Skip to content
A sponging dolphin (S. Allen, Shark Bay Dolphin Research)
All articles
  • All articles
  • About whales & dolphins
  • Create healthy seas
  • End captivity
  • Prevent deaths in nets
  • Scottish Dolphin Centre
  • Stop whaling
End whale and dolphin captivity

Lockdown never ends– why TUI needs to stop supporting whale and dolphin captivity and how you can help

Sign our petition. Call on TUI to help end lockdown for whales and dolphins. SIGN...
Sei whale surfacing

Celebrating a major milestone towards protecting endangered sei whales

In the Falklands, sei whales are most often seen alone or in small groups of...
Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter ORES

Net zero – why Norway’s pointless and cruel hearing experiments on minke whales must be scrapped

It's hard to know whether to breathe a sigh of relief that this year's risky...

Love Japan, love the Olympics, love whales – why Japan needs to stop killing whales to save the planet

In times of crisis it's important to have opportunities to take our minds off things....
Dolphin at the Scottish Dolphin Centre

Dolphins galore – a different kind of summer on Scotland’s Moray Firth

We've spotted so many bottlenose dolphins here at the WDC Scottish Dolphin Centre over the...
Plastic pollution on beach

Plastic Free July – choose to refuse

Plastic is everywhere. When I look around me, I see a gazillion things made of...
Dolphin using a sponge as a tool

Did you know dolphins use tools? Meet the Shark Bay spongers …

Like humans, dolphins live in societies with unique cultures. Like us, they bond with others...

Shameful whale experiments in Norway – what we know and why they must stop

As football fans settle down to enjoy a beer, a barbeque and the opening games...

Did you know dolphins use tools? Meet the Shark Bay spongers …

Like humans, dolphins live in societies with unique cultures. Like us, they bond with others who share similar traditions and habits.

In Shark Bay, Australia, bottlenose dolphin society is multicultural and awesome.  There are the beachers - dolphins who chase fish onto the seashore,  temporarily beaching themselves in the process, and the shellers who lift giant sea snail shells out of the water, tipping out fish hiding inside them.  The spongers are an especially exciting cultural group because like the shellers, they are tool users. The spongers tool of choice is a cone-shaped marine sponge growing on the seabed.

Dolphin using a sponge as a tool
This dolphin is using a sponge to forage (S. Allen, Shark Bay Dolphin Research)

Your donation will help us protect dolphins.

Spongers pry off a sponge and wear it like a beak-glove.  This protects their face from injuries and stings while they rummage for sandperch hiding under the rubble and sand.  These smart dolphins will carry their sponge from one location to another using it multiple times. The spongers have these nutritious fish all to themselves as other dolphins in the same habitat cannot access them.

The art of sponging doesn’t come naturally to dolphins; they have to learn how to do it over many years. It’s only calves of sponging mums who spend enough time being repeatedly exposed to the intricacies of sponging who can learn. Daily mother–baby sponge school starts from birth and youngsters start wearing their own mini sponge by the time they are two to three years old.

Most spongers’ daughters become spongers and some of their sons do too. The female bias comes down to different life-priorities for male and female dolphins. Daughters naturally pay close attention to their mothers’ behaviour and strive to emulate them with a view to becoming successful mums themselves.  Male dolphins play no part in childcare, their priority is to develop relationships with other boys and figure out who will make the best allies.

Sponging dolphin in Shark Bay
Sponging is a cultural tradition (S. Allen, Shark Bay Dolphin Research)

Both female and male spongers are drawn to one another and develop lifelong friendships and distinct social groups. Their bonds are not made whilst feeding together as they sponge alone, they seek out other spongers to socialise with as these individuals share their specialist hunting behaviour and lifestyles and so are most like them.

It’s important to protect dolphin cultures. They are part of their identities and the diversity they generate is essential for providing the best chance of survival in a world being rapidly altered by humans.

Meet the Shark Bay spongers:

Some families already have three known generations of spongers. Half-fluke was a sponger, her daughter Demi is a sponger, and Demi’s daughters Dodger and Ashton are spongers. Dodger’s calf Red Sox will soon be weaned, but has not been spotted sponging yet.  Ashton has just had her first calf; if a girl, she will most likely become a sponger, if a boy then only time will tell. Demi, Dodger and Ashton’s best friends are all female spongers.

There are many male alliances in Shark Bay and a few of them such as The Blues Brothers and The Spongers are composed of sponging males.  Triple, Jonny, Moet, Mara, Absolut, Depp, Ivan, Scott and Atik are all members of The Spongers alliance – they were all born to sponging mums and have grown up to become a tightknit group.

More dolphin tool users:

The 'shellers' are another tool-using cultural group in Shark Bay. They lift giant sea snail shells out of the water and tip the fish hiding inside them into their mouths. Just amazing!

Dolphin holding a shell used as a tool
Another awesome use of tools (A. Pierini, Shark Bay Dolphin Research)

Did you know? 

  • Spongers spend more time using their tools than any other creature except for humans
  • Spongers are environmental engineers; they use tools to access prey they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise
  • Peak sponging performance isn’t achieved until dolphins are mature adults in their twenties
  • Sponge tool-use is a great example of culture as it’s a socially learned behaviour and draws like-minded dolphins together into distinct groups

Please help us today with a donation

Your gift, whether large or small, will help us protect amazing dolphins and their cultures.

Keep in touch on Social Media

Leave a Comment