Stick the dolphin is no angel but her halo image is certainly seasonal.
People who have lived in the same town for a long time have an exacting way to acknowledge their long-term friends and acquaintances.
Ride with them as a passenger sometime. Watch how, when they drive past a friend going in the opposite direction, they either raise all four fingers off the steering wheel briefly or nod faintly by raising the chin. The pure subtlety of these greeting gestures broadcasts their great familiarity with their community.
I do not have any counterpart greeting gestures for the dolphins of my acquaintance that I “pass on the street” out at sea. I love that feeling of familiarity, though it is still a bit of a shock for a kid from Wisconsin. I recently ran into local dolphin lady Stick and her 3-month-old calf Twig four different times, each time in passing.
Most recently was at our house. I was inside and heard a dolphin exhale. I rushed outside to see it. Stick and her little Twig were in our canal with bull DD2 and mom-calf pair Sharkey and Echo. Stick launched a fish into the air in a long high arc, which landed 15 feet away with a stunning smack.
How she launched it was perplexing because no part of her body was visible at the water surface. You just saw a surge of water as if something substantial spewed below it and then the silver-yellow fellow flying through the air.
Stick’s schoolmates were doing other things. DD2 fed with a hunting style I call “wave-making.” He surged along the seawall invisibly, pushing a rounded mound of water in front of him and undoubtedly shoving his quarry too.
Sharkey babysat the two miniature dolphins. Echo and Twig’s excited baby leaps created endearing little silhouettes like the ceramic dolphins sold at beach stores.
I wished they would hunt along our seawall all morning and I watched them swim away with disappointment. Nice to see ya, Stick!
Twice we ran into Stick when she was surfing. First, a week before Thanksgiving, Stick hunted near a little bridge while her age-mates Bet and Slightwin babysat her young calf. A handsome craft from the community of Punta Gorda accelerated as it went past, and the dolphins leapt without hesitation into its frothing opportunity. They surfed for two miles to the next no-wake zone. Though her schoolmates leapt repeatedly, Stick and her little Twig slid down the waves without fancy aerobatics. Nice to see ya, Stick, sorta.
Three weeks later, we ran into Stick the Surfer again. But this was different because she made a surprise appearance. It was yet another lesson in paying very close attention if you want to get it right!
Four mother-calf pairs were near the little bridge. The older dolphins hunted. The three youngest were calves of the year. Still nursing with no need to hunt, they zipped and zoomed around as their mothers searched for food for two.
By and by, the mothers gathered their calves and headed north. The adults formed a general playpen around the calves, who continued their wiggling wrestling match. Mom Sharkey is a first-time mom and may have been romping with her six-month-old Echo. Mom J is an experienced mother and was not romping. Instead, it seemed to me that she stayed close enough to intervene for her two-month-old newborn if need be.
Part of the play, as if often the case with calves, is that J’s calf had a remora. These cleaner fish antagonize baby dolphins, propelling the latter into numerous gyrations to dislodge their antagonists. J’s calf was propelled into numerous shudders, tail flips and sudden accelerations. Either the older calves thought these conspicuous moves were play invitations or just treated them that way. Either way, the kids spilled and tumbled with enough suddenness to drive the cameraman (me) crazy.
Then the group of eight paused and milled around as the regal Rickapeg headed their way. They turned and rushed to the approaching yacht to surf it. I saw a distant dolphin also rushing to the yacht but did not at the time, expect to see nearly twice as many dolphins surfing the yacht than we watched rushing over to it. Ya gotta pay attention.
Capt. John Heidemann piloted us safely parallel to the majestic yacht and its contingent of surfers. Some launched out of the bow waves and others out of the wake. I snapped pictures zealously, expecting only the original eight dolphins and curious if the entire octet was indeed surfing.
Taking photo-identification pictures of active dolphins takes timing and concentration. If I pause that split second to identify the dolphin fin in the frame before snapping the picture, I often miss the shot. So I focused on photography first and identification second as we all thundered down this stretch of watery road.
At one point, I thought one of the dorsal fins did not match those of the original eight. But that is why we collect photographic data - documentation against the unreliable human brain. Then I glimpsed another dorsal fin that definitely did not match the original eight. Back at the lab, my suspicions were more than verified. Five additional dolphins had rushed “out of nowhere” to surf with the original eight, including Stick and her little Twig! Nice seeing you, Stick. Sort of.
A couple of days later, dozens of pelicans dove madly on a seafood festival just outside John’s Pass. A mom and baby dolphin headed over, and we followed them briefly before they vanished into the tumult: Stick and her little Twig.
Nice seeing you again, Stick! Sort of!
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.goodnaturedstatistics.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.