Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dolphin watch, a wonderful experience!

We all know there is 'power in numbers.' Sunday morning, July 16, we saw this idea in natural action.We were sharing a calm moment with Grin and Twin Dip, large battle-scarred dolphins. They swam north between the channel markers.Their body language said they were relaxed, which pleased us. This is a probable pair of bulls. Like stallions, they aren't always relaxed.

They swam about a dolphin body length apart. Body length is a way to measure distance between dolphins (dispersion).Bulls often swim one precise body length apart. It advertises their united front. Today, Grin and Twin Dip swam slowly and surfaced often. Big and powerful, these two often submerge, torpedo through the water and emerge a great distance away. So this was special access.We strolled for several minutes. We spied another group in the distance.

They surfaced as one in a cove near a little mangrove island. The pair headed over. A funny little figure burst out of the water - a new baby. This one was even tinier than Chunk's new calf Cohen spotted on the 4th of July. Despite its flash at a surface, we glimpsed the shine of its dark chocolate coat. Brand-new dolphins are shiny like brand-new reptiles. Unlike hatchlings, they are also wrinkly. Its clumsy little surfaces heralded someone just a few days old, maybe less.

Thrilled, we were also concerned. Reputedly, bottlenose bulls are not always nice to babies.Half a dozen adults surrounded the new baby. Tanks and DD1 were there. Tanks is a female. We don't know if DD1 is a female. I often wonder if it is a cozy old grandma. Never seen with a calf of its own, it is clearly comfortable with calves. Content in return, calves swim in sync with its comfy stride. Chunk was there with little Cohen. At a month old, Cohen looked positively adept compared to little Shiny. Shiny's mom had a clean dorsal fin; she is probably a young mother.

Two thoughts struck at once: How reassuring to be a young mother in the company of experienced females and "You boys be nice to that new baby."The probable bulls joined the nursery group. They all disappeared. You always have to wait to see what happens next. Suddenly, a dolphin tail whipped the surface, spewing water sideways in a low-angled splash. This is a dolphin punch. Angry dolphins slug each other with the entire back half of their beefy bodies.

A tail whip is like getting hit with a dining room table -a good reason to watch dolphins from a boat at a distance. Next, a dolphin was streaking just under the surface in powerful wave-make behavior: A smooth wave of water rippled perpendicularly off its head as it launched a commanding burst of speed.Then the water was quiet.Finally, Grin and Twin Dip emerged in the distant north, prudently continuing their trek. The nursery group milled on the other side of the boat. One at a time, each tiny calf shot up at the surface.

This breathing thing is hard to perfect.What happened was one of the females took a slug at the pair, "Get lost!", and then chased them away. Curiously, the pair complied. Why? Was it their mellow mood? Even stallions relax occasionally. Or was Grin or Twin Dip a son or brother of someone in the nursery group? Bottlenose dolphins live up to 50 years. Like a small town, everyone knows everyone. Maybe they had just swung by to see the new baby or determine if any females were 'dating' that morning. Who is the new mother?

Were the other females protecting the new babies? We wouldn't question this behavior in humans. Remembering Chunk's solitary swim over the 4th of July, we realized that calves of social mothers have a better chance of surviving these first tenuous weeks of life.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"