There is no doubt that we are living in turbulent times filled with great uncertainty. Now, more than ever, we need hope and fortitude as a beach community facing a pandemic, closed businesses and emptied beaches. We can learn much from the strength and resilience of some of our original local residents, our dolphin family.
They too suffered terrible loss in 2018 and 2019, due to the scourge of red tide. Locally, more than 50 dead dolphins washed up near the south end of Lee County in late 2019. There is no doubt our local pod grieved the death of dozens of its family members and friends.
No matter how great the disaster, or how devastating the heartbreak, life does go on. Our dolphins survived their grief, as well as a blow to the fisheries, which even now makes it a greater challenge for them to find enough food. There is no greater testimony to their resilience than the new calves seen recently along our coastline. As writer Mehmet Murat Ildan observed, “There is great beauty in little things.” Indeed, these little ones remind us that hope floats.
While dolphins are known to mate throughout the year, in Florida, they tend to mate and give birth in the spring and fall. Mothers carry their young for about 12 months and give birth to them while swimming, the calf’s tail and flukes emerging first. During gestation, the calf’s dorsal fin and flukes remain soft and pliable, which enables the calf to exit mama quickly and safely. The calf’s dorsal fin and tail will stiffen within two weeks of the calf’s birth.
As soon as the calf is born, mama will help her baby to the surface to take his first life-sustaining breath of air. It takes the newborn time to adjust to his new environment, and a calf will often raise his head far higher than necessary, resulting in comical “chin slapping.” A newborn can often be identified by its darker color, which presumably serves as camouflage from predators. Additionally, they have lighter colored stripes around their midsection, called fetal bands, a result of being scrunched up in utero. Both the dark color and fetal bands will slough off a few weeks after birth.
In order to save energy for rapid growth, a baby will swim closely around his mother, enabling him to nurse easily and to “slip stream.” Slip streaming allows the baby to take advantage of the low pressure area created by his mother while swimming, helping him to swim in an upright, controlled manner.
At birth, calves weigh anywhere from 22-44 pounds and can be 2-4 feet in length. While calves will start to eat small fish at about three months, they still will be dependent on their mother’s milk for the first 18 months of their lives. Some mothers will continue to nurse their young for two to three years. Their milk is extremely rich and fatty, enabling their calf to gain ½ -3/4 pounds a day for the first six months. No wonder our local calf, Baby Whistler, seems to be growing like a weed!
The bond between a mother and her calf is the strongest in the dolphin world. The calf learns his mother’s name, a unique signature whistle, while in her womb and will create his own signature whistle within the first year of his life.
A dolphin calf will stay with his mother for the first three to six years of his life, learning how to fish and master other skills, including how to properly echolocate, or locate objects through the use of referred sound. Because this skill takes practice, it is no wonder that calves often sport scratches from bumping into objects. This is one important reason why we should never encourage dolphins to jump in our vessel’s wake; it is far too easy for the young ones to run into a boat, or worse yet, a moving propeller.
Nursing mothers need to eat twice as much as an average adult dolphin, or about 48 pounds of fish a day. At times, she will leave her youngster with an “allomother,” or babysitter, from within their nursery group, so she can go off alone to focus on fishing. This benefits her calf, as well, as he can learn much from other teachers within this “school,” including other mothers and older calves.
A beautiful bond is formed between male dolphin calves when they are still very young. They often choose a best friend with whom to form a lifelong alliance. Research shows that males with an ally tend to have better success reproducing, as they help one another in the areas of both fishing and mating.
One such alliance, no doubt formed when they were still calves, is shared by two of our local adult males known as Reuben and Clarence O’Malley. The warmth of their bond was demonstrated when the two were spotted swimming slowly side by side, Clarence’s pectoral fin resting lightly on Reuben’s back. In our area, several young calves are routinely seen playing and jumping together and it is heartwarming to imagine them 20 years from now, still swimming our waters side by side.
While our dolphins have suffered tremendous loss and times of uncertainty much like we do now, they never stopped swimming and they never stopped living. Their calves, in particular, remind us of the need to reside in the present and not just survive each day, but be amazed by it. The Indian statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” May we, like our young dolphin friends, keep the eyes of our heart wide open to the incredible joy that still surrounds us.
Be A Pod Protector
- Don’t feed or touch dolphins.
- Don’t corral or encircle dolphins with boats or personal watercraft.
- Don’t drive directly toward or over dolphins.
- Don’t deliberately encourage dolphins to jump in your wake.
- Don’t entice/lure dolphins to you with loud noises, dolphins whistles or sounds.
(If you witness dolphin harassment, record if possible & call NOAA at 1-800-853-1964)
by Monica Lynn
Monica Lynn’s April presentation at Beach Library has been canceled due to the Library’s closure. Visit Videos that Inspire for more dolphin videos.