Dolphins Dodge Danger in the Bosphorus Strait

An adult dolphin swims with a 1-to-2-year-old baby dolphin.

An adult dolphin swims with a 1-to-2-year-old baby dolphin. Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation
A dolphin in front of a ship. Credit: DR. AYHAN DEDE, TURKISH MARINE RESEARCH FOUNDATION. i i

A bottlenose dolphin rides the waves just in front of a giant oil tanker cruising through the Bosphorus Strait. The narrow waterway is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation
A dolphin in front of a ship. Credit: DR. AYHAN DEDE, TURKISH MARINE RESEARCH FOUNDATION.

A bottlenose dolphin rides the waves just in front of a giant oil tanker cruising through the Bosphorus Strait. The narrow waterway is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation
Fishermen cast their hooks into the rushing waters of the Bosphorus Strait.

Fishermen cast their hooks into the rushing waters of the Bosphorus Strait. Dophin sightings are common here, especially in the early morning. Ivan Watson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson, NPR
Bottlenose dolphins jumping in the Bosphorus.

Bottlenose dolphins jumping in the Bosphorus. Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation
A pod of dolphins navigates the congested, polluted waters of the Bosphorus Strait. i i

A pod of dolphins navigates the congested, polluted waters of the Bosphorus Strait, which divides Istanbul in two. Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation hide caption

itoggle caption Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation
A pod of dolphins navigates the congested, polluted waters of the Bosphorus Strait.

A pod of dolphins navigates the congested, polluted waters of the Bosphorus Strait, which divides Istanbul in two.

Dr. Ayhan Dede/Turkish Marine Research Foundation

Marine biologists call them the "street children" of the Bosphorus Strait.

The dolphins swimming in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes are nimble and smart. They stick together in small groups. And they're rightfully wary of their dangerous world.

If you watch closely, you can see them from the shores of Istanbul: The sudden flash of a dark grey dorsal fin cutting through the water. Then another. And another, as a pod of dolphins leaps and dives through the fast current of the narrow channel. It's a dangerous obstacle course.

They have to dodge freighters from Odessa, oil tankers from Sevastopol and the scores of Turkish ferryboats and fishing boats that crisscross the congested strait at any given time.

"Right now we can say that in spite of all this traffic and population, there are still dolphins trying to stay in this area," says Dr. Ayaka Ozturk, a Japanese marine biologist with the Turkish Marine Research Foundation. "I think they need to be protected."

Ozturk and her Turkish colleague, Dr. Ayhan Dede, have been studying the three species of dolphins commonly found in the Bosphorus, a 20-mile long channel which bisects Istanbul, a city of more than 10 million people, and runs from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

Once a week, Ozturk and Dede rent a small touring boat and set out into the Bosphorus. They have a grant to study the environmental impact of a new commuter tunnel, being built under the strait. But while collecting water samples for this project, they keep their eyes peeled for their true passion, the dolphins.

"Because these dolphins are really neglected and nobody pays attention to them," Ozturk explained, "Our colleagues named them the street children of the Bosphorus."

On a recent outing, Dede spotted a couple of harbor porpoises in the distance, swimming past a water-side mosque. The scientists explained that harbor porpoises are the smallest and most elusive of the Bosphorus dolphins. They use the strait, to migrate between the two larger seas.

"They are scared of humans and boats," Ozturk said. "They tend to move in small groups ... up to four or five individuals."

In addition to migratory dolphins, the marine biologists have concluded that a group of 60 larger, bottlenose dolphins live permanently in the Bosphorus.

We spotted them at the end of a recent outing, in the area where the Bosphorus widens to meet the Marmara Sea. Ozturk couldn't contain her excitement.

"Ooo! He jumped!" she said. "Did you see that one? You could see the whole body."

The bottlenose dolphins were moving in several groups of 15 to 20, their dorsal fins and barrel shaped torsos flashing in the sun as they came up for air. Sometimes, a tail would slap the water. Once or twice, one of the animals leapt from the water, hovering momentarily before diving gracefully back into the sea. The dolphins appeared oblivious to the booming foghorn of a massive red oil tanker, steaming nearby.

It was a remarkable sight: wild dolphins against the backdrop of shipyards and centuries-old Ottoman palaces.

Dede snapped photos, using a large zoom lens. The dolphins can be identified by their dorsal fins, and some have even been given names, like Curly, Strange and White.

Ozturk said the dolphins are attracted to the Bosphorus for the same reason many fishermen are.

"The dolphins use the strait as a natural trap for catching prey fish, just as people do," she said.

The scientists say the biggest threat to the dolphins is overfishing in the two neighboring seas. They hope to identify where and when the dolphins feed and breed, and then convince the Turkish government to somehow protect those special areas.

It appears many residents of Istanbul would support such measures.

On a windy point called Arnavutkoy, on the European side of the Bosphorus, clusters of weather-beaten fishermen hurled their fishing lines deep into the channel. They said they often saw the dolphins feeding in the morning. Some even claimed the dolphins had special status in Islam.

"In our religion, the Koran [the Muslim holybook] says the dolphin is a special animal," said a heavily-tanned fisherman named Serdar Arikan.

"We love them, they are our favorite animals," said Shenal Kaya, a young man who sold fishing tackle by the waterside. "Usually we pull our hooks out of the water when they pass by, because we are afraid of hurting them."

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