On livelier occasions, or cooler seas, Fennel plays a game of catch with a mangrove seedpod called a horsetail.
Having grown up in Tarpon Springs, my office mate of many years sometimes reminisced about the summer nights of his youth. No one had air conditioning back then. All the windows in the house stayed open.
He once described a clammy routine: rousing in the steamy darkness groggily to flip over his pillow, whose bottom side was fractionally cooler than its topside.
Though a Midwestern suburbanite myself, months of fieldwork in Mexico saw me sleeping outside in a desert that peaked at 120 degrees F. during the day. Luckily, that desert bordered the sea, and that sea had islands, from whose beaches we would scoop out little body-sized trenches for settling into at sunset, watching until stars gave way to dreams. Though the breeze was as steady as the surf, I too had my share of pillow flipping.
To my knowledge, pillow flipping does not have a counterpart out at sea. How do our local dolphins handle the heat? Granted, their insulating coats of blubber become thinner during the summer than the winter, but never disappear entirely.
Moreover, dolphins have high metabolic rates that fuel their ceaseless swimming and keep them cozy; in other words, dolphin bodies generate a lot of internal heat.
One possible mechanism for handling seas that are some 85 degrees might be a simple mechanical one: slow down. That is what their behavior currently suggests, anyway. Their movements have grown almost tepid, swimming without ceasing as always more languidly than briskly of late.
Is it just the dolphins we have seen or is rushing around August seas just not worth the heat it generates?
This line of thinking began with a recent mother-child reunion between a weaned teen and her mother. FM and her current calf Fennel were in the company of a small adult, which turned out to be AM. FM had AM in 2005.
In the years since usurper Fennel made his appearance in 2009, AM has reunited with her mom FM and brother Fennel more often than is typical for this behavior. Although AM’s mother-child reunions are more frequent, they are as characteristically fleeting.
AM spent most of her time submerged, surfacing periodically for air. In the meantime, FM and Fennel tread back and forth over a short stretch of water so slowly and methodically that it nearly hypnotized Capt. John Heidemann and me.
Wiping off the ennui of their languor with our sweat, the next dolphin encounter was another example of torpid behavior. The sharp eyes of Capt. Heidemann spied tiny dark forms on the surface way in the distance. Deep in a side bay off the beaten track, two mother-calf pairs and a pair of bulls proceeded to take “island time” to a new level.
Courtney and her calf Cutlass oozed down a short finger, followed by the still-languid FM and Fennel. Big bulls N and Riptab followed indolently. The bulls’ lingering surfaces gave us a good look at the parallel slashes across their rounded melons.
I was startled to see those slashes, called toothrakes, glaring under the August sun. this is because both N and Riptab had each been grabbed by the head by some very sharp teeth six months ago in March. Would you believe that some toothrakes are visible for over 8 months?
Courtney seemed to be the only dolphin with a mission in mind, albeit an unhurried one, and the others more or less followed her lead. She and Cutlass left the finger without haste and headed west. FM and Fennel wandered after them eventually, using the same patent lack of energy that had distinguished them earlier.
The bulls left the finger too but headed east instead of west. We watched them until they were dots in the distance and turned our attention to the moms and calves. They headed down the long wide waterway all the way to the end where it loops like a letter J. There they dispersed languorously and embarked on underwater searches.
Bulls N and Riptab returned and rejoined the ladies by and by. Judging from their swim speed, it may well have taken them to swim to the main road and back again!
Rather than search the seas slowly like the others, the big bulls swam among them indolently, pacing each other perfectly. Calves Fennel and Cutlass took a brief stab at active play, but the episode died as quickly as a firework. Much later, they all slowly wandered out again.
I wish I had a livelier tale for you, but those poor little dolphins act like sleeper walkers.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website 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.