While some believe that sharks are afraid of dolphins, research(1) suggests that they generally do not interact much in the wild.
Dolphins may harass or even attack sharks, especially if they’re competing for the same prey.
Dolphins are intelligent and use their speed, agility, and teamwork to fend off sharks, but sharks only attack when threatened or seeking food.
We usually think of sharks as the fiercest ocean predators, and in fact, many species will kill individual dolphins for food.
But did you know that even the most fearsome sharks may flee from or be attacked by Dolphins as they work together to protect vulnerable members of the pod?
Let’s investigate further why sharks are afraid of Dolphins.
7 Reasons Why Sharks Are Sometimes Afraid of Dolphins
If sharks are indeed afraid of dolphins, it’s because, under the right circumstances, dolphins can possess advantages that give them the upper hand against the usually superior predator.
#1 Strength in Numbers
Almost all dolphins live in social groups known as pods which typically contain about twelve animals.
However, in places with a large amount of available food, separate pods often come together to hunt and form a superpod that can contain more than 1,000 individuals.
In comparison, predatory sharks are almost always solitary individuals, so they only have themselves to rely on when hunting.
While sharks have an impressive array of senses and skills to use when they hunt, the dolphins gain a massive advantage by sticking together.
Simply put, the more dolphins there are, the harder it is for the aggressor.
If a dolphin is alone, it’s pretty easy for a shark to sneak up on it (usually from below) and make a deadly attack.
However, with multiple dolphins, it’s almost impossible for the shark to strike undetected.
In addition, as we’re about to see, the pod acts as a community and will work together to defend any individual the shark tries to attack.
By sticking together, dolphins form a much more threatening organism than they would as separate individuals.
A large pod undoubtedly gives even the most ferocious shark reason to look elsewhere.
#2 Community Spirit
When a shark attacks a dolphin, the rest of its community takes it personally, which can be a frightening proposition.
Dolphins are one of the world’s most social animals, and this sense of community can give the shark big problems.
When a shark attacks a school of fish, it may instinctively move together, making it more difficult for the predator to strike.
However, when a shark goes after a dolphin, they don’t just run away. The rest of the group will act to defend one another.
In a pod, there may be injured members or even baby dolphins that sharks naturally see as easy targets.
However, unlike in fish schools, where it’s the survival of the fittest, the stronger members of the dolphin pod will angrily defend the weaker parts of their family against the shark’s attacks.
#3 Early Warning System
Dolphins possess an awesome array of senses that the shark needs to get past to make a successful strike.
When you put many dolphins together in a pod, the combined sensory system means it’s almost impossible for a shark to approach without being detected.
The marine mammals have good eyesight and hearing, but it’s their echolocation skills that really give them the advantage.
Dolphins produce high-frequency clicks that travel into the water and reflect back off objects which could include an approaching shark.
Incredibly the dolphin can work out the location, shape, and size of the approaching object, which gives it vital advance warning it can use to avoid the attack.
If a predator manages to get close enough to cause a direct threat to the pod, the echolocation system becomes a close-range offensive weapon the dolphins use to track the shark in 360 degrees.
Not only does the echolocation give the dolphin all-around defensive “vision,” they can use it to make an attack themselves.
#4 Superior Maneuverability
One of the best ways to tell a shark and a dolphin apart is to look at their tail.
The shark’s tail runs vertically and moves left to right, whereas the dolphin’s fluke is horizontal and moves up and down.
Combined with the dolphin’s soft skin and flexible skeleton, the powerful tail helps them to be more agile and change direction faster.
This gives dolphins a significant advantage when it comes to outmaneuvering a shark.
Better maneuvering is excellent for escaping, but as we’ll see, it’s another reason for sharks to be afraid.
After all, if the dolphin can outmaneuver the shark, it can also attack it.
Although they often appear pretty leisurely, dolphins are quicker in the water than almost all sharks, and they can use this to strike fear into the predators.
A common dolphin’s maximum speed is up to 37 mph (60 kph).
Meanwhile, the fastest shark in the world is the Mako shark.
This species can swim at around 31 mph (50 kph) and make occasional bursts in straight lines of over 43 mph (70 kph).
However, while that’s quick, the mako isn’t a shark that generally tries to feed on dolphins.
The fastest species that usually attempt to is either the bull or great white, and both of these top out at about 24 mph (40 kph).
So, the dolphin has superior maneuverability and can combine that with better speed to avoid and even attack sharks.
#6 Greater Intelligence
Suppose a shark is brave or stupid enough to attack a dolphin pod.
In that case, the mammals combine all the skills we’ve already mentioned with their superior intelligence to turn the tables both to defend and attack effectively.
Dolphins have the impressive ability to cooperate and work as a team.
