Thursday, August 17, 2006

Instead of dolphin watch, it was a dolphin watching people

Dolphin friendliness is legendary. Whether in pods, school or groups, bottlenose dolphins are usually found together at sea. Their friendliness even extends to other species of dolphins as well as to whales, tuna, whale sharks, sea lions, boats and people.People spend a lot time with other species so this may not seem remarkable. Yet social open-mindedness is rare in the animal kingdom. In captivity, a lone dolphin is very unhappy. At sea, a lone dolphin is fairly unusual. In fact, my early marine education taught me that I would “never” see lone dolphins.

This was an exaggeration. Dolphins are sometimes alone; you need time to verify that. Some appear agitated, zooming by like they’re looking for someone. Some appear content. One gentle May morning, I spied a dark silhouette on the far side of a light blue bay. I headed over across absolutely flat waters. Marine mammalogists love still days at sea. Without the wind to whip it up, the water is like a mirror. You can almost track dolphins as if the water was clear.

That’s because clues to their subsurface activities ripple to the surface. So, in such poetic conditions, I watched a young adult named Bet having breakfast alone. It was delicious.If people ate breakfast like dolphins, we’d chase fried eggs and toast swirling around a room like tortillas in a maelstrom. We’d have to grab them with our mouths, no hands allowed. We’d veer and lunge. So did Bet. I was able to track Bet by its footprints.

Dolphins don’t have feet, of course. They have a broad flat symmetrical tail flipper called ‘flukes’ for the same reason we wear a ‘pair’ of pants.Dolphins make footprints when they suddenly ‘pump’ or accelerate just under the surface. This creates a fleeting circle of surface water like a glassy pancake.

It shimmers and disappears. Boaters leave footprints too. Abrupt throttling burps out footprints. We read footprints to see where the dolphin went.I could tell Bet was chasing fish by its wave-making. Just under the surface, dolphin-turned-torpedo pushes a perpendicular swell of water off its round head. Dolphins can accelerate with incredible power, like “0 to 60 in 4 seconds.” Among their most spectacular abilities, we rarely see acceleration as trained behavior in marine parks. It would be a showstopper.Bet’s hunting was verified by fish tosses.

It occasionally tossed a fish into the air then sped over to gulp it down. This takes practice. Dolphins don’t chew. They grab and swallow. Fish have spines. To eat successfully, dolphins have to swallow prey headfirst. This way, spines slide flat down the throat of destiny. Animals tossing food may be reorienting it so they can swallow it correctly! Bet took three breaths in a row each time it surfaced. Even dolphins have to catch their breath.

The water didn’t even ripple when Bet dove again, its body forming the letter C. An engineering marvel, dolphin skin creates a unique laminar flow that minimizes the normal turbulence of a body moving through a medium like water.On the other hand, people make all kinds of splashes when we swim. On land, our arms and legs work well. In the water, well, try submerging without creating any turbulence. We can’t do it. Dolphins can.

Lone dining is not that unusual around here. I imagine it is behavior that confuses tourists who “could have sworn” they saw a dolphin but leave after a couple of minutes because the sea looks so empty. Eventually Bet left the café for another adventure. The next time you’re dining alone, remember little Bet’s breakfast at the Lone Lagoon Café.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"