Ballou’s mom Bet bows over the water surface in a watery cascade created by cocking her tailstock just so.
A great way to appreciate good health is to get good and sick for a couple of days from some foreign virus your immune system has never encountered before.
Once you get well, you not only feel better physically. You also feel better psychologically, bouncing back into your life with a renewed appreciation of the splendor of good health.
Something similar is happening at sea. One of our young bottlenose dolphins, Ballou, has battled disease and injury but survived them both and now has that healthy bounce back in her step.
Animal scientists are discouraged from talking about animal emotions because emotions are so hard to measure scientifically. But Ballou’s wiggly, giggly behavior – understanding that we don’t literally hear Ballou giggle -- suggests she’s finally feeling pretty good about things.
Ballou was born last summer to a local lady dolphin we call Bet. Other than some minor hassles from local bulls, Ballou and her mom roamed the waterways in good health and presumably good spirits.
Dolphin Watch noted in the recent story, Wrestling with dinosaurs and tales of woe, that Ballou was a particularly cheerful calf tended by a particularly affectionate mother with particularly friendly schoolmates. They passed the winter somewhere outside of John’s Pass and returned in the spring.
By late June, Ballou had contracted a skin disease akin to dolphin “measles” and was a pretty sick little girl for the entire summer. Like any sick child, she wanted her mother near; dolphin-like, she swam at Bet’s side for the four months it took for her immune system to finally conquer her condition. By late August, Ballou’s body was clearing up along with her spirits.
That August day, Captain John Heidemann and I found Bet and Ballou swimming with another mother-calf pair, Face and her tiny-but-no-longer-shiny calf Facet.
Face and Bet are friends. They’ve been swimming together all summer, which, considering how sick little Ballou was, may be related to Face’s touching personal side (Dolphin Watch’s The Surprising secrets in a face).
On board, we were glad to see Ballou starting to show some of her old cheerfulness. Though still swimming quietly at her mom’s side, Ballou intermittently invited her mom to play by rolling sideways and presenting her little white belly to her mom; in my view, dolphins do such “belly presents” when they want to interact with another dolphin (or human swimmer in waters outside the United States where its legal to swim with them; check before you dive in, though).
Bet is a young first-time mother known as a primipare in the animal behavior literature and responded playfully, nuzzling or petting her baby gently. They even swam through a floating patch of sea grass that briefly adorned Ballou with emerald blades, something else that dolphins do when feeling friendly.
Dolphin calves are often quite friendly with each other. Ballou’s obvious playmate was Face’s baby Facet. Facet was four months old, which is about the age when mom dolphins start letting their babies play with other dolphins.
But Facet is very small for its age and Face is even more protective of it than she was with her previous calf Babyface, maybe because of the unhappy fate suffered by the calf she had in between them, Falco (Dolphin Watch’s, In a good or bad Way, I daren’t say). Yet Ballou played briefly though tenderly with Facet, who, calf-like, wiggled away from the attention, only to zoom right back for more.
When we saw Ballou and company in late September, her skin condition had cleared up and she had a fresh shark bite that amputated the top of her dorsal fin. She was back to swimming quietly at her mom’s side, but not for long.
Every time we’ve see her in October, she and Bet (still with Face and Facet) are dancing up a storm out there! Ballou zooms past inviting her mom to chase her, Bet charges after her, they stop and wrestle and then zoom off to repeat the process. It’s great to see Ballou acting like a dolphin calf again. It’s also great to see another side of Bet’s complex nature; she has surfaced as the most playful dolphin mom we’ve ever seen!
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.