The marine mammals don’t only use their echolocation to track the shark’s movements, but they can also “talk” to each other to coordinate their efforts.
#7 Snout Battering Ram
Sharks are famous for their mouths filled with sharp teeth, but dolphins have an extraordinary and highly effective weapon of their own.
The dolphin’s snout is made from thick, strong bone, and the animal will literally use it as a battering ram.
For a shark, being repeatedly struck in your belly or gills by a solid bone mass traveling at high speed could be deadly.
So, the dolphin’s nose could be the final element convincing a shark that the battle isn’t worth it.
Do Dolphins Really Attack Sharks?
If a dolphin pod feels threatened, perhaps if a shark is attacking a young or sick member, it will collectively mount an attack to try and drive the shark away.
Initially, the pod will mob the shark and try to push it off.
Often twelve or more faster and more maneuverable dolphins aggressively getting in the shark’s personal space is enough to give it the message.
However, if that doesn’t work, the pod will aggressively ram the shark, targeting its belly or gills at high speed.
These attacks usually quickly cause the shark to flee, but if not, the predator can end up battered or even with internal injuries.
So far, we’ve been talking about common dolphins, but it’s worth remembering that the killer whale is also a type of dolphin.
While common dolphins may only attack sharks as a defense, the killer whale goes after sharks to feed on their nutritious livers and can indeed be said to attack them directly.
Do Dolphins Attack Sharks for No Reason?
Common dolphins do not attack sharks without a reason.
However, they will work together to chase away or even attack a shark that threatens themselves or their young.
Dolphins are not considered typically aggressive animals; they usually only resort to violence as a last defensive resort.
The exception is the killer whale which will actively hunt sharks to feed on their highly nutritious livers.
Are Dolphins Sharks Enemies?
Killer whales are the dolphin species that can definitely be classed as a shark’s enemy.
These giant dolphins specifically target the usually invulnerable predator for food.
More usually, common and other dolphin species will defend themselves or their young against sharks if necessary.
However, depending on the shark species and circumstances, most sharks and dolphins can coexist peacefully in the same waters.
Dolphins may choose to generally avoid sharks by using their echolocation sonar, and conversely, many sharks may leave dolphins alone primarily because of their strength in numbers.
Only the larger sharks, including the great white, bull, tiger, and dusky, generally try to attack. So these species could be called the dolphins enemy.
Do Dolphins Protect Humans From Sharks?
Has a dolphin ever saved a human from sharks? Yes, there are numerous stories where dolphins have reportedly defended a human from a shark’s attack.
For example, in New Zealand in 2004, a pod of dolphins swam around a group of four swimmers as a great white shark approached them and appeared to remain there until the people got to safety.
One of the swimmers remarked that “The dolphins started to herd us up. They pushed all four of us together by doing tight circles around us. The shark was only about two meters away from me. The dolphins had corralled us up to protect us.”
Experts commented that the dolphins “could have sensed the danger to the swimmers and taken action to protect them.”
Needless to say, it’s not a great idea to expect dolphins to keep you safe from a shark attack.
But it’s also vital to remember that the odds of getting attacked by a shark are incredibly small.
Follow common sense rules like avoiding swimming at sunrise or sunset, following local warnings, and avoiding activities like fishing that may attract sharks.
Why are sharks afraid of dolphins? Because dolphins are highly intelligent, faster, and more maneuverable, and they live in large pod groups that will work together to defend against any shark that attacks them.
A shark’s instincts tell it when it’s in danger and when a feeding opportunity isn’t worth the risk.
While sharks like the great white, tiger, and bull may try to target a young, sick, or injured dolphin, if they’re with their pod, the predator will be met with aggressive and coordinated resistance.
If the mob of dolphins doesn’t chase off the shark at its first attempt, the predator can expect multiple hard blows into its belly and gills from the mammal’s hard snouts.
These can cause the shark painful or even fatal injuries, so while a shark might chance its luck, it’ll usually get scared off quickly and exit before it’s too late.
- Klimley, A. Peter, and David G. Ainley. “The white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and its prey, the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus), off Guadalupe Island, Mexico.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 70.12 (1992): 2067-2080.
- Cliff, G., Dudley, S. F. J., & Davis, B. (1991). Sharks caught in the protective nets off Natal, South Africa. 2. The great white shark Carcharodon carcharias (Linnaeus). South African Journal of Marine Science, 11(1), 465-480.
- Smale, M. J., Cliff, G., & Ambrose, T. (1995). Sharks caught in the protective gill nets off Natal, South Africa. 8. The blacktip shark Carcharhinus limbatus (Valenciennes). South African Journal of Marine Science, 15(1), 51-62.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.