Diplomacy and tactlessness among wild dolphins

Ever noticed the ritual around new babies? Somehow, we all took the same class in new baby etiquette. Acquaintances approach the radiant new mother attentively, watching for signs that she welcomes or rejects their desire to ooh and ah over her new bundle of joy. With variations, this is standard polite human behavior and no surprise. Would it surprise you that dolphins act the same way?

Last week, Dolphin Watch reported the return of an adult female bottlenose dolphin Club to our local waters (Tampa, USA), along with marvelous evidence that she appears each spring during an unexpectedly precise window of time. In that article I had also wondered if Club would have a baby this year. Although dolphins are capable of having calves at three-year intervals, each mother has her own schedule. Club last gave birth in 2004. In a bit of coastal kismet, Club had a baby the same day I submitted that column to the newspaper.

Her April birth is early as bottlenose births go. Mother dolphins in our local waters give birth from late May to late August, another relatively narrow window of time, with three exceptions to date. The most notable was Vidalia, the calf we rescued from its body noose of fishing line this past November. The water temperatures hover in the mid-70s, which is good for newborns. Club’s new baby looks healthy, as yet too young to be bouncy.

Unlike resident dolphins, Club inhabits a tiny part of the study area and we found her there last week. She clearly evaded us, which she does even without a 4-day-old calf at her side. She traveled underwater at speed to put extra-ordinary distances between herself and our boat, reflecting her protective feelings about the tiny shiny baby glued to her side as well as the vortex of water created around a dolphin’s body when it travels at speed, which keeps tiny babies close as they soar in their private jet stream.

By and by, a quintet of resident dolphins happened along. Club has but a passing acquaintance with bull Scrapefin and the two mother-calf pairs with him, mom Stick with yearling Savannah and mom Courtney with two-year-old Cutlass.

Consequently, it was enlightening to see that the quintet responded to Club’s wild darting the same way we had: They traveled just enough to remain in her general vicinity without approaching her. With their wondrous powers of echolocation, the dolphins knew exactly where she was in those murky estuarine waters (unlike us). This is probably how they maintained their diplomatic distance. But the question is why they did. Like us, they gave Club the opportunity to approach them.

Read full story: Dolphin Watch by Ann Weaver

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