Bottlenose baby Facet shows it knows the rules of fair play by reclining on its side so that playmate Scrapefin can push it around smoothly.
As we drag our desiccated Christmas trees to the curb, forgive me for dragging out the Christmas metaphor too. But I have to say that the sea gave out many surprises this past month, which came in a variety of packages.
Like the holiday season, the dolphins outside your doorstep were, momentarily at least, unseasonably abundant. From November through the New Year, we “made our numbers” insofar as we saw the average number of dolphins typical for surveys of the study area this time of year, and on one enthralling day, we found well over double that winter average.
Like the Christmas spirit, we can’t say whether this unseasonal abundance prefaces the start of a dolphin-rich year or is destined to fade along with New Year’s resolutions.
Big and medium-sized packages came in the form of various bottlenose dolphin bulls that we haven’t seen in many months, making them special treats. Big bulls N, Riptab and Hi W Ski returned on the heels of Thanksgiving and remain here as of this writing.
Hi W Ski cut out briefly to help local boy Scrapefin give dolphin tour boat operators and their passengers unforgettable observations of life at sea, but then returned to join N and Riptab’s efforts to escort the pretty little package Slightwin around the study area.
But Slightwin is more interested in another returning bull, PC, who recently made his own news (as told in Dolphin Watch’s, Dolphin does crazy Christmas Maypole behavior).
Slightwin and PC are keeping fairly steady company, which entices the other bulls to hang around. If you see a small wad of animated gray forms going by, jostling each other as they ride passing wakes or striking tableaux of silhouettes against afternoon skies, that’s them.
A surprise package came too, a young bull who is Mr. Personality-Plus. We’ve only seen Oyster one other time in 2012, which fits his habit of returning to our local waters in winter.
Winter is when bigger bulls tend to be elsewhere, so his behavior may be one of the ways that bulls of lesser rank avoid lives of constant harassment. Certainly, if bigger bulls are around, Oyster plays it real cool by staying in the background. This year, though, with the other bulls fully occupied, Oyster turned the chilly currents into a swirling playground for seven-month-old Facet.
Play always excites baby dolphins, as it does babies of any species, but Facet’s excitement was extra-special because its mom didn’t let it play before.
Facet, born to Face in spring this year, has the tiniest dorsal fin we’ve ever seen and has had an unusual up bringing. Normally, dolphin calves swim safely at their mom’s side until they’re about four months and then they start playing as often as possible, either alone or with playmates.
Instead, Facet has been hustled and shuffled around the seas by mom Face in what appears to be the single-minded goal of staying as far away as possible - from anything. It’s tempting to trace the mother dolphin’s intense maternal vigilance to her memory of the fate of her previous calf Falco, who met an untimely end over the 2011 Easter weekend (Dolphin Watch’s In a good or bad way, I daren’t say).
Then, Face flipped a switch in December like the proverbial Christmas tree lights, and suddenly she let Facet move away from her side or actually play with other schoolmates.
One of its first play-dates took place rather tentatively, when tiny Facet and teeny Xani “thundered” around John’s Pass in a Lilliputian display of dolphin zest while moms Face and X hovered nearby.
It didn’t take long for Facet’s play to go from gradual to gusto. By January, Facet brought some fairly fancy play moves to its play-date with Oyster, and brought some really fancy play moves to its play-date with bigger bulls Scrapefin and Hi W Ski later on.
Like that last present under the tree, there’s just one more unwrapped reference to the Christmas metaphor: Yuletide abundance is for all year ‘round and so too I hope for dolphin abundance.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at email@example.com or visit her website www.dolphinsuperstore.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.