[ Pern's Dolphins | Swimming, Jumping and Diving | Feeding | Resting | Senses | Lifecycle | Social Behavior | Communication | Long-Distance Communication | Dolphin History on Pern | The Dolphin Contract | Dolphin Traditions on Pern | Our Club's Dolphin Pods | Rank and Advancement in Our Club's Dolphin Hall | Sources ]

Pern's Dolphins

Despite their apparent similarity to fish, dolphins are warm-blooded mammals who need to breathe air to survive, give birth to their young and nurse them with milk. Try to tell Pernese dolphins that they are shipfish, and they will correct you!

Pern's dolphins are the descendants of mentasynth-enhanced, intelligent dolphins of the future. Consequently, they are different from the dolphins we know on Earth today. The biggest changes however came with the development of enhanced intelligence and didn't affect bodily functions. Thus, we can assume that the general biology of Pernese dolphins matches closely that of today's Earth dolphins while their behavior might have undergone changes as their self-awareness increased with the mentasynth treatment.

Dolphins have a streamlined body for easy and fast movement through water. A dolphin's head consists of the melon (forehead) and beak (jaws). They breathe through a blowhole located between their melon and the dorsal fin on their back. A dolphin's tail is called the fluke, its pectoral fins (essentially the dolphin's 'hands') are called flippers. A dolphin's reproductive organs are hidden in a fold between the navel and fluke, making it hard for humans to tell the gender of a dolphin by sight. Humans can most easily identify individual dolphins by the shape of their dorsal fins and color and scar patterns on their rubbery skins.

Most of the following information pertains to the bottlenosed dolphin, one of the species brought to Pern and one of the best-studied species on Earth. Bottlenosed dolphins are generally dark bluish-grey or brownish-grey on top with a lighter belly and might develop spots with growing age. They show a wide range in size between individuals, with some adults almost twice as long and heavy as others and a reported maximum length of fourteen feet.

Swimming, Jumping and Diving

Dolphins spend their entire lives in the water and are excellently adapted to swimming and diving. Powerful strokes with their flukes propel their streamlined bodies through the water. The dorsal fins function as stabilizers while the dolphins steer with their pectoral fins (or flippers).

The most efficient traveling speed for dolphins is about four to five miles per hour. Fast cruising speed (which they can maintain for quite a while) is about seven to eight miles per hour. When they move faster, they will start jumping clear of the water (porpoising). They are actually saving energy by jumping (air offers less resistance than water) and can reach speeds of sixteen to twenty miles per hour by leaping for about one mile. It is possible that they can reach even higher speeds during very short bursts (such as in preparation for a high jump), but they can't maintain that speed.

Bowriding (riding the bow wave of a ship) is a favorite pastime for daring dolphins and probably just effortless fun for them. They can glide under the surface, popping up to breathe, and be pushed along by the force of the water without using much energy. Such a free ride is not without risk of injury, and pregnant females or mothers with young calves will prefer to keep their distance. Wakeriding (riding in the frothy wake of a ship) is a similarly favorite pastime and probably the delphinic equivalent to taking a bubble bath.

Sometimes dolphins will breach the water surface, falling back sideways, backwards or even with a belly flop in a big splash. This could serve to communicate their location to others, as part of a hunting strategy, to dislodge parasites, or simply for fun.

Trained dolphins can dive up to thousand feet deep. In contrast to humans, dolphins do not suffer "the bends" after deep dives. "The bends" is a potentially life-threatening condition caused by nitrogen dissolving in blood at high pressure and forming bubbles inside the blood vessels when surfacing too fast. Dolphins carry more oxygen in their blood than non-diving mammals and can reduce the absorption of nitrogen from their lungs into the bloodstream. During long dives, they reduce their heart rate and blood flow to all areas except the heart and brain.


An adult dolphin's diet includes fish as well as other seafood like squid, shrimp or (on Pern) spiderclaws and drowned Thread. Dolphins do not need to drink freshwater as they get the water they need through their food.

Although successful as solitary hunters, dolphins often hunt cooperatively and show a wide array of strategies with some pods developing specialized traditions depending on their habitat. These include herding fish into tidal flats up to the point where the dolphins beach themselves to catch the stranded fish, corralling fish by encircling them and trapping them against the water surface, fluke-splashing the water surface to startle fish out of hiding places in shallow waters, stunning fish by sonar bombardment or fluke-whacking, the use of tools to flush out hidden prey, and cooperating with human fishermen.

