Swimming in the shadow of a steel tanker weighing tens-of-thousands of tons is sometimes risky—if not potentially deadly—behavior. But for common dolphins (Delphinus sp.), the opportunity to surf a surging bow wave or frolic in a trailing wake is hard to resist, as it offers both enrichment and an extra boost in speed.

Ever since the age of Aristotle, scientists have admired yet puzzled over the speed, strength, and agility that allow this charismatic swimmer to zip through the world’s oceans with such seemingly effortless grace. Naval architects consider dolphins to be nature’s prototype for streamlined speed and power. Their tapered body contours reduce drag through the water and their oscillating tail flukes generate efficient, powerful thrust. Some marine engineers are even experimenting with how to transition ship propellers toward a dolphin-like, “flapping foil” technology in an effort to dramatically increase propulsion efficiency.

Photographer Chris Fallows captured this image off the east coast of South Africa, where common dolphins are frequently seen interacting with passing ships. But not every individual wins the game of catch-me-if-you-can against swift-moving steel opponents. (Commercial ships plow the waters at average speeds of 37 kph [23 mph].) Accidental strikes are common in areas of heavy maritime traffic, where dolphins have trouble hearing or seeing a ship’s approach amidst other subsurface buzz. The increase in numbers of ship strikes in recent years has led some conservation organizations to advocate for better-enforced speed limits and rerouting of shipping lanes to avoid areas that host dense numbers of marine mammals. Under ideal conditions, dolphins can anticipate nearby ships—and stay just ahead of their massive curves.

East Coast of South Africa

Chris Fallows

Chris Fallows has worked with sharks for some 25 years. In 1996, he and a colleague were the first to observe and document the incredible breaching behavior of great white sharks at Seal Island, near Cape Town, South Africa. Since then, along with his wife Monique, Fallows has hosted or facilitated some 50 international television documentaries showcasing this spectacular behavior. He owns and operates Apex Shark Expeditions, a wildlife company that specializes in providing guests with opportunities to observe white sharks engaged in natural hunting behavior. When not photographing marine wildlife, Fallows and his wife spend most of their time traveling and taking pictures throughout Southern Africa and other global wildlife hotspots.

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett

Katie Jewett is a science writer, producer, and communications manager at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions where she loves learning something new every day about our planet. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.

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