listening to the echo and interpreting the time it took before the echo came back, the dolphin estimate the distance of the object. (That’s why sonar is also called echo-location: with information from the echoes, a dolphin can locate an object). Depending on the material the object is made of, part of the sound may penetrate into the object and reflect off internal structure. If the object is a fish, some sound will reflect off the skin, some off the bones and internal organs. So one click can result in a number of (weaker) echoes. This will give the dolphin some information about the structure and size of the fish. By moving its head (thereby aiming the clicks at other parts of the fish) the dolphin can get more information on other parts of the fish. It is like a medical ultrasound probe, but the results are far less clear. A medical probe moves back and forth very rapidly, much faster than a dolphin can move its head. Also the frequency of the sounds of the medical probe is much higher than a dolphin’s sonar. Therefore the level of detail the echoes can provide is much higher in the medical probe.

What and how much do dolphins eat?

Dolphin eating

Bottlenose dolphins eat several kinds of fish (including mullet, mackerel, herring, cod) and squid. The composition of their diet depends very much on what is available in the area they live in and also on the season. The amount of fish they eat depends on the fish species they are feeding on: mackerel and herring have a very high fat content and consequently have a high caloric value, whereas squid has a very low caloric value, so to get the same energy intake (calories) they will need to eat much more if they feed on squid than if they feed on mackerel or herring. On average an adult dolphin will eat 4-9% of its body weight in fish, so a 250kg dolphin will eat 10-22.5kg of fish per day

How old can dolphins get?

Dolphin birthday

The maximum age for bottlenose dolphins is between 40 and 50 years. The average age a dolphin can get (the life expectancy) is about 25 years. There is, however, anecdotal evidence, which indicates that dolphins can live longer than estimated if death by human interference is eliminated from calculations.

How deep can dolphins dive?

Dolphin diving

The deepest dive ever recorded for a bottlenose dolphin was a 300 metres. This was accomplished by Tuffy, a dolphin trained by the US Navy. Most likely dolphins do not dive very deep though. Many bottlenose dolphins live in fairly shallow water. In the Sarasota Bay area, the dolphins spend a considerable time in waters that are less than 2 metres deep.

How fast can dolphins swim?

Dolphin speed

The dolphin’s fast cruising speed (a travelling speed they can maintain for quite a while) is about 6-7 knots. They can reach speeds of up to 9.3 knots while travelling in this fashion. When they move faster, they will start jumping clear of the water (porpoising). They are actually saving energy by jumping. When chased by a speedboat, dolphins have been clocked at speeds of 14.6 knots, which they maintained for about 1,500 metres, leaping constantly. Studies have shown that the most efficient travelling speed for dolphins is between 3.3 to 4.5 knots. There have been reports of dolphins travelling at much higher speeds, but these refer to dolphins being pushed along by the bow wave of a speeding boat. They were getting a free ride (their speed relative to the surrounding water was low). It is possible that dolphins can reach speeds over 15 knots during very short bursts (like in preparation for a high jump), but they can’t maintain that speed.

Article: Breaching Season

By Demy Herne, SAMS, published in The Sentinel, 17th August 2023{g}

Breaching Season

Humpback Whales return to St Helena Waters

The months of June to December are better known as Whale Season in St Helena’s waters when the majestic humpback whales visit St Helena’s Marine Protected Area for recovery and birth.

Previous sightings of births have been recorded by our community over the years.

It was confirmed by the National Trust that there have been recent sightings of these whales impressively breaching, tail looping and swimming in St Helena’s waters.

During last week, a mother and her new born calf was seen each morning swimming around and near the Darkdale wreck in James Bay.

These whales usually stay around St Helena until their calves are old enough to face the open ocean, where their mothers will then lead them to colder climates such as the Arctic to eat as they do not eat here, they only drink their mother’s milk which is limited as a calf can consume about 500 litres of milk per day.

So far, there have been around ten sightings recorded for 2023 and the public are encouraged to report any sightings of whales, or other marine creatures, to either the National Trust or the SHG Marine Section so it can be entered into their citizen science database.


{a} Ed Thorpe{b} Robyn Sim{c} Into The Blue{4}{d} St Helena National Trust{e} Government of St Helena{f} Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy{g} Copyright © South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), used with permission.


{1} None guaranteed to be still running.{2} Why only then? We have no idea…{3} …including the Geology, Fauna, Flora and Meteorology, by John Melliss, published in 1875.{4} @@RepDis@@{5} Possibly from Saint Helena Island Info!