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Dolphin Watch
A seaside brother-brother reunion
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Socializing can get slippery at sea. Here the boyish bulls romp, one arching up to swim over his companion and the other flinging himself backwards into the embrace of the sea.
How many people did you reconnect with over the recent Christmas holiday? Hopefully, you got many cards and calls from long-lost friends and sent out sentiments as well. Some of those paperless Christmas cards are real gems, are they not?

Christmas is a good excuse to re-connect and reunite. Between the delivery services and mighty internet, reuniting is so easy.

Reunions at sea cannot possibly be as easy and are certainly unprompted by holidays. They take timing and, I imagine, a bit of luck. Actually, the mystery to me is whether they are spontaneous.

One overcast day early in the new year, a sextet of dolphins headed towards John’s Pass. As we pulled our jackets closer against the winter chill, the little lineup of bobbing gray heads gave no indication that they felt the nip of the 58-degree waters. They approached the back of the boat head-on, which meant that I could not see their dorsal fin patterns and had to wait identify them.

Dolphins that are in a social mood often approach the back of the boat directly like that, and I always wonder why. With their amazing sense of hearing and sound-making abilities, their social exchanges are very noisy (like human reunions at Christmas!). Sound vibrates. Do dolphin vocalizations vibrate the waters immediately around a dolphin group? Are they somehow augmented by the rumbling of an outboard engine in neutral gear?

Two of the males, maturing bulls Oyster and VC, began to play roughly with the 8-month-old calf Echo. The calf’s mother Sharkey blasted by at speed, swept the baby into her jet stream and quickly shot a great distance away from the boyish bulls.

Remarkably, the boyish bulls’ behavior then changed in an unexpected way: They calmed down. They fell upon the next calf in the group, 3-year-old Vidalia, and began a gentle wrestling match. It was surprising to see the three males – two weaned and independent, one close to weaning but still in steady company with his mom – play placidly.

Temperate is just not the adjective we need very often to describe young bull social interaction. Usually we need adjectives more along the lines of debauchery, profligacy and unconstrained decadence!

The mother Valiant slowly wandered southward, leaving the trio of young bulls to themselves but doubtless listening to them. She is mother of two of them, VC and Vidalia. VC was born in 2004. Vidalia was born in 2011. They had a brother in between, Viceroy, who was born in 2008 and perished in 2009.

VC was a good big brother to Viceroy. Just after Viceroy was born, but before VC had left his mother and new baby brother to strike out on his own, the little family either ran into trouble or it ran into them. In any case, both boys appeared with wounds.

VC lost part of his dorsal fin, apparently from a boat. Viceroy had bite marks, apparently from a shark. They survived, but they also stayed together. Instead of weaning the way calves in his situation usually do, VC spent the next year with his mom and little brother. This is unusual, which is why there are so few dolphin “families” out there.

VC played enthusiastically with Viceroy that whole year, leaving Valiant to feed in relative piece while her baby was tended. This is also unusual, again because there are so few dolphin families out there.

VC eventually weaned and hooked up with Oyster. They have been traveling together for about three years now. Their behavior has become progressively more like mature bulls. They no longer play with boats. They no longer display for the people in them, which Oyster did so often we called him Mr. Personality. They focus on their current activity without distraction. They are hard to track and quite willing to ditch you. They swim in perfect unison for long periods of time. They engage with a variety of other dolphins, mostly maturing dolphins like themselves and almost always with admirable abandon!

As maturing bulls, they stay out of the way of mature bulls. Consequently, we primarily see them in winter after most of the summer dolphins have left or in bays that adult dolphins rarely use. Today, they had John’s Pass to themselves.

VC was the instigator. He spent a great deal of time floating on his side at the water surface. This gave Oyster and Vidalia a willing platform to swim over, push up from underneath, rest their head on (!) and even push around the seas like most of the country is pushing a snow shovel. Occasionally, someone’s tail or flukes would zip up into the air with a shudder or startle, and I wondered how much dolphins tickle each other with the vibrations of their social chatter!

We do not know the genetic lineage of John’s Pass dolphins, though we have seen reunions before. But they are mostly mother-offspring reunions. They often occur when the mother has a new baby and the older sibling comes back for a visit. VC and Vidalia are one of the only pairs of brothers that we are aware of.

It is strange not to know who is related to whom out there. If I knew that Oyster’s mother was Split, for example, how different would their interactions look to me? It is like knowing two people but not knowing they are related!

At 3-years-old this Feb. 5, VC’s little brother Vidalia has yet to become independent from (wean) his mom Valiant. But this is not unusual. The weaning age for John’s Pass dolphin calves is unusually broad. It ranges from 16 months to 7 years of age. I shall be very interested to see if, when he does wean, Vidalia reunites with his big brother VC a lions do on the savannahs and chimps do in the rain forest.
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