Slow, Dolphins At Work…

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…Finding Their Next Meal
by Monica Lynn

Seeing dolphins at play brings out the child in many of us. It’s important to remember, however, that they are usually hard at work when we come upon them in the wild. Like us, they need to make a living for themselves and their families, as well as teach their young necessary survival skills.

A great deal of their time is necessarily spent hunting for food. Our coastal dolphins feed primarily on fish and squid. Among their favorites are mullet, pigfish and pinfish. Not surprisingly, these fish are all “soniferous,” or make sounds. Dolphins have excellent hearing, which aids them in tracking such prey.

Dolphins utilize various hunting strategies, and we witness many of these in our local waters. “Fish-whacking” entails the use of a dolphin’s tail flukes to stun a fish before scooping it up. When a fish attempts to flee, dolphins have been observed tail slapping it up into the air and retrieving it when it falls back into the water. One researcher refers to this technique as the “alley-oop,” due to the athletic prowess required to execute it.

Good fishing makes for a happy Clarence. All Photos by Monica Lynn from her kayak in the back bay.

Often, dolphins collaborate and form “hunting parties.”  Working together, the team quickly herds the fish toward a shoreline, where they can more easily catch them in shallow water. Since dolphins can swim as fast as 21 miles per hour, this technique often results in an impressive display that resembles the wake of a speeding Jet Ski; quite the show!

Perhaps the most mesmerizing technique to witness is what some researchers call “sheep-herding.” Two or more dolphins encircle a school of fish, and with increasing speed, herd them into a small, dense mass. One by one, the dolphins take turns rushing through the school to pick off their prey. Their speed, agility and collaborative effort is truly poetry in motion.

Nursing Matriarch Finnegan requires a whopping 48 lbs. of fish a day!

An adult dolphin needs to eat about 4%-5% of its body weight in fish every day. For our local adult dolphins weighing 550-600 lbs., that requires about 30 pounds of fish. A nursing mother needs about 48 pounds of fish, or 8% of her body weight. For the first three months of her calf’s life, he lives solely on his mother’s milk. Even after the calf begins to catch small fish on his own, he will still nurse for the first 18 months of his life. A mama dolphin certainly has her work cut out for her!

How can we help our dolphin friends? We definitely don’t want to feed them. Besides violating federal law, it endangers our dolphins in many ways. First, it prevents mothers from teaching their calves fishing skills necessary for their survival. Feeding them also encourages dolphins to linger around fishing boats, where they can easily ingest fishing gear, resulting in death.

Besides those dangers, we are painfully aware of the two dolphins in our area who were recently stabbed and shot in the head while in the “fish begging” position. Evidently, they had become accustomed to being fed by people, and trusting the wrong ones led to their tragic betrayal and death.

Feeding dolphins is one of the worst things we can do. It is the very definition of “loving dolphins to death.”

After a fishing session, well-fed youngsters have energy to burn.

There are, however, some simple things we can do to help our hungry dolphins get their next meal.  When we spot them while we’re out on the water, we can avoid making disruptive noises, such as whistling, clapping, mimicking dolphin sounds or pounding on the side of our boat, in an attempt to lure them closer to us. We can avoid driving directly toward or over them. We never want to maneuver our vessel to encourage them to jump in our wake or follow us, and we don’t want to encircle them with boats or personal watercraft.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes these actions as “harassment” and they violate federal law. Such actions can also result in separating a mother from her calf, leaving him vulnerable to predators, and all of these actions can entice our dolphin friends away from rich feeding grounds or scare off their prey.

We are a thriving tourist destination and our dolphins encounter dozens of boats every day. This makes it all the more imperative for each of us to respect their right to provide for their families, just as we do.  Robert Swan, an explorer and environmentalist, wrote, “The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” The same can be said of our local dolphin population. We each have the power, privilege and responsibility to ensure that our local dolphins not only survive, but thrive, by giving them the space and respect they need and deserve.

If you witness dolphin harassment, please record it if possible and call: NOAA at
800-853-1964 and FWC at 888-404-3922.

Monica Lynn, the “Fairy Podmother” will be giving an entertaining and educational dolphin program, filled with current photographs and video of our local dolphin population, at the Fort Myers Beach Library on Tuesday March 10th at 10:30 am. There is no admission fee and the presentation is open to the public.