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Dolphin Watch
How dolphins launch a conversation
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A massive bull bottlenose dolphin we call Fishlips, for the pattern of notches on his dorsal fin, gives us a backward glance after a conspicuous display  as if he did not know that we were watching.
All is fair in love and war, even at sea. Combine long life, a big brain and learning from experience. Simmer for several seasons. Savor the mouth-watering results.

Delightfully, dolphins return to the Intracoastal Waterway as the waters warm. Our local waters include resident dolphins that return to their summer haunts. They also include nonresident dolphins of both sexes that we see much less often.

Some are nonresident females with newborns, which is why John’s Pass is a vital dolphin nursery ground whose ecological integrity must be maintained. Others are roving bulls in search of mating opportunities. The bulls this year include a suitably gnarly cast of characters: Xiphos, Brick, Nose, Keyhole Plus, Ouch and Fishlips.

Ouch and Fishlips are bonded bulls. Unlike the other males, they are not roving. They have found mating opportunities by swimming with local lady dolphin P. When males in the animal kingdom stay with a female like this, they are said to be mate guarding. Ouch and Fishlips are guarding P. This is not the first time. Ouch and Fishlips also “guarded” her in 2007. One of them probably produced P’s delightful calf PeeWee, born in 2008.

Mate guarding bulls do not “guard” the same. One of the bulls guards the female by staying at her side. The other bull stays peripheral to them. The peripheral bull does not appear to contest the coupling. He shows respect for the possessor.

Instead, the peripheral bull takes a different tact. He attempts to draw the female’s attentions away from her “guard” by doing all kinds of unusual things when swimming with the couple. These unusual things are displays. Displays are designed to entice the female from the guard to the peripheral male. Thus, displays are typically aimed at the couple.

Ouch is P’s guard. Fishlips is the peripheral male.

Does Fishlips understand that all bets are off in the game of love? One thing is for sure. Fishlips knows that research boats make handy props.

In a circular cove in our study area, we spied Fishlips hunting along the seawalls. Though he was mostly out of sight, we tracked him by the flares of big bubbles he shot into the seas to scare fish into flight. Seeing other dolphins in the middle of the cove, I predicted that these were P, Paisley and Ouch.

Fishlips left his seawall and traveled to the sandbar in the middle of the cove. There he submerged and, accosting the sea floor, created small mudplumes. Mudplumes are another way to secure a fish sandwich at sea.

We glimpsed a bright flash in the dark waters: He was swimming upside-down the way dolphins do when they are pursuing a fish at close range, his gleaming white belly glinting momentarily.

Abruptly, this Goliath of a bull bottlenose began acting strangely. His massive rounded head bobbed out of the mudplume, barely clearing the water surface. Bobbing another four or five times, he seemed to be straining to reach life-giving air. Then he disappeared into the sea.

The waters began swaying and cresting as if something thrashed wildly instead of swam smoothly. A massive mudplume arose. Again, Fishlips bobbed, barely clearing the surface, and then sunk decisively.

We rippled with alarm on board. Had Fishlips become entangled on something that tethered him underwater and bobbed to try to breathe? Was this larger-than-life mudplume form dragging something across the sea floor in his struggles to reach the surface? Was this the moment to dive in and save a dolphin from drowning? Could we? Should we?

Seconds seemed like minutes as, wide-eyed, we were riveted on the mudplume. The seas hid all. A thousand thoughts careened through my head: my morals, the hands-off policy of my federal permit, my ethics, let-nature-take-its-course edict of field research, the madness of watching something die that we could save, the danger of trying, and the danger of dying by trying.

Time stopped, but not for the creature besieged below the surface.

Fishlips erupted at the surface and whipped his mighty tailstock, slamming the seas into a colossal column of water as he kicked a fish into flight at our boat.

As I leapt aside to shield my camera, Fishlips surfaced from his cagey cascade in the normal dolphin position and headed toward his distant schoolmates. As he did, he cast a backward look that I shall never forget. It said so plainly, “Did ya catch that?”

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at or visit 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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