Dolphins sometimes leave the water is to avoid the bites or blows of other dolphins, as skirmishing bottlenose dolphins demonstrate during a winter clash.
Males fight over females, right? This is hard to confirm at sea with dolphins. It can be hard to verify that dolphins are fighting rather than engaging in other lively but non-hostile activities.
Fighting makes a lot of splashing that obscures opponent identities. But there are clear moments when you can identify males fighting over a female. If you take her perspective, you see that her options are limited.
A shy female we call WR was at the center of huge skirmishes in 2013, two in summer and two around Christmas. I hope she had a break in between.
The biggest fight was on July 4. The elements set the stage. Stormy eastern skies were sapphire blue. The setting sun shown like a spotlight on the green and beige islands of John’s Pass, crowded with people, ice chests and volleyball nets instead of resting birds.
The dolphin fight started abruptly. It would include a dozen bulls before it was over but it was mainly six, all healthy in body and appetite. Three started throwing serious punches right away. That is, they thrashed each other with their powerful peduncles until the scene resembled a cartwheel tournament.
WR was generally embroiled in a mating mob of three or four writhing bulls.
Each bull exerted great effort to mate but prevent others from mating by thrusting himself between any dolphins that drew their bodies together, sometimes with audible thuds. Nearby, milling bulls snorted their discontent.
To avoid the males, WR floated at the surface on her back as long as she could, her white belly luminous against dispassionate sapphire skies. Inevitably, a bulky bull slammed down on her and she vanished in the lather of struggle. Again and again, males appeared and dove on her, shoving each other aside and skidding back into the fray.
Their battle barks and growls attracted more males until there were scuffles all around. The ocean’s commotion drew the people from their ice chests to stand in ankle-deep water and watch until the skies were aflame with fireworks.
The summer fighting over WR went for three weeks until she left the study area. Then, in that enchanting trend among our local dolphins, she returned in the fall as her mother J gave birth to this year’s calf. She was still with Scarface and his buddy Gazio. They must have won the bull battles over her.
Around Christmas, they encountered local rivals determined to test their mettle.
Capt. John Heidemann turned our boat into a northern cove in our study area just as a dolphin fight ended. We caught the last two tail whips. As we headed over, local boys Scrapefin and Ski headed out, slowly swimming five feet apart in the stately unison of dolphins on display.
It had been quite a fight, indicated by the large mud plumes that dotted the area, which fighting dolphins usually create, and the many people on their balconies, now glaring as if the dolphin fight stopped because of us.
Meanwhile, the vanquished had escaped underwater. Outside the cove, WR was alternately accompanied by a pairs of bulls, the larger bulls Scrapefin and Ski harrying the younger bull pair Scarface and Gazio.
The younger bulls’ bond is fairly new but showed one characteristic of bonded bulls: One bull tends to be bolder. Today Scarface was bolder, shoving Scrapefin back while Gazio swam the sidelines.
It was hard to tell WR’s preferences. She acted like a compliant dance partner traded between partners. Then we saw that she wanted to get away - but escape was futile.
Three times she rocketed out of the jostling bullpen at her greatest speed, racing a hundred yards underwater and then skimming over it to catch her breath and continue her escape. She has the unique physical advantage of being able to empty and refill her lungs in a fraction of a second. But like you, a dolphin can only give it her all as long as she can and then must slow to catch her breath. This gives the other dolphins time to catch up.
Time and again, we watched her sprint away vigorously and her companions follow unswervingly. Finally, she, Scarface and Gazio ducked down a convenient canal. Competitors Scrapefin and Ski seemed to lose interest. They continued past the panting escapee to toy with some teens down the way. But they would be back.
The next week was an instant replay. Again, we got to the same cove just in time to see distance dolphins give the final tail whips amid telltale mud plumes indicating a serious skirmish. This time, we saw one of the dolphins shoot out of the group, rocket under our boat and blast another hundred yards out of the cove. There was no telling who it was. But as its followers charged past and we identified Scrapefin, Ski, Scarface and Gazio, we knew the fleeing dolphin was little lady WR.
Outside, the two sets of bulls caught up and alternately accompanied WR. When temporarily ousted, each pair would arch over the surface in patent display, once even grunting (which is rare).
They circled like whooping Indians until conflict resumed. They fell upon one another in writhing mating mobs, punctuated by cartwheel contests of traded tail-whips and desperately swimming between any two dolphins that drew their bodies together.
Eventually, a large yacht came by and the competitors surfed away. We have not seen WR or her companions since. Her tormentors Scrapefin and Ski remain here. For her sake, I hope they do.
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.