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Dolphin Watch
It takes both sides to see
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Lady teen Trix spyhops with a playface against young bull VC. A recent morning of innocent maritime debauchery flipped a flipper at all of us landlubbers who work for a living.
Who has not admired the penguin’s chic tuxedo? “Ah, to them of formal finery and noble gait, a place in the imperial senate!” the early explorers exclaimed of penguins in their black-and-white elegance. Agreed!

Too bad the explorers were being anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is incorrectly giving animals human characteristics. We are fine as long as we remember that such statements are metaphors, which are parallel examples used in poetic license, clarification, or rich imagery.

But being human, it is far too easy to cross that forbidden line. Without realizing it, we often assume that animals have the same reasons and motivations that we do in the same circumstances. I say this without reproach. Asking me to not think like a human is like asking my parrot Rita to not think like a parrot.

However, when we try to see both sides - to see the animal’s view of the world - it is good for a chin rub or two.

In their southern stomping grounds, young bulls Oyster and VC careened around the waters with three other schoolmates, socializing with heavy petting. They formed and split into countless combinations of twos and threes. Their couplings involved series of little behaviors that dolphins use as precursors to maximal contact. Like all things, these behaviors have another side: They do double-duty as precursors to conflict too.

Today the exchanges were affable and all were willing. Two teen dolphins would suddenly stand upright at the water surface, shoulder-to-shoulder, and then teeter and tumble sideways together into turquoise seas. Often, a dolphin would lay passively on the surface on its side or back. Its immaculate white belly (and belly button!) shone in the sun as it waited for schoolmates to swim over and submerge it, a standard dolphin social behavior akin to a popular twirl on Dancing with the Stars. There were flirtations, like flicking one’s flukes in a companion’s face. Finally, dolphins surfaced with mouths agape, displaying the open-mouth playfaces they share with countless mammals from happy humans and cheerful dogs to mischievous monkeys. The teens were having a ball.

We had seen similar congeniality some weeks before among these same dolphins with the addition of newly-weaned Qball. As Jennifer Aniston is America’s Sweetheart, Qball is John’s Pass’ Sweetheart. Why was Qball not here romping with her agemates? Ah, but I was thinking like a human.

At the moment, Qball was quite preoccupied. She was five miles to the north with agemate PeeWee and a mother-calf pair. Each swung by the boat in greeting between roaming around a big bay in search of food.

Qball grew up with us. She came over several times. We have not seen her for five weeks. As I do with all dolphins, I craned to see physical marks on her delicate dolphin skin. These are the other side of the story behind the famous dolphin smile, the details that reveal her recent experiences.

But, as dolphins do, she surfaced with the low morning sun behind her. I got lots of great pictures of her silhouette surrounded by waters dancing with dappled sunlight. These completely cloaked any dermal details.

Dolphins are obligatorily aquatic. That means they are obliged to live in the water. That also means that they are incessantly mobile. To see their side of life, pretend you are obliged to live your entire life riding a bicycle. You may go slow when you are tired and fast when you are fresh, by remain on the bike you must.

As terrestrial creatures, we do not live our lives riding bikes. We stop moving when we are tired, sick, or wounded. It is hard for us to think that an animal moving about normally could be sick or wounded. But nature made animals like CIA agents and Special Forces marines: They never reveal weakness. Animals will hide every physical liability as long as possible. As obligatory aquatics, only clinically depressed dolphins or those actively stepping through death’s door are immobile.

Qball seemed to be swimming fine. Granted, certain views showed lumps and dents in her normal padding; she has not been eating well lately. Capt. John Heidemann and I work together to get pictures of both sides of the dolphins we study. This is more than picky precision. There are always two sides to the [dolphin] story. It is too easy to see one side of a dolphin and think everything is fine, and then see that the other side is grievously injured.

I will skip the details. Qball has taken a hit. From her right side, Qball looked fine. From her left side, we got clues. She did not raise the back half of her body out of the water – it hurt – so we only glimpsed flashes of cruel red flesh against the dolphin pewter gray.

Ok. It does not take a Nobel Prize in Ethology to understand why Qball was not romping with her agemates in affable social exchange with heavy petting. Here to the north, she was with three other dolphins. This was comforting from the human perspective because wounded humans rely completely on other humans to survive. It feels natural when dolphins appear to be doing the same.

But dolphins are not humans.

Qball left. Now she was famished and wounded AND alone. What? Qball! Do you not know that it is ill-advised to go off alone when you are wounded? Being hungry and hurt puts you in a weak position. Being in a weak position in a habitat you share with predators that are larger than yourself is dangerous. And you other three dolphins, PeeWee and Valiant and Vidalia, all three of you know sharks! Why are you letting Qball leave?

Ah, but I am thinking like a human again. What is Qball’s side of the story?

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