Vidalia, a local bottlenose dolphin calf, is a conservation success story. Although he was freed nearly one year ago from the fishing line that had entangled his body for four months, his many scars are still easy to see. This picture shows the scar on the right corner of his mouth where fishing line sliced him like a knife cutting bread.
Free-ranging marine mammals like bottlenose dolphins handle many objects at sea, from fish to seaweed toys, but are sometimes most regrettably forced to handle discarded fishing line. They don’t “handle” it, of course. Once tangled in it, they can only endure.
In the summer of 2011, a bottlenose dolphin calf less than six months old became entangled in fishing line. Dolphin-like, Vidalia swam continuously. But helplessly encased, each pump of his tail made the fishing line slice into him like a saw cutting wood, slashing the corners of his mouth, right pectoral (arm) fin, left eye and dorsal fin. A trailing wad of fishing line slapped his side unceasingly.
Vidalia sometimes struggled against his noose by leaping around wildly. At other time, wearying of his struggle, he tried to clamber onto his mother’s back, a most unusual thing for any but the youngest newborn dolphins to do.
Vidalia endured his body noose of fishing line for four months until November 2011 when he was finally captured in a tiny St Petersburg cove, cut free of fishing line and set free by a state-wide network of marine mammal biologists led by Dr. Randy Wells, and which included yours truly and Capt. John Heidemann Dolphin Watch’s Baby dolphin rescue is happy ending story.
Vidalia’s maritime rescue was particularly successful because Vidalia and his mother Valiant stayed around John’s Pass afterwards, which meant that Capt. Heidemann and I have been able to observe them regularly and provide rare follow-up data.
Happily, we can report that, thanks to the rescue, young Vidalia returned to the normal life of a young dolphin growing up at his mother’s side. In so doing, he’s provided valuable evidence of healing times at sea.
Behaviorally, Vidalia zipped through the stages of healthy calf development more quickly than normal; after all, he had a lot of catching up to do. While entangled, Vidalia swam at his mother’s side. In the months following the rescue, he became progressively bolder, initially swimming near his foraging mom and finally speeding around her at ever-increasing (developmentally normal) distances.
One January day, Vidalia was absolutely animated. To his swift circles around mom, he added a brief bout of surfing the wake of a passing yacht; catching a fish but watching helplessly as it was stolen by a tern; and goosing a cormorant into flight. His bright energy reminded me of another entangled calf, Juno, who behaved with similar wild abandon following his release from his snare of fishing line Dolphin Watch’s Cutting to the chase.
As spring turned to summer, Vidalia showed a different form of normal dolphin behavior by expanding his social life. He began to intermingle with a variety of dolphin schoolmates besides his mom, from younger calves to big bull members of the Bowery Boys super-alliance.
Physically, Vidalia’s delicate dolphin skin is primarily designed to be in contact with sea water, so weeks of fishing line entanglement wounded him in many places. The endless chafing of the trailing wad of fishing line that slapped his side unceasingly produced a hefty patch of big white bumps. This patch showed little sign of healing for three months and took half a year to heal completely (November 2011 to May 2012).
The fishing line left several marks, which may be permanent. The fishing line that slashed his tissues with every pump of his tail cut most deeply into the bottom front of his dorsal fin (the fin on the back that you see when a dolphin surfaces). It took six months for the swelling to go down and the lighter discolored pigment to match the rest of his body color.
The asymmetrical severing action of the fishing line created a large gap in the tissue that, almost a year later, has yet to fill in. This is different than two other dolphins who sustained wounds at the bottom front of the dorsal fin; Juno and Strip’s gap filled in within weeks of injury.
The furrow-like dents created by the sawing action of fishing line across the corners of the mouth and left eye are still clearly visible when Vidalia pokes his head out or leaps out of the water, which he now does just like any other normal dolphin.
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.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.