Are Dolphins Dangerous?

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Published: April 7, 2022
Image Credit Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock.com
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Swimming with dolphins seems to be a popular bucket list item. Grabbing onto their dorsal fins so they can pull you along in the water or just being close enough to feel their smooth gray skin makes for an amazing photo op, but is it safe? Are dolphins dangerous? Can they be dangerous while you swim at the beach or enjoy surfing? What about a mother dolphin protecting her young? Do dolphins fight with each other, and could you get in the middle of it? Let’s find out if dolphins are dangerous!

How big are dolphins?

bottlenose dolphin jumping out of the water
Bottlenose dolphins are 8-13 feet long and weigh up to 660lbs.

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The most common dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, is between 2.5 – 4 meters (8 – 13ft) long and weighs 200kg – 300kg (440lbs – 660lbs).

What is the difference between a dolphin, porpoise, and whale?

Porpoise vs Dolphin
Porpoises and dolphins look similar, but dolphins have a longer snout and a dorsal fin.

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The dolphin family has oceanic dolphins (like the bottlenose) and river dolphins (did you know some dolphins live in rivers, like the Amazon River dolphin, which has a long skinny snout and is pink!). Porpoises look a lot like dolphins but don’t have a long beak and are more like narwhals or belugas. Orca whales (Killer whales) belong to the dolphin family and are the biggest species of the dolphin family.

For this article, we will be looking at oceanic dolphins to see if they are dangerous.

Do dolphins have sharp teeth?

Dolphin looking with open mouth.
Dolphins have one row of teeth on the top and bottom for a total of 80-100 teeth.

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Yes, dolphins have 80-100 sharp teeth. It sounds dangerous, but their teeth are not like shark teeth. Shark teeth are wide at the base and triangular that can get to be 1.5-3 inches long. Dolphins have smaller teeth that are only about a cm in diameter. Sharks have several rows of teeth, while dolphins have just one row on top and one on the bottom. Dolphins use their teeth to attack prey, but they do not use them to chew. Dolphins belong to the “toothed whale” group.

Are dolphins dangerous?

Dolphins are typically not dangerous. They are wild animals, so there are a few incidents of dolphins uncharacteristically attacking humans.

Have dolphins ever attacked humans?

There have been a few incidents where dolphins have bitten or rammed into humans, causing injuries, but they are extremely rare. There was a highly publicized case in 2019 of a 10-year-old girl being attacked in a “swim with dolphins” experience in Cancun, Mexico. She was dragged underwater by two captive bottlenose dolphins and bitten, then released. She suffered a few bite wounds and scratches, clearly a scary experience.

Be cautious when reading headlines because another publicized story in 2012 reported “dolphins at Seaworld attack another young girl.” The video shows a row of children feeding dolphins from the side of an enclosure. The girl looks away, and a dolphin tries to eat the fish tray she is still holding but accidentally bites her arm. It does not look like an “attack,” but people need to judge for themselves.

How do researchers explain the occasional dolphin attack?

One theory is that keeping dolphins in an enclosed area and making them interact with humans can cause dolphins to be aggressive. Others think that dolphins enjoy time with humans and their social nature makes them want to play with humans, but that they sometimes play too rough.

Some researchers believe that just like humans, there are dolphins with different dispositions, and some may just be more aggressive than others. There does not seem to be a need to keep statistics on dolphin attacks. There are statistics on shark attacks, with an average of 72 unprovoked attacks worldwide each year, and only an average of 10 of those are fatal. One can imagine that the number of dolphin attacks is much lower.

Can mother dolphins be aggressive and dangerous?

baby dolphin swimming on top of mommy dolphin
Mother dolphins will protect their young if they feel threatened.

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Mother dolphins will protect their young from predators. Killer whales and sharks are natural predators of dolphins. Often times dolphins swim in pods and protect the younger or vulnerable dolphins by circling around them. Sharks seem to know that a group of 100 or more dolphins is not worth the effort. If a human tried to threaten a mother protecting her young, there is a good chance she would be aggressive or dangerous.

Do dolphins fight each other?

Dolphins can fight each other to establish territory or dominance, especially during mating season. They show dominance by “raking,” which involves dragging their teeth across the skin of another dolphin, leaving marks.

Could a pod of dolphins be dangerous or helpful?

Group of Whales - pod-of-long-beaked-common-dolphins
Dolphins are often found in small pods of 5-15 but can form larger pods of 1,000 or more.

Chase Dekker/Shutterstock.com

A whole pod of dolphins could be dangerous if you were to get caught in the middle of one. Or they could save your life! There are stories of dolphins circling around lost swimmers or boaters to protect them. One incident in August of 2021 was reported by People Magazine. They said they found a swimmer off the coast of Ireland that had been missing for 12 hours. He was surrounded by a pod of dolphins that seemed to be keeping him safe. The man was rescued and taken to a nearby hospital to recover from hypothermia.

 In 2014, another swimmer, Adam Walker, a long-distance swimmer, reported being surrounded by a pod of dolphins when a great white shark was seen nearby. The dolphins seemed to protect him from the shark.

Is it safe to swim with dolphins?

dolphin smiling at the camera
Dolphins are typically not dangerous but remember that they are wild animals.

If you see dolphins in the wild, you should keep your distance and respect their space, just like any other wild animal. Remember, wild animals are unpredictable and can be agitated under any circumstance. As for captive dolphins that are attractions for tourists, you will have to do your research and weigh the risks for yourself. Some captive dolphins are meant to educate people about the importance of protecting wild animals like dolphins. Others are attractions run by amateurs with the motivation of making money. Dolphins are intelligent, social animals that are typically not dangerous.

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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness and suggesting actions we can all do to help wildlife. As a former elementary school teacher I have a love for learning and teaching. My goal is to get kids fired-up about animals. Learning about the animals we share this earth with makes life better. When I am not writing I am living the good life with my husband and six kids (we are down to two that are still at home...and our giant labradoodle, Tango!).

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