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Outdoors & Recreation
Dolphin Watch
Dolphins use yacht to make escape
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Photo by ANN WEAVER
Local bottlenose bulls Scrapefin and DD2 are the most conspicuous rivals among the dolphins outside your doorstep. DD2 does not like Scrapefin and here snaps at his heels while Scrapefin leaps to avoid him.
One Florida winter day, a trio of dolphins was scattered from shore to shore across a broad bay, separately together in the absorbing pursuit of lunch. But they were about to redefine the notion of scatter.

Two were bull buddies, Scrapefin and Hi W Ski, looking roughed up from a recent skirmish with other dolphins. They’ve become good buddies in the last couple of years after both spent a solitary phase. They were in the company of pretty Ms. Slightwin, a young adult they've known for all of her nine years but who recently blossomed into the attractive girl next door.

Hi W Ski found a fish. Grabbing it, he went vertical at the water surface and then sunk backwards to swallow it with a flourish in a common dolphin attention-getting gesture.

With her characteristic animation around bulls, Slightwin pursued her own fish some distance away. She wrapped her long slim body around it in a pinwheel, which launched glassy circles out in all directions.

Their schoolmate Scrapefin suddenly charged a great distance away to the south, the probable reason for which surfaced several minutes hence.

We spent many minutes with each dolphin, snapping pictures for the record. After a while, we spied two new dolphin dorsal fins way in the distance. Bull buddies DD2 and BB were heading north, cutting through the trio's fishing grounds like Super bowl MVPs sauntering through a rookie workout.

The maritime MVPs didn't seem to change their travel plans, but their presence seemed to change the trio’s plans because the latter, so recently focused on feeding, quite literally launched into an entirely new behavior.

As bulls BB and DD2 ambled north, a yacht chugging south into the trio's vicinity presented a convenient and timely alternative. The trio sprinted over to it, leapt into its path, and surfed it for a quarter mile southward, rapidly and resolutely making good their escape from bulls BB and DD2 receding in the distance to the north.

Granted, it could’ve been just coincidence that this particular trio of dolphins suddenly used a convenient yacht to surf off in one direction as that particular pair of bulls headed off in the other direction.

But probably not. These five dolphins have a lot of history, and it's more likely that surfing away was a logical and revealing revelation about their relationships, which like all relationships are based on the present but also the past.

Bottlenose dolphins are the most intelligent of animals and have complex relationships that last decades to prove it. That's plenty of time to forgive and forget, or so it would seem.

First, there was a girl involved, Slightwin, who for the moment swam with Scrapefin and Hi W Ski. Dolphin bulls are not above a little kidnapping, and BB had courted Slightwin heavily in a previous tryst. That alone would’ve been reason enough for the trio to surf away at speed.

Moreover, BB’s devoted bull buddy DD2 was at his side, and these two out-rank the other two bulls. Plus, Scrapefin and Hi W Ski showed clear signs of recent battle, and perhaps prudently took the safer speedy get-away rather than embark in another battle.

Ah, but not all bull battles are about a babe. If there's one relationship among the dolphins out there that seethes with conspicuous tension, it's DD2 and Scrapefin. DD2 does not like Scrapefin. He spent much of the summer of 2006 harassing Scrapefin every chance he got. And on the occasions when they're swimming in the same group, Scrapefin is jumpy and evasive.

Take the episode in the gloom of that January day in 2011 that Dolphin Watch reported as the Salt Water Bowl, an organized melee that resembled scrimmaging dolphins. There were seven dolphins in that “game,” five of them the same as in this story (plus two more bulls).

Scrapefin hung on the sidelines until his buddy Hi W Ski showed up, whereupon they all disappeared under a fountain of froth of their own making. Scrapefin shot out of it like a rocket or a football player doing an end-around - or a low-ranking bull avoiding harassment.

That might have been two years ago, but the giant bottlenose brain nicely equips Scrapefin to remember every episode in his long and tumultuous history with rival DD2.

Now, suddenly, here was his rival just as Scrapefin got the girl!

On the other hand, little lady Slightwin has plenty of memories of her months with DD2 and his hardly–bashful buddy BB (Dolphin Watch’s Slightwin dresses up for the Bowery Boys). Maybe it was she who led the charge to the passing yacht to make good her escape.

The third dolphin in the trio had his reasons too. Had not Hi W Ski been best bull buddies with DD2 until he got replaced by BB? That was some years ago, but not too many years for that fertile dolphin memory. Maybe it was he who led the charge to the passing yacht to make good his escape.

When Dolphin Watch first suggested in the 2006 story Like dolphins, like gorillas, like us, that dolphins might not just surf passing boats for the fun of it but might actually use them as water taxis, I thought I was just floating a facetious fantasy. Now I'm not so sure.

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at dazzled@tampabay.rr.com or visit her website www.dolphinsuperstore.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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