Picture the scene. You’re on a little boat traversing a blue sea, clipboard in hand, cap firmly plonked on your head, and limbs caked in Factor 30 sun cream. You’re staring at a vast expanse of shimmering water, which reflects the sun’s bright rays into your eyes. It seems like you’ve been looking at the same part of the unchanging sea for ages.
But suddenly – a shout! Your team member beckons and points out to the other side of the boat, where you see a sleek, grey body skip out of the water, flipping itself over and landing quickly with a splash.
There’s something about dolphins that just makes us smile. Perhaps it’s to do with their playful clicking and whistling, or the way they look like they’re actually smiling at you as they leap out of the ocean. Whatever it is, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like these cheerful sea mammals.
Much-loved by the ancient Greeks
Dolphins held this irresistible charm for people in ancient Greece, too. Their very name, hieros ichthys, meant ‘sacred fish’, and dolphins feature on many beautiful pieces of pottery and coins from the period. In fact, dolphins were so loved that killing a dolphin was punishable by death.
Myths often speak of dolphins as altruistic, saviour figures in the lives of sailors and even for some of the Greek gods. One myth records that dolphins saved a talented poet, Arion, from being killed while he was on board a ship returning from a poetry contest. The sailors of the ship realised he was carrying lots of prize money and plotted to throw him overboard and take his winnings for themselves.
When he discovered what they planned to do, he pleaded for one final favour: that he might sing one last song before he died. He pulled out his lyre and sung a song so beautiful that it attracted a pod of dolphins at the side of the ship. He threw himself overboard, and one of the dolphins flipped him on its back and took him safely to shore.
The Special Bond Between Dolphins and Humans
There are countless other stories of dolphins rescuing humans from drowning in ancient Greece. Whether they’re true or not, the fact remains: dolphins and humans have been friends for years. The Greek writer and biographer, Plutarch, commented on this link between dolphins and humans. In his Moralia, a series of philosophical essays, he captured the connection perfectly: “Though it [the dolphin] has no need at all of any man, yet it is a genial friend to all and has helped many.” This playful, gentle and friendly animal has long been a feature of the Greek landscape, swimming and diving in the lurid blue sea.
Other myths speak of the close connection between dolphins and the Greek gods, like Apollo, who turned himself into a dolphin so that he could direct a ship of merchants to his temple on Mount Parnassus. Dolphins were also trusted companions and messengers of the gods. In one myth, Poseidon (the sea god) sent the king of the dolphins, Delphinus, to bring him a beautiful nymph called Amphitrite, who he loved. Though she was initially unwilling to marry Poseidon, Delphinus was so kind and gentle that she agreed to return with him, and eventually marry the sea god. In a gesture of thanks to the dolphin king, Poseidon set a constellation of stars in the sky, named after him.
Dolphins and humans today
Dolphins have a long history in the seas surrounding Greece. But nowadays, dolphins, along with whales and other marine wildlife, are finding that their usual habitats are more and more polluted. Climate change, toxic chemicals and discarded fishing gear are all part of the things that threaten their lives. After so many years of friendship with this gentle cetacean, it’s fitting, somehow, that we might be able to repay the favour in some way.
In Greece, efforts are being made to research and protect several different precious dolphin species like the Bottlenose Dolphin and Common Dolphin and the Mediterranean Monk Seal. On our Dolphin Volunteer Project, you can play a part in identifying and analysing pods of dolphins in the Ionian Sea: the very sea through which Arion would have sailed through on his journey back to Corinth.