Saturday, July 28, 2007

Learning about dolphins during dolphin watching tours!

How often is someone there for you before they're a friend? How often can they renege on that support before they slip from status in your eyes?Human relationships are tremendously important to us. We rehash their pasts and ponder potential futures. The quality of our relationships dictates the very quality of our lives. We're a highly social species.But we're not the only ones.

Other intelligently elite species, such as sperm whales, elephants, primates and dolphins lead rich social lives. Their relationships too are essential and endlessly interesting. Bottlenose dolphin social life is impressively complicated. In some communities, bulls form first-order alliances, pairs or trios of bulls who work together to fight other alliances for dating females.

Alliances who work together form second-order alliances that out-compete single alliances. On and on it goes.If these maritime politics aren't slippery enough, they're also both intermittent and constant. Dolphins swim all the time, even snoozing on the run. They change social partners with dizzying irregularity; a dolphin of John's Pass can encounter 200 other dolphins. As with humans, whether at church or work, the fluidity of dolphin society provides relentless opportunity for alliances to form or wane, out of the view and knowledge of other alliances.

Each time bulls run into other bulls, they have to determine if and how their relationships have changed since the last time. Add the changing availability of females, and you've got maritime complexity of the first, second and maybe even third order. Dolphin politics heated up with the water this spring. Each observation of males is a puzzle piece. In sufficient numbers, they weave an increasingly coherent fabric of dolphin life among the sharks and snappers. Capt. John Heidemann and I set out one cool May morning dappled with high thin clouds. What would we learn today? We found a very sleepy trio, consisting of bulls Riptab and BB with female Key.

Key is a young adult, named as the key clue in the mystery of how a dolphin can heal with impossible speed.BB is a large reticent bull. His mangled dorsal fin suggests a past battle with a fierce and powerful dolphin. In any case, BB avoids conflict. Riptab and BB swim together frequently.Riptab got his name because the top of his dorsal fin forms a tab like the one you label on a file folder. Beneath it, the fin is torn as if a second dolphin grabbed the fin, gave it a good hard yank and ripped the skin like you tear old towels into rags.

He's a randy Riptab, unusually keen on sex, even for a bottlenose bull. Snickering over why this particular trio might be drowsy this gentle morn, we headed towards dolphins in the distance.A second trio poked around for breakfast. A huge dark frigate (bird) dashed repeatedly at DD2, trying to steal his fish. DD2 launched a successful counter-attack. Bird dispersed to the skies, dolphin to the depths.N and P came over. N is a bull. He and bull DD2 swim together often. P is an adult female. She seems to have much dominance; other dolphins rarely give her grief.On the other hand, N's competitive nature could give Riptab plenty of grief. As the sleepy trio approached the feeding trio, the seas became a tinderbox of possibilities.

In the slow motion of sea time, dolphins joined directly, mingled and moved to a shallow sea grass meadow. Dolphins here socialize in the shallows. The fuse was lit. But it was a long one.Key was key today. Dolphin sex starts with the clustering of bodies. A wad emerges and submerges, clues about who helps whom vanishing with them. A dolphin lies on its side, an invitation from either male or female. The water erupts.A second pushes the recliner from underneath. A third braces it. Another body heaves between, separating mating dolphins.

Lunges laced with suspected subsurface skirmishes grew evermore intense. No one was giving up.While dolphins certainly fight underwater, we only see what happens at the surface. Conflict didn't surface at first. It bobbed intermittently. Still, it was full body contact. Initially, N and DD2 worked together, leaving Riptab to invite (lie on the surface) and separate as he could. BB was no help, swimming peripherally like P. On his own, Riptab characteristically stayed the course. Key's female role was curious. She initially behaved like the males: lying, lunging, bracing, separating. One tail whipped, a sign of serious conflict, then another. Key had had enough.

She signaled her waning interest by going airborne, leaping free of serious shoving. Then she did the dolphin 50-yard dash, followed by N and Riptab. DD2 dropped out.The final trio took the scene to the next bay. Slowly, the action waned. But neither bull gave up. So it's hard to say who won this round.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"