Newborn baby bottlenose dolphins like Jelly’s newborn typically pop up at the surface with their eyes closed, either snoozing or cringing against the sudden bright light above the sea. In contrast, mother keeps a close [open] eye on her baby.
Life at sea does not play out for our benefit, but it is to our benefit to watch it play out.
This summer’s 2013 birth season of the John’s Pass bottlenose dolphins has played out like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, at least for those of us who monitor the health and well-being of the local dolphin community. The suspense has been nothing like the terrible dolphin die-off on the east coast of Florida, however.
We have much to celebrate, though only one newborn bottlenose dolphin has appeared each month between April and July, two of whom perished. The lack of newborns was eased this week with the appearance of two new babies at the end of August, delivered on par with Hitchcock-like suspense.
Eight dolphin subgroups recently assembled near a tidy little causeway and included all of the calves born to local moms this year, some calves from previous years and the two new bonus babies.
Dolphin-like, the best action was a combination of fantastic and frustrating. The fantastic part was watching Stick’s brand-new baby attempt its first hours of life. So new that its dorsal fin had not quite stiffened and its baby mouth still bore the traces of mammalian whiskers that would vanish that day, it revealed one of the first challenges of learning to swim like a dolphin.
This challenge involved the glistening newborn’s tailstock, which apparently has a mind of its own, or rather a musculature of its own. The dolphin tailstock is the back half of the dolphin’s body that serves as the propeller that pushes the dolphin forward via up-and-down strokes (in contrast, fish and shark propellers move side-to-side). This biological propeller is fitted with an efficient muscular mechanism that conserves energy: A dolphin has to create the down stroke through muscular effort but the up stroke is accomplished with a spring-like mechanism that bounces the tailstock up and ready for the next down stroke.
This mechanism was amusingly obvious as Stick’s new baby jiggled clumsily to the surface. Perhaps the down stroke is instinctive because the newborn surfaced alongside Stick’s measured strokes with fair success. But the newborn was clearly thrown off, literally, by the up stroke.
Every time it surfaced at Stick’s side, its miniature tailstock seemed to bounce up without restraint, pitching the tiny shiny baby forward uncontrollably into a headlong smash landing on its chin, the fresh new tailstock trailing innocently behind in its best ready-for-the-down-stroke position.
Stick’s little nursery group included two other moms but also one of our local bull giants, Schnoz. For years, Schnoz’ gender was a mystery due in part to his habit of swimming with a group of mom dolphins with newborns like this. This is unusual bull behavior; bulls are usually seen with moms when the calf is older.
The frustrating action was the other mom with a tiny shiny newborn. She was frustrating because, with a second larger dolphin nearby, she moved away from us so concertedly that we were only able to see her from behind. This meant that the vital dorsal fin pattern we use to identify individual dolphins was never clearly visible. After a handful of such surfaces, we backed off to avoid harassing her. There are two possibilities as to the identity of the new mom, but a Hitchcock-like suspense continues until that part of the movie unfolds.
There were two other little dramas with our slightly older calves of the season.
One drama was striking. Front Slash’s 6-week-old baby was busy with behavior associated with the ‘tail stage.’ The tail stage is characterized by a tiny dolphin that has acquired a modicum of control over its tail and fluke movements and is now better able to move smoothly between water and air for breathing. But the baby in the tail stage is now subject to sudden accelerations, as if its propeller operates at will, abruptly thrusting the little one forward from mom’s side in an uncontrolled spurt that sometimes pitches the baby into a headstand or forward somersault!
The other drama was melodramatic. It involved first-time mom Sharkey’s calf. Born by the Memorial Day weekend, it is our oldest local calf. Now that it is 3 months old, it is old enough to get a name. But it was far too young and unlearned to be embroiled in an enthusiastic but disorderly social exchange between three teens and big bull Xiphos.
This exchange was so vigorous that all you saw with lots of splashing, punctuated by tauntingly sporadic glimpses of a tiny baby, which we finally figured out was Sharkey’s calf. Sharkey haunted the sidelines, as many moms do when their baby is caught up with other dolphins.
Ultimately, we glimpsed Sharkey swimming away with her baby while the wild splashing continued. The suspense about whether the calf is OK continues until that part of the movie unfolds.
Life at sea play does not play out for our benefit, but knowing the stages of growth and development in young lives and the entire dolphin community is ecologically essential.
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at email@example.com 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.