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Dolphin Watch
Tranquil dolphins match translucent seas
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One divine day, Scrapefin demonstrated that dolphins can handle tiny seas creatures with great gentleness and release them unharmed. Do dolphins ever hold tiny creatures just to feel them wiggling as we did as kids with moths in cupped hands?
Like the weather right now? Take your pick. Calm or windy. Warm or cold. Cloudy or clear. If you do not like it, wait. It will change.

Like the weather right now, it is the same way at sea with dolphins. Our winter surveys of the study area, which we monitor under federal permit for the government, are the least predictable. We may glide across still seas with summer’s glorious abundance and find dolphins by the dozen. We may totter and lurch across choppy seas only to glimpse a singleton rushing away.

It has long been my impression that, ceteris paribus, the dolphins’ overall energy level matches that of the seas. I have never tested this impression against the database. Perhaps my belief is skewed by the vividness of calm dolphins on calm seas. They will take your breath away, as they did recently.

It was just two days before frigid cold assaulted our nation, power grids and furnaces - yet the skies were crystal clear, the day cheerfully warm and the waters as still as they get.

All three dolphin groups were relaxed, almost tranquil. Maybe they were just full. Perhaps food had been plentiful in the dark nights of that new moon. Perhaps it had been easier to catch, for the estuary had been abnormally shallow as if a celestial someone had pulled a plug until half of its water had drained away. Or do they change the outlook with the weather?

First, we found an unruffled trio of teens rounding a watery bend (young bull buddies Oyster and VC, female Babyface). We know of another long-term teen trio of the same composition, two males and a female.

Because as a rule the composition of dolphin groups varies remarkably (a social organization called fission-fusion), teen trios are intriguing as a potential pattern. I thought about the unwritten book of teenage dolphin behavior. Is the transition from dependent calf to mature adult in the world’s most intelligent animal as variable as other aspects of their behavior? Or are there unsuspected regularities, such as mom dolphins who are friends giving rise to calves who also grow up to be friends?

Certainly one regularity is “safety in numbers” whilst swimming naked all night with sharks. All three teens showed suspect toothrakes, thought to come from toothed creatures that are not dolphins. Whatever happened, Babyface took the brunt of it. She had a frightening variety of suspect toothrakes compared to her schoolmates. But all bore the same ominous signs. Had they taken on the culprit collectively?

The quintet we found next showed the same composed companionability. Bull Hi W Ski heaved his muscled body at the surface and greeted us with three chuffs, rough exhalations that combine the sounds of a hoarse cough and wheezy sneeze.

He and his bull buddy Scrapefin slid over and rolled on their sides to peer at us through divinely still waters, images that the camera struggled but ultimately failed to capture.

Scrapefin chomped his jaws lightly now and again. He was holding something in his mouth. Dolphins often manipulate objects when feeling sociable. He went to demonstrate that dolphins can handle animate objects with great gentleness, encasing them in a terrifying cage of white teeth but releasing them unharmed to escape in great haste (an image that the camera did capture).

I wondered if dolphins ever hold a tiny sea creature in their mouth just to feel it wiggling, as we did with moths in cupped hands as kids.

Nearby, Valiant, her son Vidalia and adult female Bet swam close together and coordinated their movements faithfully. Winter-born 3-year-old Vidalia is working on weaning. He spent the day before in riotous relations with his older brother VC and pal Oyster, rocketing around as if nippy seas were inconsequential. Capt. John Heidemann pointed out that however dolphins conceptualize the notion of sibling, older brother VC knows that Vidalia is his brother. But does younger brother Vidalia know that VC is his (older) brother?

Hardly riotous that day, Vidalia paced the lady dolphins perfectly. All three used a poetic style of synchronized surfacing, rising at 45-degree angles with bodies straight as arrows to breathe one after the other. Their faces slowly materialized out of the green gloom, their dark eyes unblinking until hitting the air.

Two miles south, the final group meandered with the same cool synchrony. Teen females Qball and Trix swam with adult female Split. Split looks wonderful, her gray coat clean and unblemished. Qball weaned in stages this fall. She stayed with mom Q and new sibling Qody for four months but recently took the first steps of independence.

Last week, she zoomed around with other teens, including the day’s trio of Oyster, VC and Babyface. With schoolmates, she used the poetic style of synchronized surfacing, aiming upwards with body straight as an arrow as she rose to breathe, her face slowly materializing out of the green gloom and her dark eyes only winking when they hit the air.

As with the weather right now, if we do not like the dolphin behavior of the moment, we wait. It will change - even when we do like it very much.

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at or visit her website NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.
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