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Outdoors & Recreation
Dolphin Watch
Dickens’ Tiny Tim, John’s Pass’ Tiny Twig
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Photo by ANN WEAVER
Swimming next to its mother Stick (just disappearing behind the calf), little local Tiny Twig shows its signature submergence posture, a rare artifact from an apparently partially paralyzed peduncle.
In novelist Charles Dickens’ timeless tale, “A Christmas Carol,” sneering and selfish old man Scrooge learns to give of the earthly wealth he has accumulated to etch away at the spiritual bankruptcy he has also amassed.

It takes three horrific visitations from Christmas spirits to eventually elicit Scrooge’s generosity. One of the beneficiaries of his generosity, we are led to believe in Dickens’ tale, is a little lame boy named Tiny Tim. Bent and stunted by his lameness, which Dickens never explains, we are also led to believe that, without Scrooge’s change of heart, Tiny Tim will be dead within the year.

It is part of Dickens’ art to make us love little lame Tiny Tim. Doll-like and delicate, Tiny Tim cannot run and play the same as the other kids. We do not see his dramatic dependence on his family as weakness. We see him as a small flickering light of love.

For what his crooked little flame lacks in normalcy, Tiny Tim’s spirit supplies in gentleness and the kind of courage that the rest of us only dream about. This is because the basic movements that the rest of us take for granted, like walking, require the greatest of efforts on his part. Forget skipping, running, or dancing.

There is a dolphin counterpart to Dickens’ Tiny Tim in the John’s Pass study area, which Capt. John Heidemann and I monitor under federal permit. Instead of Tiny Tim, we could call it Tiny Twig. When the tiny shiny calf was born to local lady dolphin Stick last summer, we named it Twig as a good play on words. We named Stick ten years ago when, as a tiny tot dolphin herself, she played a game of catch with a seaside stick.

Twig arrived in late August 2013. We saw Stick within just hours after Twig’s birth. Twig was the youngest newborn I had seen to that point.

At the time, Dolphin Watch reported how Twig’s tiny newborn tailstock seemed to spring up almost reflexively after each downward stroke of the peduncle (same as tailstock). Sometimes, its reflexive spring even pitched tiny Twig forward comically.

It might surprise you to hear that newborn dolphins do not know how to swim, though they have the basic idea. They must first exercise and strengthen their muscles. For the first many days, they struggle with their swimming lessons.

Nonetheless, I had not seen Twig’s particular type of funny little reflexive spring before. Therefore, at the time, I assumed it was because I had not seen such a fresh newborn before. Twig was just hours old.

And maybe I was right. Twig accompanied mom Stick through the fall and winter, or rather Twig did its best to remain in Stick’s vicinity. Pregnancy and motherhood flipped a switch in Stick. She became an eating machine. Tiny dolphin calves usually stay close to their hunting mothers. But Stick’s hunger often took her frighteningly far from her Tiny Twig.

In April 2014, we found Twig spending an inordinate amount of time at a dangerous distance from its mother Stick. Too young to hunt or to know it was supposed to, Twig amused itself by greeting each passing boat like a miniature aspiring politician or, in the family tradition, playing with a stick.

Dolphin Watch reported, with a certain amount of concern, that Stick had continued her unique brand of laissez-faire mothering. For it was Stick who spent an inordinate amount of time at a dangerous distance from her calf Twig. I remember deciding to detach myself from Stick’s winsome offspring, for it seemed surely destined to be dead within the year.

It was after I made that decision to detach myself that it dawned on me that Twig’s peduncle may be partially paralyzed. This is because Twig submerged with a “steep dive” posture that all dolphins can do. The difference was that Twig used the steep dive posture every time, which no other dolphin does. In addition, all dolphins sometimes flip up the flukes over the water when diving steeply, “sounding” like a whale. But this is fairly rare. Poor little Tiny Twig sounds like a whale with every submergence.

That means Twig works much, much harder to swim like a dolphin than other dolphins do. The basic dolphin movements we take for granted require Twig’s greatest of efforts. Forget leaping or rocketing around the seas like the other kids.

By July, Twig was still with Stick. But there had been changes. One change is that Stick had started being a much better mother, surfacing faithfully at Twig’s side. A second change was that Twig seemed to cope with its paralyzed peduncle much better, not sounding as often nor as dramatically as before.

A third change was fleeting but encouraging: We found a large group of dolphins that included Stick. After some minutes on the group, I turned to Capt. Heidemann and said, “You know who is not here, don’t you?” And he nodded as he concurred, “Yeah, Twig.”

Then suddenly there was a flurry at the back of the dolphin parade as Twig charged back into the group with two calf playmates from their playground behind the adults. Ah, Twig is learning to play!

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at annstats54@gmail.com or visit www.goodnaturedstatistics.com. 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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