Dance of the dolphins

Remarkable photographs capture bottlenose dolphins leaping and surfing through the waves off the coast of South Africa.

Photographer Greg Huglin of Santa Barbara, Calif., captured these striking images of bottlenose dolphins during three trips to the South African coast between 2000 and 2007. He shot the photos along a stretch of coastline between Port Elizabeth and Wilderness.
While on his trips to the South African coast, Greg Huglin took photos from a variety of vantage points: From a helicopter, from a motorized sailplane, from a boat in surfline and from land. All of the images were captured with film cameras, not digital cameras.
Huglin said it's both humbling and exciting to be in the presence of such powerful animals. "Bottlenose dolphins are the ones that do all the really fancy surfing," he said. "They’re up to 12 feet long, those suckers. ... When you put your hand on one of them, they’re solid muscle. It’s amazing how powerful they are."
Huglin has spent his entire career photographing and filming great white sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures, as well as extreme water sports. His trips to South Africa have been major highlights of his life. "From sunrise to sunset when I’m down there I’m either shooting great whites or I’m chasing dolphins," he said.
Huglin noted that in all the time he's spent around dolphins doing playful tricks, he's never once seen them collide into each other. "I’ve got shots of groups of 100 to 150 dolphins, and they don’t collide in the air. Their awareness is phenomenal," he said. "They always land gracefully."
Huglin said he had to go through 1,200 rolls of film to end up with 175 high-quality dolphin photographs. He plans to return to South Africa again next year and use digital photography equipment on that trip.
"It's amazing how acrobatic dolphins are," Huglin said. "Surfers ride the front of a wave, and dolphins ride the back of a wave. ... The jumping ones, they wait for a wave to start breaking and they’ll leap right through the back. That’s how they get that giant air."
Bottlenose dolphins have blowholes on the tops of their heads, and they must deliberately come to the surface and open them to breathe. They usually breathe two to three times a minute, but they can stay under water for as long as 20 minutes.
Huglin shot this photo from a motorized sailplane. Five bottlenose dolphins can be seen just taking off on the peak of a wave. "They’re tapping the energy of the wave and being pulled forward," he said. "This is actually a pretty late takeoff."
Huglin took this photograph from a helicopter about 1,000 to 1,200 feet above the water. The dolphins are surfacing after a wave has broken, and the color of the water is altered by a plankton bloom.
Proportionally speaking, dolphins are able to store almost twice as much oxygen in their bodies as humans.
To communicate, bottlenose dolphins emit whistles and squeaks from their blowholes and also make masterful use of body language. In different instances, they will slap their tails on the surface of the water and leap into the air to get a message across.
Huglin used a long telephoto lens to shoot this photo from land. "The dolphins are catching the wave just as the wave breaks," he said.
Pods of bottlenose dolphins can vary considerably in size. The typical size is about 15, but sometimes hundreds of dolphins will congregate in the same area. Dolphins are exceptionally good at hunting for fish as a team, although they also can hunt alone.
Bottlenose dolphins use echolocation to search for prey and monitor their whereabouts. Similar to sonar, echolocation involves making clicking sounds and assessing the return echoes to surmise an item's shape and location.
"It's just amazing to be around big schools of dolphins and to watch them all take off at full speed and dive into the waves as high as they can, as fast as they can, all in sync," Huglin said. "It’s hypnotizing. I just can’t get enough of it."
Huglin knows that dolphins often leap into the air for a purpose, but after watching them for hours on end, he also thinks they jump and frolic just for the fun of it. "I can’t help but think they do it because they can and because it’s really fun," he said. "Wouldn’t you do that if you could?"

See more of Greg Huglin's photos