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Dolphin Watch
Dolphins take time for swell lessons
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It is never too early to begin being what you are, as DD1's tiny 2-week-old dolphin demonstrates.
“Gee, thanks, Dad. That’s swell,” some teenage Biff might have replied as his father handed him the car keys so his son could drive to the big dance.

We do not use terms like gee or swell much anymore. That innocence has long given way to an Instagram page filled with pictures of yourself (selfies) and twerking on the dance floor at clubs where showing the online world that you are at the party is as important as being at the party itself.

We are posting from a different part of the world, the dolphins outside your doorstep. The dolphin numbers have been average this summer. Average is encouraging. Dolphin numbers have been below average for the last three years. Let us hope they are recovering.

We are also meeting our bull quota. Bulls travel as bonded pairs or singletons. Gnarly and notable, pair Ouch and Fishlips, and pair Grin and Twin Dip, were here for the spring. Many bulls have moved through. We saw Dune, Shop, Hoffman, Brittle, Dipper, Taxus and Ilex only in passing. Others have stayed around. Remnants of the Punch Buddies super-alliance, Nose and Brick are keeping a sharp lookout for available females along the north stretch of the study area.

Keyhole Plus survived a big bite last fall. His lifetime of scars has earned him our admiring appellation the Old Warrior. Schnoz makes periodic appearances. N and Riptab usually appear with a strange new dolphin in tow (N is no fool!). Xiphos, a massive bull who first appeared here in 2012, is turning out to be a real character.

There is a lot of character in the small groups of smaller dolphins you see dance by. These are nursery groups that include current calves (born last summer, in order of appearance, Echo, Fairuz, Twig, Qody, Jacamo and Labrac) plus X’s restless 2-year-old Xanion. Threading mysteriously among them are new dolphins Platinum, LA Rose, Rainbow, Cryptos and Flame.

There have been just three new dolphin calves born so far this summer, two in May to mothers DD1 and LA Stick, and one in June to NF. That means that the 10-year average of twice as many babies born in June as the other warm months has not manifested this year (I hope!).

For a time, moms DD1 and LA Stick forged a brief partnership. They swam together with their calves, tiny tykes at 6- and 5-weeks-old, respectively. They did not swim together just because they had newborns of similar age. DD1 and LA Stick were friends a long time before this.

The other day, Capt. John Heidemann and I found them leaving a sheltered cover. They wandered across into a shallow section of the estuary, heading south in that rhythmic new-mother pace with delicate new charges at their sides.

At 6 weeks old, DD1’s calf had almost lost its baby body wrinkles called fetal folds. As the calf fills out on mother’s milk, the wrinkles inexorably retreat until the calf’s body achieves the sleek form of the well-padded dolphin. DD1’s calf had also lost some of its newborn clumsiness. It now managed to match its mom’s smooth swimming stride about half the time.

LA Stick’s calf was by far the smallest newborn among the 94 newborns we have seen. At 5 weeks old, it was still largely drawn along on its mom’s smooth stride. Its fetal folds were still plainly visible. It ended most of its lurching surfaces by dropping back into the water flatly on its chin, in standard “splash landing” style!

The quartet of two moms and two tender (and tenuous) babies meandered over the shallows, paralleling the “road.” The road is the strip of water between channel markers where prudent boaters set their course.

It was almost noon. That meant boat traffic was picking up. Indeed, a series of particularly heavy boats flowed out of the no wake zone, heading south like the dolphin quartet. Unlike the quartet, the heavy boats came abreast of the sign advising boats to “resume normal speed” and hit the gas.

One after another, these beastly boats left wake waves rippling across the shallows as big rollers, as if imported from southern California.

The first of these beastly boats accelerated past the dolphins. LA Stick steered her young charge toward it. But schoolmate DD1 did not follow. LA Stick resumed their slow southward crawl, parallel to the road.

The two moms seemed to ignore that next couple of boats as well, just as they had ignored the trio of bulls who had recently swung over in faint interest. The moms took their tiny babies below the swells, to ride out the rollers by swimming beneath them and tickling their bellies on seagrass.

Perhaps the grass tickled too much or an extra fine set of swells rippled over. For both mothers turned and, positioning with a perfection envied by body surfers the world over, showed their babies how to slide on swells – body surfing into the shallows like sliding down a snowy hill on your stomach.

The dolphin babies, accustomed to living as appendages off their mothers’ sides, slid with them down the faces of one handsome roller after another.

Human body surfers know how tough these swell lessons can be. But this was not the first swell lesson for LA Stick’s newborn. At a scant 9 days of age, it had surfed the voluptuous wake waves behind a yacht at mom’s side - even able to leap clear of the water (at mom’s side) – the first of a lifetime of swell lessons. And we do not expect our human babies to sit up unaided for months after birth.

It is never too early, or too late, for swells lessons. So too it is never too early for vigilance against natural enemies. The week after the swell lessons, both babies showed signs of being grabbed by something with teeth. Guess it is never too late to start in on a lifetime of scars either.

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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