Sunday, July 16, 2006

Birth of new calf

We saw summer’s first wiggly newborn dolphin Friday before the busy 4th of July weekend. Baby’s sudden surfaces and mother’s protective hovering made it hard to see.We guessed it was one to two weeks old. Mother, a dolphin named Chunk, kept the baby at a distance from us. We didn’t press it. We trailed them in the gentle dawn light. My assistant Marie was entranced. From Sweden, she’d understandably never seen a newborn bottlenose dolphin at sea.

She was surprised it had much to learn. Chunk was very maternal. She swam slowly. She kept the baby in shallow waters of 2 to 4 feet. She stayed very close to it. She often rolled on her side to help her baby nurse. Nursing is particularly challenging for the marine mammals who never leave the water. They need a system that keeps the new baby from sucking salt water along with milk. What’s more, they must manage this in a sleek streamlined body shaped like a cigar.Dolphins have two nipples tucked inside a little pocket on their bellies where the hips used to be.

This pocket is one reason why cetaceans (dolphins, their close porpoise cousins and distant whale cousins) are streamlined. Nipples stay in the pocket until nursing time. If the mother stops and rolls on her side, it is easier for tiny newborn dolphins to find the nipple and nurse.Nursing is also challenging because cetacean infants don’t have the right lips. Loose flexible lips are handy for nursing. They close tightly around the nipple. They create suction and keep out air. What human parent hasn’t burped their baby? Human plastic baby bottles are poor substitutes for nature’s design. How do baby dolphins avoid salt water without the right lips?

Nature is delightfully symmetrical. All natural actions, like lacking lips, have symmetrical reactions, like mothers who can shoot a stream of milk like whipped cream from an aerosol can. Not many mothers can do it. Newborn dolphins must learn to swallow shots of thick milk like gulping a delicious mouthful of warm milkshake. At first, mother lays quietly. Later, she will no longer stop. The baby will have to nurse while mother swims. Talk about talent. It’s a ballet that takes time to learn.The delicate drama of feeding baby wasn’t only about dolphins today.

Drifting near a channel marker, we heard garbled cries like baby dinosaurs from a mass of sticks on a channel marker. An adult great blue heron landed on its nest. It glared at us, erecting its cap of black feathers in irritation. Two tiny heads stretched up from the nest. We were too close and quickly backed away.The garbled calls were the heron nestlings crying for breakfast. Their black head feathers were comically awry, like human hair after a restless night.

The adult leaned down and fed its nestlings.A parent feeding its baby is behavior we take for granted. But it’s a biological miracle. Herons are territorial, absolutely intolerant of other herons. What miraculous mix of hormones creates a parent out of a suspicious and serious contender?Between shots of milk, the tiny chocolate brown calf wiggled and splashed at the surface. It’s strange to think that dolphins must learn to swim but, after all, humans must learn to walk. Both take lots of practice. Try learning the human swim stroke of dolphining.

The legs (tail) goes this way, the head goes that way. Periodically, the tiny calf shot a few feet across the water surface as if it suddenly got the idea of how its peduncle worked. But like a person’s first time on a jet ski or snow mobile, these were leaping moments of uncontrolled acceleration.

As her newborn worked on its squirming swims, Chunk carefully roamed the warm shallow waters around the islands inside of John’s Pass. We wish them the very best of luck. We gratefully thank the generous citizens of Gulf Boulevard for providing safe and essential nursery grounds for our newest maritime citizens, dolphin and bird alike. How rich our lives are because of them.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"