Local bottlenose dolphins usually surface to breathe with great aplomb. Here, Plunder’s splashy surface may be his way of attacking the world with an appetite.
Writers and marketers are cautioned against using clichés and axioms. They are worn out and over-used - the truisms, not the writers. Yet, the trite and true exist because they are the basis of common experience. Everyone understands them.
Who has not learned the dark side of “fences make good neighbors” and “the early bird gets the worm?” When it comes to truisms, we have all been there, done that.
There are also biological axioms. One is that dolphins are mobile. They are obligatorily aquatic creatures that never stop swimming. No one debates this. It is so obvious. Yet, should you need to keep tabs on free-ranging dolphins at sea to study their population biology, mobility takes on vivid meaning.
The other day Capt. John Heidemann and I swung around a point of land in our boat and entered a broad pocket of shimmering seas. Here and there in the distance, the fins of four bottlenose dolphins flashed intermittently like fireflies on a summer night. Widely scattered, they were at all points of the compass. We headed to the closest dolphin.
It met us halfway. Greeting behavior like this is not is axiomatic. It is only dolphins that know you - habituated dolphins - that swing by to greet you. When it does happen, it always strikes a chord.
The small adult who greeted us was a teenager we call Plunder. His unusual name derives from his mom’s name, which is Strip. Her unusual name was derived from the shred of skin hanging from her dorsal the first time we encountered her (which healed without a scar).
Plunder lingered briefly and then vanished. He returned to the far side of the bay to resume his hunt for lunch; even dolphins make hay while the sun shines.
Siren-like, two other teen dolphins whirled behind us momentarily. We headed over but should have known what was coming.
They were socializing, or rather Plunder’s schoolmate Trix was trying to socialize with an unknown dolphin a little smaller than herself. They grappled and darted, appearing and disappearing like objects in a computer game. With the energy of youth, they skidded across dozens of yards of silky waters. They appeared in front of us, behind us, in front of us, to the side, but always in the distance.
After many minutes of this, small sighs began leaking from Capt. Heidemann. Driving the boat on days like today is not easy! Eventually, we secured evidence of the dolphins’ identity.
By and by, Plunder’s small dark form appeared at Trix’s side. They worked up a head of steam and sprinted off into the distance. It was time to get pictures of the fourth dolphin anyway, presumably the mother of the playmate. She joined her calf and they too sprinted into distant waters.
Capt. Heidemann and I dutifully kept our noses to the grindstone but ultimately illustrated another axiom of dolphin population biology: how to spend an hour to get 60 pictures.
Despite our fleeing views, we were able to document that Plunder’s slate-gray back and tail were once again clearly crisscrossed with white and light gray patches of parallel lines. These lines were toothrakes. Axiomatically, toothrakes come from other sea creatures with teeth.
Teenage and bull bottlenose dolphins usually have some toothrakes. But the number of toothrakes can sometimes reach epidemic proportions. When it does, we say that the dolphin is “mosaicked.” Newly independent (weaned) teenage dolphins are good candidates for the mosaic (take it like a man!).
We do not understand the mosaic. Who leaves the toothrakes? Under what circumstances? There are several possibilities.
Perhaps Plunder plays with extra zest (every day is a holiday). He has spent the last year with schoolmate Trix, who also currently has some toothrakes. If the record consistently shows that they both have toothrakes at the same time, it would still not be clear whether they gave them to each other or both got them from someone else.
Perhaps Plunder is regularly assured of his lesser status among adult males (the kid can take a punch). He is a young bull, on his own for just two years now. We either see him hunting or traveling with Trix. We have seen him attempt to hold his own among bigger bulls. But we never see him with the biggest bulls, which he could not take on.
Perhaps Plunder is the sadder but wiser survivor of a death-defying struggle (successfully dodged the bullet).
Or does he play with young sharks? Though Plunder is a slate-gray hairless mammal, maybe he is the definitive dumb blond!
Whatever is the case, Plunder has staying power. Since Christmas of 2012, poor little Plunder has been mosaicked a half dozen times. Actually, I think Plunder is out there taking his punches with the best of them.
Wait! I have got it! HE is the wolf in sheep’s clothing!
But that is not how he got his name.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.