Cutlass provides a rare glimpse of a stationary dolphin contemplating an object of curiosity. Bottlenose dolphin curiosity and intellect is unparalleled in the animal kingdom.
Growing up on the water in Florida was remarkably different from inland-locked suburbia.
In land-locked suburbia where I grew up, pet dogs and cats were still allowed to run freely so land-locked kids had some exposure to “wildlife.” But pet dogs and cats were nothing like the literal wildlife that Florida kids were exposed to!
For example, one of my Florida-born students played catch with wild dolphins from her boat as a kid. She and her brothers kept a beach ball in their boat for those times when the wild dolphins asked to play catch by jumping out of the water near the boat.
One time, they played catch with dolphins for so long that they were late for dinner. The kids rushed home to one very doubtful mother. The dolphins saved the day by following them and jumping as mom got to the dock, verifying the kids’ fishy story.
Capt. John Heidemann and I study free-ranging dolphins for the government. There have been just three - very precious - times when the dolphins have undeniably followed us to the next stop on our survey route.
However, they have never clearly followed us home … until yesterday! What a Christmas gift!
Wintry overcast skies and choppy gray seas yielded only two sightings. The second sighting was local bulls BB and DD2. They darted into the study area and swam wildly across the bay like some maritime Baskerville hound was on their tail. They surfaced so briefly and unpredictably between long submergences that it took us many minutes to verify that we were actually seeing dorsal fins, that those fins belonged to dolphins and then finally to which dolphins they belonged. The two big bulls were tough and tricky to track in those sloppy seas.
Though their behavior was irksome, it was not about us. Today, it was most likely about food. If so, their animated search either yielded nothing or food on the run. The primary reason to think their erratic behavior was about food was that DD2 lurched up holding a fish at one point. I happened to be glancing at the hovering osprey preparing to dive bomb him and missed the picture.
After 40 exasperating minutes, I had vague data on dolphin behavior and a handful of mostly unusable pictures. Finally the dolphins slowed and once even surfaced slightly closer to us, only to appear in the distance again.
“That is fine,” I said to Capt. Heidemann. “We have today’s data. We do not want to bother them any further.”
The dolphins had kept distance between us, leaving Capt. Heidemann free to accelerate enthusiastically. We covered the mile between us and home briskly and tied off 15 minutes later.
Fifteen minutes after that, Capt. Heidemann was cleaning the boat when the unapproachable pair of bulls surfaced at our dock. BB floated off the engine and locked eyes with John. I got to the seawall in time to see DD2 slowly swim out from under our dock at my feet!
Those tricky-to-track bulls had changed course, covered the mile to our house briskly and directly, and then stayed for several minutes. They raced up and down the seawall, creating swells while sweeping past its treacherous shelf of shells and executing tight U-turns under the dock to power back in the other direction.
It was a magnificent observation. The dolphins do not come into the finger often. When they do, they hunt on the other side where they systematically work the entire length of the finger and then melt away. They do not stay in one spot. You cannot get a sustained look at them. They certainly do not stay in one spot off our seawall where we can get a sustained look at them! What a gift!
And they had followed us!
It was a humbling and most appreciated addition to the list of Christmas presents Dolphin Watch has reported over the years. Many are startling demonstrations of how dolphins use objects. Starting in 2006, Oyster showed us that dolphins wear whelk egg cases. The next year, Bet revealed that some dolphins use grapefruits during the hunt. After that, Babyface poked a cormorant, showing that the behavior was not coincidence. Then Stick demonstrated tool use, using sharp shells growing on an abandoned ship like a saw to cut off catfish spines. In 2010, the Bowery Boys and female Slightwin verified that dolphins wear grass in a context that land-locked suburbanites call dating. Doodle demonstrated that calves surf just like their mothers.
Last year, there were two gifts, PC and his mysterious “maypole” foraging and Slightwin’s remarkable aerobatics show, again in a context that land-locked suburbanites call dating. This year, the gift is clearly seeing dolphins as conscious creatures that make purposeful decisions.
You can argue that this year’s gift of following us home was not a gift but coincidence. They merely took our route out of the many because it was as good as any. If true, following us home was still a gift. It was a rich and powerful reinforcer, thanks to the ladyfish sheltering under our dock upon which the dolphins briefly dined. Positive reinforcements encourage individuals to repeat the behavior that preceded the reinforcement.
May we all remember the relationship between a positive reinforcer and repeated behavior in the coming year to our advantage.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website www.goodnaturedstatistics.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.