dolphins in Haifa harbor
Ariel Schalit  /  AP
Israeli police officers and divers looks at a group of dolphins in Haifa harbor on Tuesday.
updated 3/22/2005 3:43:22 PM ET 2005-03-22T20:43:22

Dozens of dolphins arched in line out of the polluted waters of Haifa harbor Tuesday, in an unprecedented visit to the crowded Mediterranean port that surprised and delighted researchers.

Between 40 and 50 of the usually reclusive rough-toothed dolphins appeared in the busy commercial and navy port for what one researcher called "a lunch break" and appeared to be in no distress.

They were apparently drawn by the fish-rich waters of Haifa Bay. However, the bay is also full of noxious chemicals, and Aviad Sheinin, of Haifa University's Maritime Studies Department, said he hoped they would swim back to sea soon.

"It seems that they are quite relaxed. They don't seem to be stressed," he said, adding that he did not believe they had been harmed by the pollution.

Israeli TV stations opened their evening newscasts with video of the dolphins diving in the bay, the port facilities in the background.

Haifa Bay is lined by chemical companies that have been pouring toxic waste into the water for decades. While pollution levels have dropped in recent years, the water is still considered a health hazard.

Marine mammal expert Ron Yaffe said the rough-toothed dolphins, so named because of the ridges of enamel that run down their teeth, usually leave the open seas for bays when in need of food and relaxation.

"There are lots of fish in Haifa port. Unfortunately we couldn't tell them (the fish) are not healthy, and I don't know what the consequences will be," he told Israel Army Radio.

Hundreds of Haifa residents flocked to the Haifa Bay to see the spectacle, and researchers said this provided a rare opportunity to film and study the rough-toothed dolphins.

In addition to the dozens of dolphins that swam into port Tuesday, a similar number stayed outside the breakwater.

Later Tuesday the dolphins left the port but remained near the entrance and Israel's coast guard was patrolling the area to try to make sure the dolphins did not re-enter the toxic waters, Channel Two TV reported.

Relatively little is known about rough-tooth dolphins, which are usually found in deep, warm tropical waters. About 70 beached themselves in the Florida Keys earlier this month, leading the U.S. Navy to investigate if they could have become confused by sonar being used during an exercise in the area.

Haifa is a main base for the Israeli navy, but Sheinin dismissed speculation that sonar could have disoriented the dolphins or damaged their sense of direction. He said some were already starting to head back out to sea.

"They look healthy, they don't look sick," he said. "Maybe they just came here for a lunch break, to relax. I think that they are on their way out now and everything will be back to normal."

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