Bottlenose dolphin Stick glances at the world above the water one last time before she slides into its embrace, safeguarding the secrets of unbridled dolphin unpredictability.
“Life is routine” is a simple statement with two different meanings: life is boring or life is predictable. I choose the latter, especially after I realized the importance of “routine” in human society.
It is a predictable daily schedule that produces well-adjusted children. Solid work habits create successful careers. It is certainty of the marrow that grows stable relationships.
Even our mother ship has a regular schedule. The earth’s steady orbit around the sun leads to predictable seasons in a predictable sequence. Its rhythmic spin on its axis reliably produces day and night.
Consequently, animals also live by routines. It’s fairly easy to class each species as active during the day (diurnal species), during the night (nocturnal species), or during periods of dawn and dusk (crepuscular species).
There are exceptions to every generalization, of course, and free-ranging bottlenose dolphins are glaring exceptions because they don’t fit neatly into a diurnal, nocturnal, or crepuscular classification.
But their mostly-mysterious exceptionalism goes deeper than that. About the only thing that experienced people can predict about the dolphins outside your doorstep is that there’s nothing “routine” about their behavior.
On the recreational side, two people who have been out there with the dolphins thousands of times, Capt. Jack Steeves and First Mate Lani Grano of Hubbard’s Sea Adventure, claim without hesitation that, “There is no pattern”. In other words, dolphin behavior is wildly variable.
On the scientific side, I track dolphin behavior to understand the potential association between changes in their behavior and the construction of the gleaming new John’s Pass causeway. With Capt. John Heidemann at the wheel, we’ve surveyed our dolphin study area nearly 1,000 times now. The data are clear evidence that dolphin behavior is wildly variable.
Consider the case of our four most recent surveys, conducted over the Labor Day weekend. The first of these involved an intoxicating 42 dolphins in different groups in different places doing different things. Girls of the Gulf Osiris, Lotus and Payne (15 moms, calves and friends altogether) fed richly in John’s Pass. Several bays away, mom-calf Valiant and Vidalia roamed in one spot, a mysterious teenage dolphin fended off tern thieves in another spot (one fish for the dolphin, two for the terns!), and a sleepy group of bulls and babes snoozed their way across yet another spot. Well to the south, we watched with exhilaration as more and more dolphins showed up “out of the blue”, including the two newest members of our dolphin community, Leading Dent’s summer-born calf and X’s tiny shiny hours-old newborn.
The second survey produced a single assembly of 20 dolphins, only some of whom were dolphins from the previous holiday survey, that trailed X and her newborn from a diplomatic distance.
The new dolphins included mom-calf pair Q and Qball, whom we haven’t seen in months. Now a subadult, Qball goosed, rolled and petted Leading Dent’s baby en route until it became as animated as Qball had herself in the same circumstances, as told in Dolphin Watch’s Qball runs the table.
Like a hard slap, the third survey was a resounding reminder of that wild variability: We saw only three dolphins. Valiant and Vidalia swung by to say hi and then melted away. Club cruised alone without Cracker, revealing several fresh shark bites that said she’d fought hard to protect her baby to the end.
On the fourth survey, we found a riotous group of 15 dolphins, which included a couple of the dolphins from another holiday survey but mostly new dolphins including big bull Grin, whom we haven’t seen in months!
Just as the statement, “Life is routine” is a simple statement with two different meanings, life is boring or predictable, the claim that “dolphins are unpredictable” also has two different meanings: dizzying or dynamic. I choose dynamic, though the data keep me dizzy, I mean busy.
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.dolphinsuperstore.com. Read her award-winning Dolphin Watch column weekly at www.TBNweekly.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.