Adult dolphins like this trio of moms return to the estuary in the spring to take it easy. It is the kids - like kids of all species - that are the active ones.
The weather last weekend was perfect! Everyone was outside. Even the warming waterways were studded with dolphins. During one survey, eight different groups called our waters home.
The biggest group steadily assembled in behavior called “Out of the Blue” to reflect the tantalizing way new dolphins appear unpredictably in the midst of other dolphins. Not only is it thrilling to see more and more dolphins nearby. Out of the Blue dolphins materialize delicately as if lured hypnotically by some maritime Pied Piper.
At its largest, the Out of the Blue dolphins became a nursery group with one big bull. The oldest calf, Cutlass, stayed his mom Courtney’s side. Local calves do this when mom looks weary, which Courtney did. Dark circles surrounded her sleepy eyes.
Courtney may be pregnant. Pregnant dolphins swim very sleepily in the spring and summer until they give birth. Boaters need to be extra alert for them.
But the other three calves took full advantage of their roving playpen! Capt. John Heidemann and I worked hard to identify their wiggly bodies that darted with signature suddenness. The youngest, Jacamo, a creative spelling of the Italian word for James so that it alphabetizes with its mother J, was quickly retrieved to mom’s side. J is an attentive mother. She apparently decided that 2-year-old Xanion, named after a comb for really tangled hair, and Fairuz, which is turquoise in Arabic, played too roughly.
At one point, mother-calf pair Valiant and Vidalia swam past the nursery group going in the opposite direction. They briefly turned as if to catch up but continued on their way. This was yet another observation where Front Slash and Valiant pointedly did not merge.
The other groups included two to five dolphins. The average group is four dolphins.
These pairs, trios, quartets and quintets reflected some of the other types of dolphin groups you are likely to find in the estuary. Teen bulls Juno and Fugazi briefly swam with their mothers and siblings in the nursery group. But restless with youth, their toothraked-covered bodies soon shot ahead for more fleet-footed adventures.
A dolphin trio included our most memorable bull Grin trailing mom Penny and her 2-year-old Potter. Hungry, Penny searched widely while demonstrating her kerplunking hunting specialty. Kerplunking is when a dolphin strikes the water with a commanding tailslap that churns up the muddy seafloor, creating a local maelstrom that confuses or stuns fish. Penny’s periodic pauses to kerplunk incited Potter to demonstrate his own cute little childish attempts at this specialized behavior.
Grin did not seem to hunt as he meandered diffidently behind Penny. Neither did he seem to mind Potter’s excited company. The massive bull’s presence energized Potter, who began leaping over the water next to Grin. This animated Grin briefly, for bull and babe once dashed over to catch a quick ride on a passing boat.
Potter’s eager interest in Grin reminded me of other calves who reacted like this to bulls unobtrusively interested in their mother. It also reminded me of the hero worship that kid monkeys show towards the big male of their group: Like fans encasing a celebrity, a horde of small monkeys surrounds the big male should he descend to the cage floor to forage for raisins and seeds, searching when he searches, sitting when he rests.
We glimpsed local bulls BB and DD2 as their quintet snoozed their way into the mysterious waters beyond our study area. DD2 (pronounced Double D Two) is one of our two local dolphins with a split dorsal fin. I am sorry to say that someone with widely spaced teeth gave DD2 a new set of rake marks. There is no free lunch at the dolphin delicatessen.
The return of the dolphins is great news. But it carries the warning: There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Something has gone awry in the local ecosystem that has disrupted the dolphins’ long-time seasonal patterns. From 2005 through 2010, the dolphin seasonal pattern was this: Dolphins were most abundant locally in the summer, slowly vacated the estuary in the fall, were the least abundant in the winter and slowly returned in the spring.
From 2011 through 2013, the seasonal pattern was this: Dolphins were equally abundant in the spring and summer at lower-than-usual numbers, and were equally abundant in the fall and winter, also at lower-than-usual numbers.
Dolphin Watch reported this disquieting situation in the fall of 2013.
We have documented two obvious changes in local conditions. One was the disruption of the ecosystem from the record cold winter of 2009-2010. Lowered food supplies put obvious stress on any wild animal population. Locally, that includes sea birds and dolphins.
The other change is the increasing number of boats anchored on the island sandbars just inside John’s Pass. These activities stress local birds that lose valuable nesting and resting grounds. These activities stress local dolphins by elevating aquatic noise levels and putting them at greater risk from more watercraft activity. These risks take place in waters that local dolphins have historically used to meet, mate and mother their young.
Local boaters cannot do anything about lowered food supplies. Local boaters can clearly influence elevated noise levels and watercraft activity in the waterways that, used respectfully, ensure the continuation of local dolphins. We will continue documenting with care this year.