We tend to think of bottlenose dolphin bulls as incessantly active and even acrimonious as in this picture, but they have their tender side too. They just do not show it that often.
“Vive la difference” is a pithy celebration of the differences between the two most powerful forces in the world, the male force and the female force. At sea among free-ranging bottlenose dolphins, the male force differs dramatically depending on whether the female force is present or absent.
Recently we glimpsed two private portrayals of bullpen politics in the absence of females. The first is ruefully common and the second is tenderly rare. But they were both humbling portrayals that cooperation, communication and congeniality characterize bottlenose bull buddies.
An hour after dawn one early autumn day, the waters of the study were flat but not still. Tiny ripples covered their surface as if they were being jiggled gently from below instead of whisked lightly from above. Misty clouds covered most of the sky, which gave the waters a brightness against which dark dolphin forms stood out nicely.
Near a short causeway, the water wrinkled in a curious way. Capt. John Heidemann swung around slowly so we could keep an eye on it. Several minutes later, the brawny form of bottlenose bull Brick surfaced.
Brick visits our local waters annually in spring and summer. He is part of a super-alliance of bulls we call the Punch Buddies. Punch Buddies BNSB, Brick, Dollop, Grin, Nose, Square Scoop and Twin Dip all used to come to town over the same couple of days. Once here, however, they did not occur in the same groups but rather roamed the seas as pairs of bonded bulls.
Consequently, it took some time to recognize that they constituted a coordinated coalition. It seems to me that they cooperate among themselves subtly, cooperating indirectly by not fighting each other rather than cooperating directly by helping their buddy win a fight.
Brick surfaced several times to catch his breath from his long submergence as a second dolphin surfaced in the distance. I told Capt. Heidemann, “That should be Nose.”
Within the minute, Nose and Brick joined each other across 100 yards of water and headed under the causeway side by side. On the other side, they surfaced twice; both times Brick arched up specially to glance at us.
We waited for the next surface. After we waited several minutes, as before (I might add), we finally realized that the two bulls had ditched us.
They had clearly coordinated their separation, convergence and departure. But it was the startlingly clear act of communicating with each other, “Ditch ‘em!”, that took the sting out of their resolute departure. Do dolphins have a vocalization that literally means, “Ditch ‘em!”? How did they coordinate their departure so succinctly?
Kids growing up in the American suburbs between World War II and the Viet Nam War know what “Ditch ‘em!” means!
I recall two reasons to ditch. One was the nasty neighbor lady who hated kids cutting across her lawn. When she glared from a window or doorway, the kids streaming across her lawn knew instinctively to “ditch” as fast as they could. The other reason was the creepy kid no one wanted to be around. Like the nasty neighbor lady, their mere appearance in the distance often triggered the regrettable response of ditching.
I never appreciated the wordless coordination of ditching, but more importantly how we all understood where to meet up later, also without words.
Sometime later at sea after being ditched, we again spied curious wrinkles among the distant wavelets and watched to see if they presaged dolphins. It took time, as it always does with bulls in the absence of females. Had we found Brick and Nose again?
Eventually, substantial dorsal fins identified big bulls Schnoz and Xiphos. Schnoz is a major long-term player in our local waters. Unlike other mature bulls, he worked alone until last year when he began forming a bond with Xiphos, the burly stranger who first appeared last spring.
Maybe the philosophers are right about love being as perennial as the grass. There are, after all, many ways to define love. In the case of bottlenose bulls, love is defined as a firm bond maintained with tender affection and even food sharing.
At first, these giants were snoozing. With the lingering tempo of dozing dolphins, they swam about five feet apart like bonded bulls. Interestingly, they took the same route that Dolphin Watch reported last month, which suggested that dolphins use something like sunken streets.
After a time, they roused to a half-awake state. They maintained their lingering tempo as they began tapping and toying with each other with unexpected tenderness. Oozing through super shallow waters and eventually under the same causeway where Brick and Nose ditched us, they muzzled each other. One would lean lightly against or pet the other by delicately drawing a fluke tip across him as they submerged. At times, a fluke tip briefly poking out of the surface showed that one of them had rolled onto his side, a posture that invites friendly interaction. Schnoz even displayed a unique sign of affectionate interest by briefly wearing a piece of grass.
This kind of tender “social travel” is used by all manner of dolphins to sustain their affectionate bonds. It is rare to see among bulls, especially compared to being ditched, which is ruefully common. Both humbling portrayals argue that cooperation, communication and congeniality characterize bottlenose bull buddies.
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.