Dolphins have only one set of evenly cone-shaped teeth for their whole life. The teeth break through around the fifth to sixth week after birth. They are used predominantly to catch and hold the prey, which is then usually swallowed whole or in chunks. It is possible to tell a dolphin's age by counting the rings on its teeth, similar to counting the rings on a tree trunk. In older dolphins, the teeth might be worn down, making it hard for the dolphin to hunt successfully.


Dolphins do not sleep like we do. They are 'conscious breathers' who, unlike humans, need to stay awake to keep breathing. (This is also the reason why they cannot be anaesthetized.) If they need to rest, they float close to the water surface, sometimes swimming along very slowly, and one side of their brain always stays awake to control breathing while the other side relaxes. Often they will close one eye during these times. They nap like this for numerous short periods throughout the 24-hour cycle, in contrast to humans sleeping trough several hours at night.

Pern's dolphins have always been puzzled by the concept of the Great Sleep taught to them by their elders. The idea that their ancestors slept for fifteen years in cryogenic tanks before reaching the planet is as alien to them as the concept of space travel itself.


Oceanic dolphins, such as the blue and bottlenosed dolphins brought to Pern, can see equally well under water as above water, but only with very limited color vision. Their eyes are highly sensitive to the blue part of the color spectrum and possess "mirror cells" to amplify the low light levels at night or in deep water, giving them the appearance to glow like feline eyes in the dark. Their pupils can open and close independently from each other so that a dolphin swimming on its side can keep one eye on the dark ground below while the other is scanning the bright sky above and see equally well with both at the same time. Under water and at night, a dolphin's vision is far superior to human eyes.

Dolphins are also capable of 'seeing' their surroundings even in complete darkness through sound echoes reflected off obstacles in the water. They use this sonic radar to locate prey or navigate through murky waters, and supersonic bursts to stun fish. The dolphins of Pern also use their sonar to assist healers in detecting pregnancies, broken bones, or tumors in human patients. The sounds made by a dolphin during echolocation sound like rapid clicks to the human ear. Many of the ultrasounds produced by dolphins, however, are inaudible for humans.

Besides sight and sound, dolphins might be able to sense changes in water pressure and currents through their sensitive skin as well as sense magnetic fields to help them navigate on a global scale. Dolphins have no sense of smell, but can taste differences in water composition.


Dolphins are born tail-first after a pregnancy that lasts about twelve months. Newborn calves are usually about a third of the length of their mothers. Twins are extremely rare. A newborn dolphin synchronizes its swimming and breathing patterns with its mothers and swims at her side for the first few weeks. Once the calf grows older, synchrony declines and it swims preferably underneath its mother. For the first six to twelve months after birth, the calf feeds exclusively on its mother's rich milk. Even after starting to eat fish, it continues nursing for at least another year (sometimes for as long as eight years) and stays with its mother for at least three to five years.

Female dolphins usually become reproductively active between the ages of ten and thirteen years, with some females starting as early as five to six years of age. (Such early pregnancies often cause problems, as the female is not yet fully grown.) The males usually mature between twelve to fourteen years of age, with the quicker ones becoming active around eight to nine years of age. Due to the long calf-rearing times, females breed only every few years and after weaning their previous calf. They are receptive about twice to seven times a year, with peak times for mating and birthing in spring and fall.

The average dolphin lifespan is forty to fifty years, with females having a longer life expectancy than males. The age range for Pernese dolphins might be higher, due to the pre-selection of genetically unimpaired individuals to accompany the settlers combined with the unpolluted oceans on Pern. (We can see a similar effect in Pern's human population during Intervals.)

Social Behavior

Female dolphins and their calves form family groups (pods) in which many of the females are related to each other. These pods are dynamic and include typically around twelve to fifteen individuals, but can grow as large as forty members. Occasionally, dolphin pods will gather to form large schools of five hundred or more dolphins of both genders and all ages. On Pern, these gatherings would happen during the times when the youngsters attempt to cross the Subsidence (see below under Dolphin Traditions on Pern).

Dolphin calves stay with their mothers for at least three to five years. Over time, they increasingly socialize with other calves and females of all ages, but not with older males. (Male dolphins generally play little part in rearing their calves. The mother dolphins actually try to keep the more aggressive adult males away from their young.) This childhood time is important for the young dolphins to learn social and feeding skills in the safety of their mother's pod. Dolphins in this age range are rarely able to fend for themselves without the help of others.

Juvenile dolphins of both genders frequently leave the mother/calf nursery pods for extended periods of time, forming their own groups until they become sexually mature. Female dolphins usually rejoin their mothers' pod whereas males remain with other males in rowdy bachelor groups.

