Fugazi uses his well-oiled marine machine to launch himself 10 feet in the air, pivot to raise his tail above his head and slip back into the brine.
Humans are built for endurance rather than speed. Our average running speed is 12-15 mph. This is half the speed of the fastest runner: Usian Bolt hits bursts of 23 mph and a peak of almost 28 mph.
The fastest woman runner, Florence Griffith Joyner, hits 21 mph. The fastest human swimmer, Michael Phelps, swims at 6 mph. This is routine cruising speed for dolphins, which can swim at least three times that fast (18 mph) for short bursts.
Dolphins that swim at speed for short bursts are said to be rocketing. Dolphins cannot rocket for long. But they can rocket repeatedly, with gripping results.
One exquisite spring day, Capt. John Heidemann and I were surveying our dolphin study area under sapphire skies dotted with popcorn clouds across calm seas. We had just finished documenting three sets of dolphins. They revealed how several sets of dolphins may be in the same waterway without necessarily interacting.
A rambunctious trio of young adults zestfully engaged in most agreeable commotion. Nearby, little lone lady PeeWee hunted while harassed by a plundering frigatebird. A quartet glided past, heading for an adjacent cove; mother Osiris and calf Oego were trailed by a pair of bulls.
Given a recent episode here, I watched the bulls closely. When I recognized Midface and his bonded bull buddy, my concerns vanished. The only thing Osiris might fear from Midface was ardent affection.
Finished with Osiris’ quartet, we retraced our route and spied the rambunctious young adults in the distance. Apparently, they were still engaged in their agreeable commotion. But there is a directive for studying at sea: Check again.
Capt. Heidemann navigated us back to their rambunctious vicinity skeptically. I was happily vindicated. There were still young adults there. They were engaged in rambunctious activity as before. But the commotion was less agreeable. There had been a change of players.
Two players remained from the original trio, female Rim and young bull Stripe. The other two were new, Juno and Fugazi.
Juno and Fugazi are sturdy young bulls that vibrate with vigor. They do not just show up, materializing like sudden specters. They burst onto the scene with showy surfing entrances. They tumble about in brassy wrestling matches. Well-fed and brawny, both are liberally laced with the slashes and toothrakes of many scuffles, especially Fugazi.
Their heavy body marking is exceptional because Juno and Fugazi are young bulls. They are just 6 and 5 years old, respectively. That meant they were half the age of the dolphins they joined. But what happened next suggests how they get their many marks.
Capt. Heidemann took us to a broad glassy patch of surface water. These patches can result from intense dolphin interaction underwater. Suddenly a bright pocked dolphin “nose” emerged, followed by a rounded gray melon crisscrossed with toothrakes; Juno had come over to say hi. He was quickly followed by Fugazi. Dolphins watch their schoolmates’ behavior closely and often imitate it. Rim chuffed in excitement. Play ball!
The four dolphins began milling as one tight cluster. They jostled each other at the surface. Dolphins swam underneath the cluster and shoved it up, rolling the clustered dolphins onto their sides. Their animation grew with each breath.
They began arching over the surface to their waists when they surfaced to breathe. Such arching is unnecessary for breathing. But it is handy for plopping down on a nearby schoolmate.
This was all very stimulating and called for greater display!
As if emerging from the chrysalis of standard dolphin behavior, Juno and Fugazi morphed into magnificent males in their marine machines – which are their bodies and minds in concert. Like Olympic gold was on the line, they suddenly rocketed from Rim and Stripe at top speed. Dolphin-like, they went in a big circle and came right back to where they started.
Side-by-side, they rocketed off a second time, this time heading for a nearby dock. They only swerved from it at the last second. Swerving again, they dramatically charged our boat – a pair of dark torpedoes and foamy wakes against crystalline waters.
Capt. Heidemann gripped the throttle, ready to roar into reverse. But again these burly junior bulls veered off at the last second. They thundered back to Rim and Stripe, milling on the sidelines.
Stripe is three years older than Juno and Fugazi. But their rocketing display intimidated him. He sped off.
Juno and Fugazi seized the moment! Side-by-side, they synchronized their speed, rocketed to the dock and zoomed back to Rim. They swept her up between them as they whizzed past. Still rocketing, they marshaled her along the seawall to the dock.
Unbelievably, they thundered under the dock, threading between the pilings at speed. On the other side, they spun and sped through the pilings again.
Stripe leapt about on the sidelines, helpless against the orchestrated froth embroiling his schoolmate Rim. To clarify their control, Juno and Fugazi swept Rim under the dock a final time and zoomed back into open waters.
Rim took to her heels, skimming over the surface and splitting the water into rooster-tails that leapt off the sides of her body. Juno skimmed after her.
Greatly keyed up, Fugazi throttled his marine machine into a graceful bow over the water.
Unquenched, he revved his engines underwater and then put it in gear. Fugazi launched himself ten feet in the air. He pivoted to raise his tail above his head – suspending his magnificent marine machine overhead there for a moment – and slipped back into the brine.
Dolphin-like, that settled things. Rim and Stripe headed south. Juno and Fugazi headed north, their marine machines in fine working order.
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 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.