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Outdoors & Recreation
Dolphin Watch
Stealth masters busted in high-speed chase
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[Image]
Photo by ANN WEAVER
Big bull N bites at Steve, showing the younger male who is boss. Big bulls confirm their superior status in many ways.
“Eavesdroppers hear interesting things,” we hear Rhett Butler advise. Yet we are taught that spying is wrong. Peeping Toms are sent summarily to jail. Yet the National Security Agency uses our eToys as priceless spyware.

Do animals ever eavesdrop in the stealthy sense of Rhett Butler? Do they ever get busted?

One calm gray day, five dolphins wove ceaselessly back and forth along a modest 20-foot stretch of seawall and under a dock. It was very odd because they acted as if they were penned in a terribly tiny pool.

There was one female, Split, and two bonded bull pairs, one of which was N and Riptab.

Males mill like this around attractive females and today’s bulls were interested in Split, but reservedly. For her part, Split did not rush away, which was pointless in her position. Instead, she kept the boys at bay with two tactics.

One tactic was an astonishing form of dolphin tool use. It took shrewd advantage of the fact that dolphin sex at sea takes lots of space: Split created close quarters.

By staying next to the seawall or threading among the dock pilings, she turned them into tools that trimmed the typical space of sex akin to the improbability of an orgy in a phone booth.

Despite invitational gestures, no bull risked a mount attempt. Split’s behavior implies that she understands “space” as a concept and its role in dolphin activities, an impressive perspective in her world without walls.

Another maybe accidental thing was that Split chose a new dock instead of an old dock. Docks are held up by pilings. New pilings are quickly colonized by crustaceans and molluscs, developing giant oyster pillows as wide as a man’s embrace that slice like razors.

Though these perilous pillows studded neighboring dock pilings, Split’s new dock had but a modest sprinkling of benign barnacles like Sno-Cap candies. They minimized the danger of slashing to Split and her crisscrossing suitors.

Split’s other tactic was gymnastic: She submerged doing tail-outs.

Tail-outs are half headstands, which meant she kept her tailstock out of the water as much as she could. Tail-outs are also handy for occasionally flicking a fluke in the face of a bull too close behind her.

As crowded as they were, none of this got testy. But tensions were brewing. Maybe dolphin diplomacy dictated a redirection of tensions onto easier targets. Conveniently, the quintet was not alone.

The quintet’s careful crisscrossing of gray bodies in silvery seas created a hypnotic choreography but scans of the surrounding seas revealed teen bulls VC and Oyster in the near distance.

Local teens often trail adult groups without joining them like this. Without expensive Naval eavesdropping equipment, we cannot tell if the trailed group is perfectly aware of the dolphins that trail them (perhaps calling back and forth) or if the trailing dolphins try to be masters of stealth, in effect eavesdropping.

After many minutes, a dolphin came suddenly roaring out from under a neighboring dock, rocketed past the quintet and the chase was on!

Abruptly dolphins were sprinting south at top speed the length of two football fields, and in that weird way of dolphin contests, carved a big curve and came right back.

In a chase, dolphins zoom as fast and as far as they can underwater and surface to breathe by skimming. Skims are single speedy leaps that create tall rooster tails. It is the rooster tails that observers see. Between rooster tails and distances, details are impossible to get. But big bulls N and Riptab definitely chased teens VC and Oyster.

On the return leg of the chase Oyster veered west down a perilous path under docks along a seawall that funneled into a cul-de-sac. Either he was frantic or hoped to deter his pursuers. It backfired!

His pursuers sprinted down his perilous path until they chased him to the blind alley of the cul-de-sac. Here, Oyster stopped. He floated near an empty dock in shallow water, hardly moving, perhaps not daring.

Twenty feet away, guards Riptab and N lay or milled with exaggerated slowness, aiming at Oyster like poised rifles. Thus, the big bulls held the teen at bay for several minutes.

Dolphins are easily winded. Yet we neither saw nor heard heavy breathing. No one moved.

In time, Oyster began slowly retracing his treacherous path along the seawall. N and Riptab paralleled him as he gradually left the cul-de-sac. In the main bay, Oyster rushed east to rejoin VC. N and Riptab ambled south, their teen business accomplished.

When Oyster roared out from the neighboring dock and rocketed past in blustery display, he presumably meant to impress the girl but also baited the bulls. Indeed, their response was the long-distance, high-speed chase.

Though temporarily cornered, Oyster may have won some bullpen points. For the chase allowed Oyster to clearly demonstrate that he now has strength, speed and stamina to spare. The big bulls never caught up, always countless yards behind.

Now, either they could not swim as fast and only meant to chase (intimidate) rather than catch (attack). Yet four years ago, Oyster sustained ferocious attacks from big bulls that probably drove him from our local waters. Today, he sustained only threats. Oyster is now a decade old. The big bulls are easily twice that age, which is very senior status for wild animals.

Was Split impressed? We will never know. She left during the big chase.

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at annstats54@gmail.com 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.
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