Mature males often form a lifelong cooperative coalition with another male of similar age. These alliances are more than just hunting partnerships. Males usually compete aggressively over females, so cooperating with a partner in gaining and defending access to receptive females is of significant advantage to both. The bond formed between two males in an alliance is extremely strong (second only to the mother/calf bond) and the longest lasting type of relationship known in dolphin communities. Thus, young males in search of an alliance partner are probably the most likely candidates for forming stable partnerships with human dolphineers on Pern.

Dolphins are promiscuous and don't choose a mating partner for life. Courtship usually involves the male(s) following a receptive female around, "sweet-talking" her with pulsed yelps and popping sounds. They will try to impress her by posturing, jaw clapping and body contact. If she is willing, she will roll onto her side to present her underside. The actual mating is short and always takes place underwater in a belly-to-belly position. A receptive female might mate with several males during her cycle.


Dolphins are playful and enjoy a very active social life. They utilize a wide range of body language to communicate their feelings, such as jaw clapping to indicate annoyance, flipper slapping or lobtailing (slapping their flukes on the water) to signal anger, presenting their underside, rolling their eyes, body twists, head nodding and shaking.

Touch plays an important role in dolphin-dolphin interactions. Young calves stay in close contact to their mothers. Dolphins often deliberately brush against each other, using their flippers or beaks to stroke or nuzzle each other. Two dolphins meeting each other often rub their pectoral fins together as a form of greeting (a delphinic hug or handshake so-to-speak). Dolphins might also "hold hands" while swimming, indicating their friendship. Aside from friendly contact, dolphins also use touch in aggressive ways in the form of biting, tooth-raking, head-butting and ramming.

Aside from body language, dolphins are very vocal creatures. Delphinic speech consists of all kinds of barks, squeaks, pops, moans, clicks, squees, trills, croaks, grunts and other sounds. In the club, delphinic speech is noted using ^^...^^ quotes (in contrast to dolphins using human speech, which is noted as "...").

Each dolphin has its own delphinic name in the form of a so-called "signature whistle". Dolphin calves learn their whistle from their mother. A good listener with knowledge of delphinic whistles might be able to tell from an individual's signature whistle in which pod that dolphin was born. The whistles can change over time. For example, the signature whistles of male dolphins often converge once they form an alliance, indicating their partnership. Dolphins interacting with humans learn their human partners' signal whistles.

It is possible for humans to learn to interpret delphinic speech. However, the mentasynth treatment also enabled the dolphins to learn, understand and use human speech. Pernese dolphins adopted names pronounceable in human language and formed the tradition of passing them on to their offspring. Thus, each dolphin on Pern also has a name in human speech aside from its delphinic whistle. Dolphins speaking human speech usually use simple, short sentences with many repetitions.

Dolphins also create and use songs as a way of communicating and retelling amusing events, rescues, births, deaths, bits of pod history, and many other parts of sea life that they find interesting. These songs can be happy, funny, silly, or sad, and because sound carries well through the open and clear Pernese waters, can sometimes be heard by humans (though not always understood -- that would take knowledge of delphinic language). As with human song on Pern, dolphin song is meant for both teaching (as in the Name Song) and entertainment.

Long-Distance Communication

Dolphin song has the capacity to travel for nearly a hundred miles. By relaying a message through a chain of pods, dolphins can quickly exchange news over long distances. A more specialized form of dolphin long-range communication is "sounding" (undersea sound waves) through sound channels. This technique enables dolphins to send supersonic messages over thousands of miles.

The speed of sound under water is a function of temperature, salinity and pressure. Due to the temperature and pressure profile in the ocean, deep-sea "superhighways" trap and submit sound over long distances by acting like a lens in focusing and guiding sound waves. These deep-sea sound channels vary in depth depending on season, geography and weather, but are generally accessible to diving dolphins around upwellings, colder waters and higher latitudes (for example around the Great Subsidence). Aside from the open ocean, shallow waters (for example in bays) are also capable of forming such sound channels, depending on the structure of the seabed.

Some of Pern's dolphins always stay in these areas and serve as sounders, receiving and spreading messages between the pods.

Dolphin History on Pern

Pern's dolphins are the descendants of twenty-five blue and bottlenosed dolphins -- ten males and fifteen females -- who reached Pern with the original colonists in cryogenic freeze tanks on the spaceship Bahrain. They were volunteers who had agreed to the Dolphin Contract (see below). Some dolphins chose to permanently pair up with a human dolphineer as rescue teams. The centerpiece of human/dolphin communication is the dolphin bell, situated so that members of both species can ring it. The original bell was located at Monaco Bay.

