Mother dolphin Keyhole Notch has been through more than she’ll ever tell, starting with the Frankenstein scar over her eye.
Every person has a unique family story. There are endless versions of the stable family of “dad, mom and the kids.” There are also all sorts of new combinations, created when the first family fissions apart and fusions with others to re-form into second and even third families and beyond.
“Family” is nearly a unique human phenomenon, and I emphasize the word nearly. But our many variations on the human family “theme” are unique.
That is because most of the other animals do not form anything like (any version of) a human family. For example, 98 out of 100 dolphins outside your doorstep came from a family of just two: me and mom.
I suspect Oedipus would like to kick in here. But this is biology. Sorry, pal.
Capt. John Heidemann and I have seen only two exceptions to the “me and mom” dolphin family unit among the free-ranging bottlenose dolphins we monitor in the John’s Pass estuary. As such, these two exceptions are conspicuous.
The first of these two rare dolphin families existed for a year and a half beginning in 2008. Mom was a dolphin we call Valiant because she survived a nasty shark bite. Son number one was VC, named for the acronym Valiant’s Calf. VC was born in 2004. Son number two was Viceroy, born four years later in 2008.
Like most calves abruptly displaced from mom’s side by the arrival of a younger sibling, VC hung around his mom for a couple of weeks after the usurper baby was born. Normally, that is about the time that older calves leave (wean).
This time, however, nature intervened. Both calves got hurt. About the same time that newborn Vice appeared with fresh shark bites, his big brother VC appeared with the top half of his dorsal fin sliced clean off. VC may also have been bitten by a shark, but the clean cut implicates a boat propeller.
Either way, instead of becoming independent from mom Valiant, older calf VC stayed with his mom and new baby brother for a year and a half before striking out on his own.
It worked out well for Vice (and hopefully VC). Big brother VC was a great buddy and babysitter. Vice recovered from his wounds. Understandably pouring precious resources into healing rather than growth, he stayed small for his age.
Calves that are injured increase their dependence on mom. At the time, we assumed that VC stayed home because he got hurt.
The other dolphin family does not appear to have been provoked by anyone getting hurt, as far as we can tell.
This family is also trio of a mom, her older calf and her younger calf. We call the mother dolphin Keyhole Notch after the nick pattern on her dorsal fin. We call her older calf Kelly, which is a good asexual name for a dolphin whose gender we do not know. Kelly was born in 2009. We call the younger calf Kale, born in 2012.
Mom Keyhole Notch is one of a group of females we call the Girls of the Gulf. Singly or in subgroups, the Girls of the Gulf appear in our local waters every spring like clockwork.
In the years when Keyhole Notch is pregnant, she reappears in time to deliver her newborn in the warm shallow waters around John’s Pass. It is this behavior, shown by numerous resident and nonresident females, which contributes to the idea that John’s Pass is a vital nursery ground for bottlenose dolphins.
Keyhole Notch had a rough time of it last year when she and Kelly came to town a month before she delivered baby Kale. She and Kelly stayed around the mangrove islands inside of John’s Pass. But they attracted the questionable attentions of a couple of nonresident bulls who pestered them before and after Keyhole Notch delivered her baby.
One dramatic day when the new baby was two months old, the bull Taxus kidnapped it. He raced around, keeping Kale helplessly at his side by swimming at speed. Keyhole Notch and Kelly pursued them but did not approach.
Many suspenseful minutes later, the bull dropped off the baby and sped away to join his buddy. Baby Kale sped the other way towards mom. Keyhole Notch and Kelly zoomed over and they were successfully reunited.
But it wasn’t over. Soon the little trio encountered some of our local females. Though the latter were obviously interested in the newborn Kale, they did not clearly kidnap it. Nonetheless, they too showed that Keyhole Notch could be intimidated. Ultimately they refrained from pressing their advantage.
Reunited, the little family receded into that great unknown the sea during the cold months. Yet they were among the first dolphins to return to our backwaters this spring.
Kelly is now four year old. Unlike bottlenose dolphins that age whose mother has a yearling calf at heel, Kelly has stayed with mom and sibling. It alternates between hunting nearby and swimming side by side with its family.
I was going to say that this little family is one in a million out at sea. But that is an exaggeration. They are literally one in a hundred.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at email@example.com or visit her website www.dolphinsuperstore.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.