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Dolphin Watch
How well do you know your neighbors?
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Local bottlenose dolphins like five-year-old Peewee use their pectoral (arm) fins for steering and petting each other. They don’t “wave” in the human sense that we know of. But this image of Peewee in mid-breach sure looks like she’s waving.
We’re profoundly privileged to have such a rich environment for dolphins around here. Local waters host 30-40 different dolphins a month. They are a spectacular amount of biomass, but how they coordinate themselves is a mystery.

Some are just passing through. Others stay for a period of time. Others stay for a period of time in the same general waters. This is a treat because free-ranging dolphins are inherently mobile, like their food. You never know if or where you’ll find them.

The teenage dolphin “waving” in the picture is one of the dolphins who has stayed in the same general waters of late. During the cool part of this year, Peewee worked the northern bays in our study area. As the waters warm, she moves into the southern waters.

For the last couple of weeks, Peewee and two schoolmates have lingered in a spot we call TI Bay. TI Bay is seldom used by dolphins. We don’t know why. But it’s a good choice, because teen dolphins tend to use the bays that bigger dolphins don’t.

Like teens of any species, Peewee and pals are generally sprinting around with youthful energy and given to sudden tumultuous exchanges. They spend a surprising amount of energy feeding on fish the size of your little finger. Although it’s tempting to say that they do this because the young have energy to burn, dolphins of all sizes feed energetically on tiny snacks like this.

It’s like you eating French fries all afternoon, catching one at a time by somersaulting around it. When dolphins do this with fish, we call it pinwheeling.

The day when Peewee seemed to wave, you couldn’t ask for better boating weather. The winds were at ease, which meant that the waters were calm. Of the three teens scattered across TI Bay, we’d watched Peewee first. She accommodatingly pinwheeled around her finger-sized fish near the boat, where we could see the details. It was heavenly for an animal behaviorist. It meant this wild sentient being with the mobility of the wind at her command was comfortable with our presence.

Dolphins are conscious beings. They’re aware of themselves, a rare mentality shown by people, apes and elephants. They’re clearly aware that we watch them intently.

When it was time to leave Peewee to watch the next teen in line, Capt. John Heidemann motored away slowly to avoid startling Peewee with a sudden acceleration.

Instead Peewee startled us. Suddenly she breached, zinging out of the water to drop back down into it on her side. It was during her second breach that she flexed her fins for balance and appeared to wave.

Long-time Dolphin Watch readers may remember Peewee’s mother [Queen] P, who has breached when we left to watch other dolphins several times.

Do you think dolphins like P or daughter Peewee sometimes breach to hold the attention of human observers?

That night, the setting sun streaked the dusky blue skies with orange and pink bands. Peewee and pals hovered as two teen males surfed the wakes of passing boats. The surfers were Juno and Fugazi, brawny young bulls the same age as Peewee.

They slowly wove around the tidal deltas towards John’s Pass as an unhurried parade. All was calm. None of the great blue herons dotting the edge of the deltas startled or protested the passing parade with harsh dinosaur voices.

Eventually Peewee and pals approached a milling assembly of bigger dolphins in John’s Pass. Thinking better of it, they drew back and lingered behind our boat before melting into the night.

The next day, Peewee’s pals were back in TI Bay. But she wasn’t. Had she stayed with Juno and Fugazi, the young surfers she’d grown up with? I checked the record to see how well she knew them. Their paths had crossed only 6 percent of the time! Despite the fact that these three dolphins grew up at the same time in the same waters, they were virtual strangers.

When I was a kid, I knew every kid who grew up on the same side of the block as me very well. I hardly knew the kids who grew up on the other side of the block. I didn’t know the kids who grew up further away at all.

Yes indeed. Our local dolphins are a spectacular amount of biomass, but how they coordinate themselves is a mystery.

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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