The first pod leader was a blue named Theresa, who later became known as the "Tillek". As the dolphin population grew, new pods formed and spread over Pern, each of them led by a senior female. The pods adopted names from the original geographic names used by the settlers (Monaco Pod, Kahrain Pod etc).

When Thread fell for the first time, the dolphins could not understand why humans had to protect themselves against it. Thread drowns in water, so it is much less harmful for sea creatures like dolphins and actually is eaten by many of them. Most dolphins think of Thread as a tasty snack.

With the imminent explosion of Mount Garben above Landing, dolphins assisted in the Dunkirk Crossing. When much of the cargo was blown off the ships by gale-force winds, the dolphins helped in rounding up and moving lost containers. This was the last major teamwork between dolphins and humans in Pern's early history. After the migration of the humans to the northern continent and their decimation by a plague, the contact between dolphins and humans deteriorated. By the end of the first century after Landing, Pern's humans had all but forgotten about the Dolphin Contract. But the dolphins never forgot and always kept their side of the bargain.

The Dolphin Contract

Dolphins must:

  1. Answer the call of the sea-bell when it rings.
  2. Guard human beings on or near the water, to the best of their abilities, even to the cost of their own lives.
  3. Assist in all sea rescues of humans.
  4. Inform humans of oncoming sea hazards, including the presence of dangerous sea creatures.
  5. Aid humans with their abilities to detect earthquakes and track tsunami waves.
  6. Upon request, spot schools of food fish and inform fishing boats where they are to be found.

In an honorary capacity, dolphins also escort the bodies of the human dead, buried at sea, to their final resting place.

Humans must:

  1. Teach and talk to any dolphin.
  2. Rescue any dolphin who is in distress.
  3. Restore to the sea any dolphin that accidentally beach themselves.
  4. Cure sickness and mend wounds.
  5. Remove all bloodfish.

Dolphin Traditions on Pern

After learning human speech, the dolphins adopted the names they had been given and formed a tradition of passing them on to their offspring. Many of these names were originally taken from places and historical figures on Earth (for example Amadeus, China, Oregon, Theresa). They have been set to dolphin music, and this Name Song is sung at special occasions and on longer journeys in the Great Currents. Pernese dolphins use human speech not only to communicate, but also in their Songs, which are sung to entertain as well as inform, just like the Teaching Ballads of the human Harpers.

To honor Captain Jim Tillek, the pods adopted the name "Tillek" for the acknowledged leader of all dolphins on Pern. This tradition has been handed down until the present day. It is the Tillek's responsibility that all young dolphins learn Speech and know their duties towards the humans on Pern and the meaning of the ringing sequences of the sea-bell. She will firmly discipline dolphins who are disrespectful towards humans or question the Dolphin Contract. The Tillek is also the keeper of dolphin history and hands it on to the next generation. With the Songs, dolphin history is taught in human speech. Young dolphins will first be taught by their mothers, then by their pod leaders, and finally be chosen to travel to the Northwest Sea to be taught by the Tillek herself.

Dolphins gather annually around Turnover in the Northwest Sea to exchange news and train the young. Although the pods are autonomous, they assist each other and hold friendly competitions among themselves to help keep them sharp. The probably most important of those dolphin traditions is the swimming of the Great Subsidence. This is a right of passage all young dolphins must go through to complete their training with the Tillek. The big challenge takes place in a treacherous whirlpool in the arctic waters northwest of High Reaches Head, although some use the smaller subsidence in the Eastern Sea. Considered challenging, exhilarating and dangerous, it is not witnessed by humans.

Before the young dolphins attempt to cross the Subsidence, the Name Song is sung in its entirety, giving honors to those dolphins that arrived with the settlers. Then the young dolphins have to prove themselves by swimming many hours and dragonlengths across the great whirlpool of the Subsidence, fighting against a vicious undertow threatening to yank them down. It requires strength, timing and daring, and not everyone who tries makes it. It is suspected that when a dolphin is killed during this ritual, his death is explained as "unknown."

Our Club's Dolphin Pods

There are four main pods that reside in the waters near our club locations (excluding Ierne Island Weyr and GRH since the fresh water of the Dragon Gate River doesn't support dolphins in these locations for a longer period of time). Each pod consists of an extended family unit with one senior female as pod leader. Dolphins partnered to our club members will usually be from one of the two pods nearest the Dolphin Hall. The pods traditionally name themselves using the original geographic names introduced by the settlers. However, the knowledge of these names has been lost to humans in the 9th Pass and has to be relearned from the dolphins. (For a map with the original names, please refer to "Dragonsdawn" by Anne McCaffrey.)

