The behavior was captured by filmmakers during the creation of the BBC One documentary series Dolphins: Spy in the Pod, which used spy cameras hidden in fake turtles, fish and squid to film more than 900 hours of the aquatic mammals in their natural habitat.
Puffer fish release a toxin that can be deadly in larger amounts, but it can produce a narcotic effect in smaller doses.
Scientists found that dolphins apparently had learned just how much of the toxin would safely intoxicate them, and they carefully chewed the fish and then passed it among themselves.
“This was a case of young dolphins purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating,” said Rob Pilley, a zoologist who worked as a producer for the series. “After chewing the puffer gently and passing it round, they began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection.”
Pilley said the behavior was reminiscent of human attempts to seek biological highs.
“It reminded us of that craze a few years ago when people started licking toads to get a buzz, especially the way they hung there in a daze afterwards,” he said. “It was the most extraordinary thing to see.”
The series premiers Thursday, and the “puff-puff-pass” scene will be shown in the second episode.
The documentary makers have previously used similar techniques to record behavior by penguins, lions and elephants.