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Dolphin Watch
Practical joker at sea
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Who knew that a dolphin might sneak up on other dolphins at sea, appearing out of nowhere without warning?
Mother and son were minding their own business. They strolled together along a thoroughfare popular with their kind. Except for them, the streets were empty. Or so we thought.

Their pace said they were not going anywhere in particular. Its steady rhythm, first calming and then hypnotic, matched the breathing of someone who was falling asleep. Indeed, local lady FM and her strapping 6-year-old son Fennel were falling into a nice doze. Being dolphins, they kept swimming, but went slower and slower as they succumbed to the luxury of a nap.

Suddenly, Fennel startled as if goosed – poked from behind by some unseen force. It was the maritime version of falling out of bed. Being a dolphin, Fennel lurched forward in the water with a big splash. Awake now, he and his mother vanished beneath the waves.

When they surfaced again, there were now three instead of two dolphins. The third was the big bull Xiphos. He had snuck up behind the dozing pair and goosed the lad to wake them up! The bull has personality.

Named for the Greek word for sword, Xiphos gives us a glimpse of the personalities of free-ranging dolphins.

The idea of dolphin personalities is both alien and acceptable, depending on your perspective. Animal lovers know perfectly well that animals have personality. The idea that this is debated in some circles is laughable to them (regretful though that laughter might be).

On the other hand, animal scientists are warned to avoid the topic of animal personality. We cannot scientifically measure the rich and personal nuances of animal behavior that create personality because animals neither take surveys nor give interviews. (Notable exceptions are the amazing apes who use American Sign Language: Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the bonobo and Chantek the orangutan.)

Yet those scientific walls of Jericho (discounting animal personality) are tumbling down. We are freer to talk now. Let me tell you about Xiphos the goosing dolphin.

Xiphos is his own man. He first appeared in the study area that Capt. John Heidemann and I monitor under federal permit in May of 2012. Bull-like, he was shadowing a small group of hunting moms and cavorting calves.

Capt. Heidemann and I only had two clues that he was there: occasional glimpses of a large dolphin dorsal fin in the distance and a sudden drawing together of the moms to their calves to form a tight group.

We cannot suggest that Xiphos is prudent. But we can say that he was well-versed in the discreet ways of dolphins who are new to an area already inhabited by resident dolphins.

Xiphos behaved this way towards groups of resident dolphins for the next four months with one notable exception.

The exception was in late May. Dolphin Watch reported Xiphos’ remarkable demonstration with a large fish for local bulls N and Riptab. For many minutes, Xiphos handled the fish in a highly stylized way, with N and Riptab as his riveted audience.

Many animals display for many reasons. The other animals watch and judge the displayer (for example, this is how females choose with whom to mate). We inferred that the point of Xiphos’ orchestrated display was to establish himself among local bulls. If I was not afraid of banishment from the animal behavior scientific community, I would admit that I thought Xiphos showed the kind of cool self-confidence we celebrate in celebrity George Clooney.

Xiphos’ display apparently worked. Xiphos stayed in local waters for six months. By the fall, he was swimming with local dolphins.

The following spring, Xiphos was again in the company of resident dolphins. It looked for a while that he was working on another – quite remarkable - campaign to bond with local bull Schnoz. Named for the nose-like extension as his identifying dorsal fin pattern, Schnoz is among the largest and most dominant of local bulls. Unlike the majority of mature bulls in our local waters, Schnoz has never had a bond with another bull (an adult male alliance) in the ten years that we have studied him.

Thus it was a pleasant surprise to see Xiphos and Schnoz traveling together for the summer. That fall, Xiphos and Schnoz expressed their bond with an extensive display of obvious affection. Afterwards, Xiphos left the area for many months.

He came back this spring – without Schnoz’s company – but is again busy roaming and goosing.

Yes, Xiphos continues his goosey ways. Just a month after young Fennel was goosed out of his nap, Q and her current calf Qody were searching the shallows off a mangrove isle.

As we approached, they came together and swung over to the boat in the manner of dolphins greeting a familiar face. Their unhurried cruise alongside us was abruptly interrupted when Qody startled as if goosed – poked from behind by some unseen force. Being a dolphin, Qody lurched forward in a flurry with a big splash.

Yep, it was Xiphos! He had once again snuck up from behind to join fellow schoolmates. What a personality!

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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