Propped up by adult males DD2 (right) and BB (underwater to the left), a yearling bottlenose dolphin calf dies a lingering death after being run over by a boat and shredded by its propeller.
The primary rule of the road is to watch out for the other guy, whether we are talking about vehicles on the highway or vessels on the “road” between channel markers on the water.
A mother bottlenose dolphin and her calf were recently hit by a boat on our local waters. On Friday, the laconic news of a wounded mom and calf came in from Capt. Jack Steeves and first mate Lani Grano of Hubbard’s Dolphin Watch. On Sunday, Capt. John Lauber of Dolphin Quest reported a sighting of the wounded calf alone and later that day, Capt. John Heidemann and I saw the grizzly evidence for ourselves.
In the middle of a boat-busy bay that sparkled cheerfully in the noon-day sun, two dolphins leapt out of water in the manner of highly excited dolphins. Seconds later, two people on a Jet Ski screamed over the spot where the dolphins submerged. I clutched Capt. Heidemann’s arm in alarm as we headed over. The Jet Ski rushed on for a hundred yards and then slowed and circled, uncertain. Had they hit something?
The two excited dolphins were local bulls BB and DD2. They threaded with great agitation around their small companion, the shredded yearling calf. Their agitation gave rise to a range of responses.
At times, they lined up side by side like dolphins ready to head out, but only swam a short distance. Mostly the agonized calf was on the outside of this line-up rather than in the middle flanked by the bulls, the latter a protective or directly supportive position.
But several other times, BB or DD2 (sometimes both) swam underneath the calf as it labored and propped it on their back the way moms and aunts do with feeble newborns. Yet against these apparent rescue efforts, the bulls also arched up and over, sinking the shredded calf. The absence of the calf’s mom insinuated that she had already died from her wounds.
As with all agitated dolphins, we did not stay long and further contribute to their angst. There was no point in calling a stranding team to rescue and rehab the shredded calf.
It is hard to imagine how a yearling dolphin and its mom got cleaved by a boat propeller. Do not dolphins get out of the way?
Most baby dolphin milk meals are milkshakes, but on occasion mom will float on her side without swimming to invite or encourage her calf to nurse in a stationary position. Stationary nursing is rare, but the few episodes that we have seen suggest that immobile moms lay just under the surface where they are hard for boaters to see.
Moreover, nursing is designed to be calming for mother and babe. Immersed in that timeless absorption, it may be that such nursing pairs are particularly unlikely to think about on-coming boats.
Outside of nursing, dolphins become engrossed in what they are doing like any member of any intelligent species. Thus engrossed, they are easily startled by the unexpected appearance of someone, or something with steel blades.
More broadly, though, dolphin lives are not lived on the principle of getting out of the way of watercraft. They undoubtedly think a lot more about getting out of the way of sharks, entities that live in the water rather than on the water. It is impressive to me that dolphins can relate to things “on” the water at all.
Another issue in learning to avoid boats and their pitiless propellers is that the lesson involves one-trial learning. Shredded dolphins do not generally get a second chance (at anything).
If you have a boat with a design that does not let you monitor the waters for the animals that live in it, well, let your conscience be your guide. Your friends and family will certainly notice and discuss your choices among themselves, although not necessarily with you.
At sea, a good neighbor policy is to keep a sharp eye out for marine mammals, give them plenty of room and only put your throttle back in gear when you can see them at a safe distance from your boat.
I actually feel uneasy having to write out these unwritten rules of the road.
In the old days, life was pretty cheap. Death was common. Maybe people back then were less startled by it (maybe not). Think about the frequency of death in the Old West of the 1840s or in Dickens’ England. The wrong kid caught the wrong cold and life was over. Madam Curie’s beloved husband was hit by a horse-drawn carriage and she was a widow. Death in childbirth was axiomatic until recently, save for parts of the world where it still persists. Women raised far fewer children than they bore. Our hygienic suburban lifestyles push death, gratefully I would say, to the backstage. Yet life as a field biologist shoves the inevitable marriage between life and death to center stage, aglow with spotlights but without apology.
Death. Yes, I got that (I think). Senseless, painful, panicked, agonized, lingering death. No, I do not get that.
There is something good in every situation. The good in this situation is that this is the only time in ten years that John’s Pass has been exposed to the sickening spectacle of a propeller-shredded dolphin. Remind me to commend local boaters after I stop throwing up.
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.