Vidalia and his mom Valiant demonstrate how dolphins sometimes flow by the boat.
It’s been a month since the successful rescue of little local bottlenose dolphin calf Vidalia, cut free on Nov. 15 from the body noose of discarded fishing line that cut him for half of his young life.
For the first time since the rescue, we saw Vidalia and his mom Valiant over the weekend. Did they associate us with the rescue? Had their behavior towards us changed?
I had asked the Vidalia rescue leader, Dr. Randall Wells of the Chicago Zoological Society, what to expect. Based on his experiences over the past 40 years with occasional capture and release of dolphins for rescues and health assessments, Wells was impressed by the fact that Valiant and Vidalia remained so near to the net upon their release, hung around for many minutes, and then slowly swam away.
More typically, dolphins released from temporary captures will swim away from the capture area at high speed, though they’re often seem swimming calmly some distance away within minutes of release.
In addition to staying near the rescue site after their release, mother Valiant had allowed us (myself and Capt. John Heidemann, Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Abby Stone and Skip Jackson, and The Florida Aquarium’s Kristen Aanerud) to trail them at a diplomatic distance once they moved off after the rescue.
I didn’t want to harass them further but wanted to watch Vidalia for signs of shock and determine if he, though understandably rattled by the rescue, showed generally normal behavior.
As of this past weekend, the dolphins had had a month to think it over. Had their behavior changed?
We found Valiant and Vidalia in a hidden cove in our dolphin study area. They had not vanished the moment they heard us coming or saw our boat come into view. That was encouraging.
Valiant hunted with a particular “gait” that carved a trail of smooth circular footprints across lightly ruffled blue-green waters. Consequently, we tracked her easily.
We appreciated this because, as with all hunting dolphins, we tried to stay out of the area she searched. Today, this meant hovering several boat lengths away (60-80 feet). Valiant continued with her hunt despite our presence, as she always has.
We watched as she pushed a tiny perpendicular wave off her head that grew until wave and dolphin formed a giant letter T. Then she spun onto her side and encircled the fish she’d been chasing. Our presence didn’t disrupt her meal.
Vidalia stayed near his mom while she hunted. At one point, he arched and momentarily displayed the right side of his tailstock. It was still mottled a month later from the relentless slapping of that fishing line. Dolphin skin is indeed delicate.
Then he rose to breathe. The yawning dent at the base of his dorsal fin, created by five uncompromising months of fishing line sawing the dorsal fin from his body, has begun to fill in. Vidalia is healing.
After some minutes, mother and calf converged and headed out of the hidden cove side by side, which is natural dolphin behavior.
Outside the cove, they meandered about as if uncertain about their next direction. Valiant continued to keep them several boat lengths from us. This too is her habit, so that dimension of her behavior towards us had not changed following the rescue.
However, Valiant then seemed to change her mind about us, which is also her habit. With Vidalia trailing loosely behind her, she brought them ever closer to the boat. She began glancing at us across the water surface, a gesture that takes special effort. Finally, they began slowly gliding under the bow.
Ah, wasn’t this just like them! And, as is my wont, I snapped their pictures greedily.
When the time came to continue on our survey route, Capt. Heidemann oozed away until we clearly paced them no longer.
What was most eloquent about the observation was its lack of drama. The dolphins had behaved naturally and remained relaxed throughout.
Dolphins have a way to flowing by with their bodies fully extended and their flukes wafting up and down without the usual tautness, even lingering on the downbeat. Both Valiant and Vidalia flowed like this near the boat, gliding just under the surface via mellow pumps of powerful tailstocks that created delicate glassy footprints, which enabled us to track them easily. They didn’t have to make footprints. And they usually don’t.
We had not lost their trust.
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 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.