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Dolphin Watch
Winter waters burst with cool energy
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Qball whizzes in and out of the water on a recent winter day like a person at a BBQ poking their head out the kitchen window to take in the action on the patio. Local dolphins get lively in winter waters as if they can afford to generate extra heat.
It is wonderful to live in Florida this time of year and listen to the weather reports about the rest of the country. But we too have our winters.

We can only go boating about half the time during the winter months as during the summer months. Curiously, our local dolphins seem to have a similar schedule.

If you are boating along our local stretch of Intracoastal Waterway this month, you might see local bottlenose dolphins. Then again, you might not. On average, they are here about half as often in the winter as they are in the summer. That average arises from the combination of great sightings and poor sightings.

You can see as many dolphins on some winter days as you would see on steamy summer days. On other winter days, you might not see any dolphins.

The primary reason is that bottlenose dolphins show a type of mini-migration almost regardless of the habitat in which they live. Their migrations are modest: They tend to move between different bodies of water in summer and in winter.

Those who spend their summers in large bodies of water migrate into small bodies of water for the winter, and vice versa. Locally, the dolphins that inhabit the Intracoastal Waterway during the summer tend to inhabit the Gulf of Mexico during the winter.

Likewise, dolphins that we do not see in the Intracoastal Waterway all summer reappear during the winter. These strident individualists are dolphin teens.

Dolphin teens are the product of a small but critical maritime assembly line that produces a handful of treasured teens each year. It starts in the summer when some of the females that belong to the John’s Pass dolphin community give birth.

Their previous calf must “fledge” in the process called weaning but has the option of leaving home right away or taking its time. Some leave as soon as the new sibling is born.

Ousted older calves that take their time usually do not stay in the same social group as their mom and new sibling but stay in their vicinity, often just a bay away. Less often, the older calf continues to swim with its mom and new sibling in the same group. It varies by individual. On average, calves take two to four months to begin appearing with age-mates.

Thus, most have made the jump by Christmas. That is why the dolphins you find in winter waters are particularly likely to be small intense gatherings of sleek gray individuals that are bigger than calves but smaller than adults.

They are easily recognized by their signature spouts of energy, at one moment gushing around a boat in a bid to surf its wake and the next bursting with bright curiosity about whatever is happening 50 yards away. Because of their restlessness, it is hard to get a close look at them. If you could, you would see that, like Qball’s picture, they have clean coats and few scars. This will change steadily for most of the males.

This year, the little local assembly line only produced one treasured teen, Qball, although there were five calves born to local moms. One of the moms, Sharkey, was a first-time mom this year. She did not have a previous calf that turned into a teen when she gave birth to young Echo.

The other four moms had previous calves. One of the moms, Stick, had Savannah in 2011. He was a lively sturdy kid that showed some striking adult behaviors. But he disappeared in 2012, as did most of the other calves that were born in 2011. We have no explanation for this dark outcome, only disturbing ideas.

That left three older calves to turn into teens. Two were little boys Juno and Fugazi. Like other young males we know, they did not wait for their moms to give birth again, instead striking out together on their own last year.

Interestingly, even though they weaned without the impetus of a new baby sibling, we found them in the general vicinity of their moms J and Front Slash for many months. It was perhaps a maritime counterpart to moving out of your parents’ house but moving into the room over their garage.

That left one more: Qball. May she experience only the best adventures of dolphin adulthood!

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