Dolphins of the Shadowland

For three years scientists Karsten Schneider has shadowed a pod of bottlenose dolphins who have made their home deep in a mysterious fiord in southern New Zealand. As he uncovers their secrets we come to know individual dolphins and share with them the joys and traumas of life and death in one of the world’s wildest places.

Produced by NHNZ

A wintry dawn in Doubtful Sound, Fiordland. Mist cascades from hanging valleys and drapes the forested peaks. A moth fluttering on the surface of the still, black sea throws a perfect ring of ripples towards a distant shore.

Suddenly the dark glass is shattered and sleek grey torpedoes burst into the air. The silence fills with the sound of breathing ¾ huffs, wheezes, and whistling gasps. It is a brief visitation, but as the dolphins slip once more beneath the surface their exhalations linger in the still morning air.

These are deep-water dolphins, living in the world heritage wilderness of Southwest New Zealand. They belong to the large, offshore bottlenose race living as far south as dolphins can survive. Their community of sixty ¾ mothers and calves, playful adolescents, and the old and scarred senior members of the pod ¾ live in the spectacular fiord called Doubtful Sound. Rarely do they venture from its sheltering arm.

But the fiord is by no means a perfect sanctuary. Beneath its calm surface, sheer cliffs plunge over 400 metres to the sea floor. The water in this abyssal canyon is cold and dark, but this is where the dolphins hunt, diving for deep-water fish like hoki or rattails.

In the bleakest mid-winter the inner arms of the fiord freeze over and the dolphins are forced to move out towards the warmer sea, fishing the wild southern ocean where food is plentiful ¾ but hungry predators lurk.

Fiordland is one of the world’s wettest wilderness areas, with up to seven metres of rain a year. Fresh water spills down the tangled rainforests to form a layer floating on the sea. Often five metres thick and stained dark with leaf tannins, this fresh water veil blocks light to the salt water below. Underwater life is profoundly affected.

Rain transforms the mood and colour of the sea, from deep tobacco stain after a storm to luminous emerald and azure blue. Sometimes it’s crystal clear, sometimes the dark haze of fresh water limits visibility to a metre. It’s a mercurial realm, one of constant change and challenge ¾ a realm where dolphins move like phantoms in the gloom.

As the seasons pass from winter to summer the dolphins roam their remote hunting grounds, driven by the temperature, the lunar cycle and the availability of food.

This is the story of three years in the lives of the intelligent and fascinating animals in one of the world’s most spectacular and unspoiled locations ¾ the deep-water dolphins of Doubtful Sound.

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