Saturday, October 21, 2006

Watching bowriding dolphins is quite a sight!

What do you share with dolphins, gorillas and thoughtless blue vans on the interstate? Late August 2005, it was even too hot for bikinis. A large group of dolphins ambled to the south.Just as people party across the calendar, bottlenose dolphins here form large groups any time of year.Like a good party, today's big group was really several little groups called subgroups.

Some of these coolly enviable subgroups were mothers and "aunts" tending delicate newborns. Other clusters of adults were attempting successful dives into the gene pool. Teens swaggered peripherally, blasting skyward in intermittent aerial shoving matches. With action everywhere, it's easy to forget the obvious. What about last year's fragile newborns?

Now older calves, 1- and 2-year-old dolphins are comparable to our 4-7 year olds. They aren't babies. They still need care, attention and direction but they don't think they do. Like human kindergarteners, calves exploit parties, zipping among adults who pay only passing attention.A kindergartener romped around the adults this day, fascinated by the facts of life at sea. Like kids everywhere, it matched the adults' emotional states with, of course, its own spin. When the adults got excited, this little one got really excited.

When the adults calmed down, it became calmer too, as calm as anyone who lives in perpetual effervescence can get. During an interlude, the gene pool divers drifted near the boat. The calf wove among them. The adults started rolling and poking it.Emboldened by their attention, the animated calf positioned itself bravely off our bow to surf.Dolphins surf the front waves of a moving boat in gripping behavior called bowriding (some prefer wakes or real waves).

With the right bow and speed, they surf the momentum of splitting seas without using much energy. If they could, I suppose they would arrange to use boats as taxis like urbanites, flagging us down with great whistles. "Shuweeeet! To the bridge, quick." Few boat passengers fail to crane over the bow to watch bowriding dolphins. Whether it's the dolphins, speed, or both, bowriding exhilarates everybody.Bowriding is scientifically useful too. It reveals dolphin gender.

Bowriding dolphins often surf on their backs, something human body surfers don't do (Xtreme Sports nuts, don't get any ideas). Dolphins are as comfortable on their sides and backs as in the 'upright dorsal position'. Dolphins surf slower boats but have to augment the ride. Like skiing slowly, it takes more effort to balance. To the human observer, slow bowriding in still waters is one of nature's most beautiful images. The suspended surfer lets you ponder the elegant delphinid form.Friend and colleague Bev Mustaine monitored the calf as I drove, shrieking details into the air. Our research boat doesn't have a good bow for bowriding.

The calf couldn't catch a ride. Perhaps plucky by adult proximity, it rolled and whapped the bow in a petulant tail slap.As if startled by its cheekiness, it rocketed forward and shot into the sky in a spectacular bow. When it bowed a second time, I remembered Macca, a miniature male gorilla at the San Diego Zoo. When overwhelmed, he'd rear up his 3-year-old self and beat his tiny chest like he was inventing the bongos. Gorilla chest-pounding is a spontaneous tension-release mechanism and attention-getter. It's the forte of the really big males.

Silverback gorillas can weigh more than 400 pounds. Their social influence is so obvious that all they need to sway the harem is get their attention. These giants rear up, thump out a staccato on their beefy and conveniently-naked chests and drop back on all-fours. That usually settles any issue. Famed primatologist Dian Fossey, who devoted herself to the study of mountain gorillas, reported the same behavior. The first time a gorilla named Peanuts touched her, he leapt up and pounded his chest in obvious tension relief.Humorously, toddler gorillas chest-pound too, little males more than little females. After all, they need the practice.

Covered with hair until puberty (sans the naked chest that makes chest-pounding so resonant), miniature Macca was as menacing as an irate 3-year-old. I laughed at the memory.Perhaps the calf's skyward sojourn served the same tension release and attention-getter as Macca's and Peanut's chest-pounding. The behavior served the same purpose as the spontaneous shudder that rippled out of me after a near-miss sideswipe from a swerving blue van on the interstate. After a narrow escape, we all need extra attention.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"