The North Kahrain Pod / TEW, TEHH

The North Kahrain pod under pod leader Tohna swims in the waters furthest from the Dolphin Hall. They serve the lands between the Jordan River (east of Cove Hold) and Kahrain Head (the location of Thread's End Weyr in the club). The pod provides information to the fishercraft at Thread's End Weyr and Thread's End Harper Hall.

The South Kahrain Pod / TEH, SWH

The South Kahrain territory stretches from Kahrain Head (TEW) to the mouth of the Paradise River. They patrol the waters offshore from Thread's End Hold and the Southern Woodcraft Hall. Their pod leader is Caty.

The Araby Pod / SDH, DH

The Araby pod under pod leader Estell swims in the waters around the Dolphin Hall and contains many of the Dolphin Hall's partners. They serve as the main pod for the Dolphin Hall and Sonnette's Dawn Hold, as well as the lands between the Paradise and Black Rock Rivers. The dolphins also know the Black Rock River as Rubicon River.

The Cathay pod / SDH, DH

The Cathay pod resides west of the Dolphin Hall in the waters between the Black Rock River and the Malay River (second river along the shoreline from SDH to Southern, leading to a lake). This pod is led by Mini. They help the Araby pod and communicate with Southern Hall as well. The dolphins also know the Black Rock River as Rubicon River, the river between SDH and the Malay River as Hawaiian River and the lake feeding into the Malay River as Maori Lake.

Rank and Advancement in Our Club's Dolphin Hall

Advancing in rank from Apprentice to Journeyman in our club's Dolphin Hall requires not only solid knowledge of all facets of the dolphineer craft, but physical strength and skill as well. The road from Apprentice to Journeyman is a long one and very difficult and can only be completed by a total cooperation between human and dolphin partner: both human and dolphin must work together to successfully cross the Eastern Subsidence and establish themselves as a working dolphin pair.

After Turns of training with a certain pod, an apprentice may build a strong friendship with a particular dolphin, who, after swimming the Eastern Subsidence, would become their partner. A human is always chosen by a dolphin, however, and never the opposite. Like the Impression of a dragon, it is the dolphin's choice.

Swimming the Eastern Subsidence takes place twice a Turn, in winter and summer when the pull of the current is strongest and at its most difficult. (The exact dates vary by Turn; dolphin pods report to the Hall when the current is at its peak.) During this time all the apprentices of sufficient training and skill, with their particular dolphin friends, the Master of the Hall, and any Journeymen able to witness, travel by ship two hundred miles north (about a day and a half to two days by ship) to where the Southern current crosses the Eastern Ring Islands and forms a whirlpool - the Eastern Subsidence. At dawn the day after arrival, the apprentices and their dolphin friends take to the water. One apprentice and dolphin at a time, they cross the Subsidence, working together to make it through the current alive and within a prescribed time limit. Upon crossing, the two halves become one united pair, and the Apprentice is elevated to Journeyman rank.

Although the current of the Eastern Subsidence is never as strong as the Northern one swum by the dolphins alone (in deference to the human half of the partnership), the Eastern Subsidence is still quite dangerous to humans and crossing it is never undertaken lightly. Many an apprentice has put off their crossing to make sure they are at their peak physical level before even attempting it. In addition, dolphins must be at least 5 Turns to be considered old enough to attempt the crossing. Upon return to the Hall, the new Journeymen are announced at the evening meal and officially walk the tables.

Advancement of Journeyman to Master is done only upon recommendation by the rest of the Hall Masters, with the approval of the local pod's senior female (for SDH/DH, this is Trinnee, the leader of the Cathay pod). Swimming the Subsidence a second time is not necessary, as masters are appointed at all times of the Turn, but may be done "for show" after the newly-appointed Journeymen pairs have finished. The appointment of a new Hall Master is only performed by the Tillek herself in the North (such as Master Shaylyn's appointment in T35).


This summary was based on the following sources:

Compiled by Annkatrin Rose and additional information provided by Rae Forrest.
Last updated 22-Oct-05.

Dragonriders of Pern: A Fantasy-Fiction Writing Club -

The Dragonriders of PernŽ is registered U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, by Anne McCaffrey, used here with permission. Use or reproduction without a license is strictly prohibited.