Saturday, September 15, 2007

Injured dolphin begged for help from boaters

Animals in nature live by the wild rules. And they die by them. As I prepared a lecture Monday morning, nature had also been preparing a lesson about fundamental rules. That afternoon, with a stiff shove, nature would come full circle.The first call about a wounded dolphin begging from boats came from Wendy Schultz, a dolphin aficionado like myself.

Its hurt pretty bad, she reported.Twenty minutes later, I was watching the wounded dolphin. Worried jet skier Eric Bradford circled around it. Give it some room.Wounded wild animals do not have the benefit of medicine. Their survival is based on the nature of the injury, prior physical condition and ability to pour all resources into recovery.

Already under pressure, the proximity of even-concerned humans can rob vital energies.Barely able to clear the water, the wounded dolphin followed the jet ski. This is not typical dolphin behavior. But then, shredded and repeatedly gouged by sharks, it was not in typical health.As queasy paparazzi, I snapped pictures of the dorsal fin to record the dolphin's identity. I knew the ailing animal: Whitley.

We first saw Whitley in 2005. Like some people, Whitley was instantly memorable. Not only was the leading edge of his dorsal fin scraped clean of gray pigment, it glowed like a strip of reflecting paint on the highway (the name Whitley is word-play for white).In happier times (June, September, November 2005), he acted like other dolphins but with conspicuous vigor. Brawling with local males (N, Midface and even Edge) and weaving among throngs of females watching male fights from the sidelines, it was particularly hard to get Whitley's picture.

He had no interest in boats.Terry Ryan of Fly N High Waverunners arrived on another jet ski. He too wanted to help.Phone calls had galvanized a stranding team, people trained in the tricky business of rescuing marine mammals. Dr. Greg Early of Mote Marine Aquarium was racing up from Sarasota. Terry and Eric left to bring Early from the docks to the dolphin. I stayed with Whitley. Still slow and low in the water, Whitley swam to my boat and lay dying.

Cleaner fish picked at his many gashes; already necrotic, wounded tissue glared brightly against dark dolphin skin. Food fish swam across his face. Whitley did not respond.We don't give fish credit for understanding the minds of others (theory of mind). But these fish knew something about Whitley's condition or they'd never saunter past the jaws of their natural enemy. Presently he roused himself, in a manner of speaking, and slowly moved off. Several boats thundered by, some sickeningly close to the dying dolphin.

What does it take to teach boaters to watch out for marine mammals?Like a loop of compassion, Capt Jack Steeves of Hubbard's Dolphin Tours and Lani Grano of Gator's Parasailing came to help and later her employees Brandon and Stephanie Fernandez. Tensions high, the feeling was, Can't we do something? Tow him to shallow water? Otherwise, he'll drown.Marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

You need federal authorization to legally approach one closer than 50 yards, much less touch one. Yet, my mind raced, admired rescuers of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary rush out and rescue hurt seabirds without delay. Why not also give immediate help to a beloved species with self-awareness and a brilliant mind?Human safety. Whitley was in the water, not fading away on the beach. Unless a dolphin is in such shock that it will not fight attempts to save it, rescuers could be accidentally hurt or drowned. Ever been hit by a baseball bat?

The tailwhip of even a wounded dolphin can slam-dunk a person. Only one person can actually authorize someone to help marine mammals in distress, Blair Mase of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Her territory covers an unbelievable length of coastline: the Carolinas through Texas. But her rescue network is available 24-7. If you see any animal in distress, immediately call the 24-hr Wildlife Alert dispatch 888-404-3922.Whitley entered a small cove where four other dolphins foraged.

One swam up, nudged him and hurried on.Whitley's behavior changed then.His body, fatigued from its long fight, shuddered. He surfaced to breathe. Exhausted now, he could only elevate his blowhole. Slowly, arduously, he managed 6 more breaths and then sunk. The bull's circle was ferociously complete. It was horrible to watch.

More ghastly, this wasn't entirely nature. Humans helped it happen. In 2005, Whitley was big and brawling and natural. By 2007, he'd become a beggar dolphin. Humans taught him to rely on them for food. No one studies Clearwater dolphins. All that's known about Whitley is our data and the Saturday videotape of him begging and being fed by Clearwater boaters three days before his death. He was already thin and severely wounded besides.

Designed to eliminate weakness, sharks had commenced their job of scavenging. Though it's possible that Whitley begged because he couldn't feed himself after the shark attack, none of the other dolphin shark-survivors we know turned to humans for help.It's more possible that each human who fed Whitley helped turn him into a beggar. Then they went home. Whitley grew weak from hunger. Sharks moved in but didn't finish the job.

Whitley died miserably.Following his training, Whitley sought humans to the end. We weren't exactly there for him, were we.Epilogue: No one knows if or why beggar dolphins stop feeding on their own. It would be extremely hard to study. But surely someone reading this seeks a consuming passion or something useful to do with their money.

Maybe Whitley died to guide your way.LOVE WILD DOLPHINS? LEAVE THEM ALONE.Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit GA1088-1815, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an e-mail at or visit

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"