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Dolphin Watch
Dolphins remind researcher who holds the key

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Local bottlenose dolphins often begin to exhale before their blowholes have cleared the water, creating a voluptuous babble of bubbles just as Bet does in this photo.
We got a great lesson the other day about who runs our dolphin conservation project, and it isnít me. Itís the dolphins.

Dolphin Watch has often said that when we get to watch dolphins, it is because the dolphins allow us to watch them. If they donít want a boat hovering in their vicinity, they can and do ditch that boat with great facility. That they so often choose not to ditch our research boat, but instead allow us to hover near them to study their ways and physical well-being as often as they do, is a profound privilege that makes it easy to forget who holds the key to our database

Therefore, when every so often the dolphins remind us that our study is possible only because they allow or tolerate our periodic disturbances of their privacy, itís a rueful reminder of whoís running the show. It puts everything back into perspective.

We were heading north when a half dozen dolphins, lined up side by side with no more than a manís outstretched-arms distance between them, appeared just on the other side of a small causeway about half way through the study area we monitor under federal permit. Capt. John Heidemann pulled around in a wide U-turn and, as it appeared that the dolphins were heading under the causeway, slowly passed under the causeway as well, going from sunny to shadowy and back to sunny waters again.

We waited for the dolphins to surface on the other side of the causeway but they did not. Instead, they surfaced and milled about in the shadow of the causeway, a very unusual thing for local dolphins to do.

As if they finally decided upon their route, they reformed their neat little parade rank, did a U-turn and headed north. Our local dolphins often do these kinds of abrupt U-turns, and it always makes me wonder what hidden stimulus elicited their hasty change of direction.

The group was a nursery group comprised of three mother-calf pairs, all good friends. The calves are all different ages.

Faceís calf Facet was born in May 2012; this is its first experience with the chill of winter waters. Betís calf Ballou was born in July of 2011 and triumphed over a dramatic medical ordeal only to be bit by a shark (Dolphin Watchís Wrestling with Dinosaurs).

Valiantís calf Vidalia was born in February 2011 - the only calf that we know of to be born in winter - and has triumphed over a number of medical challenges (starting with his icy nursery). The latter two dolphins are recovering from sickly summers, and I had more than the usual eagerness to collect pictures of them to study in detail back at the lab.

As they swam slowly away from the causeway, the wattage of the little nursery group waned even further until they behaved like a school of fish. They were falling asleep.

Ah, thatís perfect for photography!

Sleeping or rather deeply dozing dolphins (for dolphins never sleep unconsciously as other mammals do) are rhythmic and predictable. When they choose to snooze next to the boat, their tranquil cadence fills the biggest camera coffers and sends unwary observers into meditative states. But this group used another tactic of sleepy dolphins, which was to swing back and forth under our boat, appearing first to port, then starboard, port again and so on. Moreover, they needed a lot of space between them and us. We could stay in their general vicinity as long as we stayed 60-80 feet away.

Finally, they snoozed underwater, so we only saw them every once in a while. None of this was conducive to getting the detailed photographs I prefer for my dolphin database, but I should have been more appreciative: They would send an even stronger reminder of who holds the key to field research later that day.

Data collected, we continued to the northern end of our study route, did our own U-turn and headed south, cruising across the same bays weíd covered going north. In the distance, we saw a little group of dolphins. One was an unmistakable bright light gray and missing the top part of her dorsal fin: Ballou. It was the nursery group again.

They turned and headed toward us, lifting their heads out of the water to look at us. This gesture also lifted their bright white rounded chins out of the water, and for a moment, we had the impression that a quartet of light bulbs was swimming over.

We headed over to them. Then, we spent several minutes looking in all directions. Huh! The dolphins had utterly disappeared.

Postscript. . None of this story was meant to teach boaters how to move around dolphins because it is illegal to approach them without a research permit. Just as the dolphins reminded me that it is they who hold the key to our research, I must remind readers about laws for boating around marine mammals: Boaters who do not hold a research permit are bound by law to stay 50 yards away from dolphins and 100 yards away from manatees. Nobody is above the law when it comes to marine mammals, even permit holders.

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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