On occasion, bottlenose dolphins who meet up at sea sometimes first exchange a specialized sound that uniquely identifies a particular dolphin. In humans, a specialized sound that uniquely identifies a particular person is called a name.
When a car rushes by you on the interstate, a generous response to justify the danger it creates is, “Gee, you must be endangering us because she’s in labor,” though less generous responses to recklessness are common too.
But you never know to where or why they’re in such a rush. When a bird flies steadily overhead as if with a clear destination in mind, you never get to go along to see where it flies so intently. But when an animal rushes past a field biologist in nature, they get to go along and see what’s behind its single-mindedness, which is often a humbling peek into private lives.
Two bottlenose dolphin mother-calf pairs cut a diagonal path across an oblong bay as a coordinated quartet that cruised twice as fast as the standard strolling speed. The winter winds were high that day, forcing all four to raise their faces well out of the water when they rose to breathe to avoid inhaling saltwater. They glanced at us as they charged by, the dark circles around their eyes suggesting that winter waters can be tough.
There was only one deviation from their rush across the hip-deep waters. NF did an impulsive U-turn and sped back about 20 feet to a spot from which a dark form, dolphin-like but vague in the turbid water, raced away.
First it seemed that NF had blasted off like a cannonball, because she’s not above such fancy fish-work when it comes to grabbing a bite to eat. But she surfaced as the vague form receded into the gloom. Perhaps she had gone back to poke a small shark like a cop tapping an indigent with his Billy club in the universal gesture of, “Keep moving, Bub.”
The quartet resumed their rush across the oblong bay until it widened to embrace several small islands. The reason they rushed over came galloping out.
Then the baker’s dozen of dolphins proceeded to fuse and fission in rapid succession like the rhythmic partner changes of a resounding polka. Their social tenor was like the sloppy seas through which they swam: slapping and dashing and surging through several standard social exchanges as if the idea was to accomplish these quickly and expediently before going their separate ways.
It was a rush all right, and not just in the surrounding seas. Camera clicking and data flying, we hustled to keep up with swift exchanges that were anything but Data Collection 101.
The mother-calf quartet melted into a group of three bulls and local lady Stick. This created a fleeting meeting of three adult males and females, notable because lady NF had stoutly avoided these same males the year before and all three of the females could be pregnant.
Many animals in nature only show an interest in the opposite sex to reproduce and do not otherwise socialize, but intelligent animals like primates, wolves and dolphins routinely disregard this convention.
Mother-calf pair Q and Qball swelled the fleeting meeting. NF left to rejoin her calf, leaving Q and Qball to siphon male attention from Stick. Q’s daughter Qball is old enough to wean from her mom Q any time and gamboled about with bull Scrapefin, working on a relationship now that may be important later.
Bull Hi W Ski, who last month looked like he used a yacht to make good his escape from rival bulls, stuck to Stick’s side. She and he leaned on each other while the other dolphins came and went, lurching and lunging from one social assembly to another.
Bull Lax doe-see-doe’d with the ladies for a time and then cut away to play with Face’s yearling calf Facet. Facet was born last year, so this is its first spring.
The bottlenose dolphin “baby’s first spring” brings important new changes to its social development, because the calf is introduced to novel social interactions, such as interacting with the big bulls. The calf’s mother, though still attentive, no longer interferes as quickly or as often as when the calf was younger. With the original quartet, mom Face hovered in the vicinity of the bull who gently tapped and rolled around her baby.
A lone dolphin dorsal fin trailed behind them all, probably local lady dolphin Split, who we’d seen with Q earlier that day. Such dolphins are known as trailers and are often lone or out-ranked bulls watching the action from a prudent distance.
Then, as if some delphinid clock had struck the hour, the dolphins began leaving in new little subgroups as quickly as they had assembled. Mom Face joined the original quartet and streamed with them westward between two islands along a favorite dolphin roadway. The bulls followed Stick and Q down a different dolphin roadway. If we had all the time we needed, we would’ve trailed them like a lone dolphin to see if they headed to more controlled chaos on the other side of the islands.
Instead, we left too, scurrying ever onward to that next appointment. But like the car rushing by on the interstate, are any of us really sure to where and why we’re rushing?
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at email@example.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.