Unique & Loyal Individuals
Albert Einstein noted, “There’s no question dolphins are smarter than humans as they play more.” Few of us would disagree with that assessment after observing our local dolphins for even a short time. They are incredibly social creatures who enjoy frolicking and expressing physical affection with one another. They are a joy to behold as they seemingly embrace life with fins wide open.
Our local residents are coastal common bottlenose dolphins and live here year-round, with no need to migrate. Randall Wells, senior scientist and program manager for the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, has studied the coastal dolphins that inhabit Sarasota Bay for decades and refers to them as “fission fusion” societies. In these societies, the group’s size and its members can vary over time, whether it be hours or days.
Our local dolphins function much the same way as their Sarasota counterparts, in smaller groups that meet up as their needs and desires coincide. These groups might consist of adult females and their calves (a nursery group) or two or three males who have formed an alliance. When these individual groups congregate, it is often with the purpose of socializing; playful shenanigans on full display.
Singing Their Song
Dolphins enjoy close bonds with one another and the strongest of these is the one that exists between a mother and her calf. A mother will “sing” her own signature whistle (her “name”) to her calf while he is still in the womb and with greater frequency as the birth nears, much as a human mother sings to her unborn child. This continues for the first couple of weeks after the calf is born.
Researchers theorize that one reason for this increased signature whistle repetition is to help the calf imprint upon his mother. Another theory is that mama is encouraging her little one to develop his own signature whistle in time, establishing his own “name.” Recent research indicates that dolphin calves, well aware of their individuality, actually recognize themselves in a mirror sooner than a human infant.
Communication between dolphins includes the use of clicks and whistles. So, if you are tempted to use “dolphin sounds” or whistles to lure dolphins closer to you, remember that you could be disrupting that essential imprinting process between mother and calf, as well as interfering with other important communications between dolphins.
Calves will stay close to their mother for the first three to six years of their lives, male calves tending to stay longer than females. Our back bay serves as a nursery and mothers and their calves, like Wendy and her baby, Whistler, often can be observed together. It is touching to see a young calf swimming in synchronization with its mother, learning to master the art of echolocation, fishing techniques and other necessary survival skills.
Particularly when we see mothers and calves, it is tempting to come too close when operating a boat or personal watercraft. It can cause a mother dolphin great stress to feel pursued, encircled or surrounded. We need to remember that a mother is fiercely protective of her calf and will put herself in harm’s way to protect her little one. Just last spring, in our back bay, a mother and her tiny calf were observed together, both with mutilated dorsal fins, apparently struck by a boat propeller.
A grieving mother dolphin was observed in the waters around St. Petersburg, Florida last summer, raising her dead calf to the surface, refusing to leave it behind. When she lost hold of it briefly, another dolphin helped her lift him back to the surface. Their grief was visceral and undeniable. That viral video resonated deeply, reminding us that humans do not have a monopoly on deep maternal attachment or grief.
Here in our own San Carlos Bay, just a few years ago, a tour group came upon a dead dolphin calf with visible propeller marks on his broken little body. It is so very important to slow down in the back bay, no matter the posted speed limit, and be alert to the presence of dolphins and manatees. The possibility of a fatal tragedy is real and extends far wider than the loss of one precious life. It can place a heavy burden of grief upon the victim’s companions and family members.
Male dolphins often will form an alliance with one or two other males while they are still young calves. These “friendships” are the second most powerful bond in the dolphin world and can last their entire lives. The dolphin “allies” often will herd fish together and work as a team when pursuing a mate, with one serving as a “wing man,” a lookout for predators or rivals while the other woos his mate. Current research reveals that dolphins form relationships based on shared interests, whether it is a love of jumping or a favored fishing technique. Two local males, known as Reuben and Clarence O’Malley, often are spotted together in hot pursuit of a female paramour or engaging in playful athletic antics.
We are so fortunate to be able to observe these intelligent, loyal and unique individuals in their own world, on their own terms. We can be a powerful force for their good by remembering these basic laws and guidelines put in place to protect them:
- Don’t feed or touch dolphins.
- Don’t drive directly toward or over dolphins.
- Don’t deliberately encourage dolphins to jump in your wake.
- Don’t encircle or surround dolphins with your boat or personal watercraft.
- Don’t lure dolphins to you with loud noises, whistles or dolphin sounds.
If you witness dolphin harassment, please record it if possible and call: NOAA at 800-853-1964 and FWC at 888-404-3922.
Paul Watson, champion and protector of marine mammals, said, “I have been honored to serve the…dolphins, seals and all the other creatures on this Earth. Their beauty, intelligence, strength and spirit have inspired me.” May we find the same inspiration in our local dolphin family and be equally determined to protect them and to educate others to do the same.
By Monica Lynn
“Fairy Podmother” Monica Lynn will be sharing her next dolphin presentation at the Fort Myers Beach Library on Tuesday February 11th at 10:30am. There is no admission fee for this 45 minute audio visual event about our local dolphins.