This is an uncharacteristically somber view of a little yearling bottlenose dolphin we call Ballou, born to Bet last summer.
Photo by ANN WEAVER
Yearling bottlenose dolphin Ballou is missing the top of its dorsal fin.
Australian baggage handlers were recently flustered to find a crocodile roaming freely among the suitcases in the airplaneís cargo hold after escaping its plastic carrier during the flight. Itís not every day that work involves a brush with a reptile as primitive as a dinosaur!
It may be that you get home from work with lesser tales of woe, but tales of woe nonetheless. Life on land is a series of accomplishments and challenges, the latter ranging from serious lifestyle-threatening trials like layoffs and foreclosures to smaller annoyances like burned-out appliances. Less often do we grapple with the ancient enemies of disease and predation (think of that crocodile in the luggage!).
Life at sea is more like a series of challenges. Working with wild dolphins as I do, itís impossible to ignore their raw battles with the ancient enemies. This is the somber tale of one little ladyís fight, a yearling bottlenose dolphin we call Ballou. She was born to Bet last summer (Dolphin Watchís Iíve known her all my life).
Mammal babies are cheerful creatures and dolphin calves are no exception. Ballou always struck me as the most cheerful of the Johnís Pass calves.
In the beginning, she did what all bottlenose dolphin calves do: spent her first summer at dolphin sea school learning the basics of nursing without lips and ceaseless swimming while her mom ushered her slowly alongside friends with other newborns.
Sheíd mastered these vital lessons of life by her first autumn, and then her cheerful nature emerged. Last October, she spent a jovial afternoon of gentle tickling, poking and prodding from mom Bet and Slight Twin as three dozen giant white pelicans migrated overhead in classic V-formation. She often wore a play-face that day, which is the broad open-mouth facial expression that universally signals when someone is playing, and why I think of Ballou as more cheerful than most.
A couple of weeks later, Ballou wove merrily around her mom and another friend, AM, as the festooned boats assembled off the American Legion hall in Madeira Beach for a maritime Veteranís Day Parade.
When we saw Bet and Ballou the following spring, she was gaily continuing her social studies at dolphin sea school and progressing steadily through the standard stages of dolphin development. Now her companions included older dolphins in her momís social circle. She grappled easily with three-year-old Nougat and big bull BB, learning the limits of her yearling stamina. Evenly matched, she and yearling Senna excitedly threw around a horsetail (mangrove seedpod).
One evening, she and mom Bet ran into PC, a native son about Betís age. Ballou had two remoras, the itchy tickly cleaner fish that provoke great wiggling responses in dolphin kids. Seasoned in the fine art of rolling over bigger adults, Ballou used PC and mom Bet as emery boards to scrub the remoras off. PC accommodated this affably. It also let Bet show how smart she is.
For example, Bet tried to bite off one of the remoras tickling Ballouís belly, which suggests that Bet understood Ballouís dilemma. She also tried to carry Ballou on her back.
We didnít see them again until late June this summer. They raced around the vicinity of three other mom-calf pairs so elusively, I couldnít get a good look at them. The pictures I snapped were poor because the dolphins remained at a distance, but were sufficient to show that Ballou had developed a horrible skin rash.
Over the July 4th holiday, we got the details I was itching for. Poor little Ballou was covered from head to toe, so to speak, with little white dots. Even her dorsal fin was covered. This was most unusual.
ďDotsĒ like this tend to cover a specific portion of the body that, to my previous knowledge, excluded dorsal fins. Ballou also had two giant white patches, as if her silvery gray skin had been briskly rubbed off.
A touch of pox on a dolphin isnít unusual. But Ballouís response - or rather apparent lack of immunological response - was markedly atypical. The condition had spread appallingly in just a few days.
It was ironic; I got a picture of Ballou surfacing with her little face poking over the water surface. She seemed to be smiling. But her dolphinís smile was an illusion.
She was a pretty sick little girl through the summer, rarely venturing from momís side to play with the numerous playmates at her disposal. Mom Bet did not get the pox, so it either wasnít contagious or her more mature immune system fought it off.
Finally, by the end of August, Ballou was healing! The dots were gone from her dorsal fin. The remaining dots on her left side were fading, though there were still many dots on her right side. Though Ballou was light-colored as local dolphins go, now she looks white. You can see her from quite a distance, which is a risky condition for a dolphin.
She looked like she felt better too. She and Bet rolled around each other briefly like in the old days, and Ballou even playfully surfaced under a little mass of grass to wear it briefly.
By Sept. 23, Ballouís body was clean of all signs of infection. But the top of her dorsal fin had been bitten off.
How much is this little girl supposed to take? How much can she take?
The brilliant woman who overcame challenges that none of us can fathom, Helen Keller, observed that security is an illusion that certainly does not exist in nature. You might want to think about that the next time youíre tempted to tell a tale of woe.
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.