Mother bottlenose dolphins in our local waters don’t let their babies play around boats until the calves are four to eight months old. When moms do allow their babies to approach boats, mother is right there watching while her baby, in this case five-month-old Facet, steals your heart.
When Capt. John Heidemann and I survey the local waters for our federal investigation of John’s Pass bottlenose dolphins, we sometimes see the same dolphins on consecutive surveys. These “repeated encounter” dolphins are usually in various places across the study area rather than in the same place we encountered them before. But a small portion of them seems to stay in the same spot of sea for days or same area for weeks. They’re typically moms with very young calves. But not always.
During the sweet affability of February 2013, our “repeated encounter” dolphins included a mother dolphin Valiant and her 2-year-old male calf Vidalia. They’ve been hanging around the same general waterways since the summer. It’s always good to see them because humans like consistency and predictability, and these two dolphins are a lone island of consistency in the glaring seas of bottlenose dolphin unpredictability.
The first February encounter with Valiant and Vidalia started abruptly. We were slowly carving around a point of land in our boat when two dolphins appeared unexpectedly off our bow in the manner of dolphins that are preoccupied and, thus unaware of approaching boats, are startled.
They lurched to the surface a second time, and then vanished for several minutes. When they resurfaced, they did something we’ve never seen before: operated independently. Calf Vidalia dove repeatedly off the same point of land where we’d found them, independent from his mom though undoubtedly in acoustic contact with her. Mom Valiant swam to the west until hundreds of yards separated them.
Visually, Vidalia receded into the distance as she went but they remained connected acoustically. Because dolphins exchange underwater vocalizations across great distances, what seems like a great expanse to us (especially if we had to swim it in the swift currents of John’s Pass) may be barely a gap for the dolphins.
Nonetheless, the mother dolphin’s departure was in striking contrast to the two years we’d watched her hover over her calf, first in natural protectiveness of her newborn and later during his painful months of fishing line entanglement.
I again grappled with the natural but baffling process of weaning. Weaning is the eventual detachment of a mother and baby as the baby grows up. Weaning is natural. But to me it is always like watching an elegant parade slowly passing by.
What power is in the irresistible forces that first create the world’s safest and snuggest social bond, only to pull and stretch it until its snaps and the grown youngster goes off on its own!
Though the mother dolphin had initiated their separation, the greater her distance from her calf, the slower she swam. Eventually she reversed her course and returned to him. Reunited, she petted him by drawing the tip of her tail fluke gently across his side in the universal sign of dolphin affection as they vanished together beneath the dancing wavelets.
The following week, they were still off the same point of land and still operating independently from each other but only after a fashion. Each did an extraordinary thing.
The calf Vidalia’s extraordinary thing was to engage the boat. He swirled around it, scuttled underneath it like a kid wiggling across the floor under his bed, periodically peering at us as he zinged back and forth with dolphin quickness and wove at the bow asking to “bowride.”
In short, he was as engaging and adorable as a baby dolphin could be. Now, dolphins across the world engage boats; that’s one reason why people love them. What made Vidalia’s engagement of our boat extraordinary was that its 20 months late, which is very late in a life just 24 months long.
His painful months of entanglement in fishing line delayed the development of many standard dolphin behaviors. Yet, now 2 years old, that standard stretching of his bond with his mom was on time.
The mother Valiant’s extraordinary thing was to nurse her calf. Now, dolphin moms across the world make milk for their babies to drink until those babies learn how to fish on their own. What made Valiant’s nursing extraordinary was how she did it.
She rafted on her side at the water surface for nearly a minute so her calf Vidalia could, or perhaps so that he would, nurse. You never see mom dolphins with babies rafting at the surface like this. Instead, you see dolphins rafting on their sides at the surface like this to enable the activities that lead up to having a baby, not nursing one.
Valiant seemed to be showing the two sides of the maternal response to the baby growing up: promoting the process yet exaggerating early maternal behavior.
When they finished nursing, they surfaced side-by-side and headed west into the dancing wavelets, Valiant petting Vidalia with the tip of her tail fluke in the universal sign of dolphin affection.
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.