Spend the day among dolphins at play

Keys Living ContributorMay 9, 2008 

“Who do we have here?” asks John Baltzell, captain of the 31-foot catamaran Patty C, as we approach two young dolphins rubbing bellies and spy-hopping. Baltzell has been studying the local dolphin ecology for six years while driving the Patty C, an inspected vessel out of the historic Key West seaport that takes passengers out to explore their habitat then snorkel the patch reefs in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.

“That one is Pumpkin,” he says, pointing to the smaller of the two.

Pumpkin is one of approximately 100 bottlenose dolphins that have made the nearshore Key West waters his home. His species (tursiops truncatus) is the most celebrated of the cetaceans, often found in marine parks and research facilities as well as cold temperate and tropical seas worldwide. According to fossil evidence, they’ve been around for some 25 million years, and — lucky for us — the critters found here today are wild, year-round residents, allowing us to witness them in a totally natural habitat.

The captain carefully approaches the two playful mammals while the passengers scurry to the bow of the boat, pointing and laughing at their easy display of affection. He explains that because of their many nerve endings on their skin, dolphins delight in touch. They frolic after each other, rubbing their pectoral flippers to stroke each other while another joins in on the action. Their synchronized swimming enchants everyone on board, their thrashing and splashing mesmerizes. Quite frankly, it looks a little rough, but nonetheless, they seem to enjoy it.

“See those lines on their bodies?” Baltzell points out. “Those are rake marks, made from each other’s teeth. It’s one of the ways we tell them all apart.” Just as we learn that their sharp conical teeth aren’t for eating (they swallow their prey whole, head first), a magnificent frigate soars, then hovers above. The love-fest suddenly stops and the six-foot dolphins disperse and disappear into the depths.

“What’s going on?” asks a passenger.

“The lovin’ can wait when there’s fish around,” says the captain with a laugh.

It’s not all play

An adult bottlenose may eat 15 to 30 pounds of food each day, with diets consisting of fish, squid and crustaceans. While it may appear that they’re up to nothing but a good frolic under the sun, in order to meet their dietary needs, a large part of their day is made up of hunting and feeding.

It’s an intricate system that works well: First, they use echolocation, a sonar system involving a series of pulses and clicks and the acoustical lens of their melons (the fatty tissue on their foreheads) to focus sound waves into a beam that is projected in front of them. This judges the distance, shape, size, texture, direction and speed of potential prey (or predators).

They then work together to create coordinated webs in which they trap fish or chase them into surrounding shallow mud banks. Tails come in quite handy, too, where they’ll hit the fish up into the air, stunning then scooping it up when it falls back to the water. And yet, despite all the hard work, dolphins reflect a sense of humor, playing with their food by tossing it high in the air or even letting it go just to catch it again.

As water-bound mammalians, dolphins must be conscious of their breath. While some have been documented to stay down for a Houdini-like 15 minutes, they commonly resurface every three to five minutes, taking an in-breath of less than 30 seconds before diving down once again. Nerve endings around the blowhole sense the pressure changes so they know when they’re nearing the surface for a refill, first expelling their breath through their blowhole at speeds of over 100 mph.

On the Patty C, we’ve now found a larger pod, one that includes a calf and a few juveniles. Baltzell tells us that social groups of breeding females with their dependent offspring usually make up a pod, with males generally less dependent but coming around to breed. Mating season occurs year-round, most commonly calving in the spring and summers. Their breach-born babes nurse for a full year, then stay close to their mothers and other females in the pod for the next few years in order to learn hunting, social and survival skills.

Baltzell shuts off the engines and we watch while they swim. The little one, scarcely three feet long, darts close to the boat, showering us with his anthropomorphomized smile. His mother and “aunties” hang back, letting him indulge his curious and gregarious nature.

“They’ve really come to trust us out here,” Baltzell says. “What other animal is so tolerant of us, and at the same time, so mutually interested?”

Keep your distance

With summer’s clear, calm, warm waters, there’s really no better time than now to play amid these much-loved creatures. Though be forewarned: As of April 2000, a federal law was passed making swimming with them, or coming up to them within 150 feet of your vessel, illegal. And feeding them is also a big no-no. This sort of activity could interfere with their own natural and innate abilities to hunt and fend for themselves, ultimately putting these wild creatures at risk in their very own environs.

“Dolphins are definitely one of the most noticeable animals we have here in the Keys,” says Cheva Heck, communications manager with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“We work with NOAA Fisheries to protect them. It’s important for people to know that they can enjoy watching them without disturbing them, and by properly operating their vessels.”

Heck stresses the guidelines listed in the Marine Mammal Protection Act, such as not staying too long with a pod, not approaching too closely, giving them ample space, not approaching them when they’re resting, and not cutting them off when they’re swimming.

“Most of the guidelines are common sense precautions,” she says.

Not following these simple guidelines could result in the critters high-tailing it out of the area, “something none of us want to see,” Heck says. It also could mean some hefty fines.

True, these are inquisitive critters and they’ll often choose to make their way right to the bow of your boat or to the site where you’re diving. More often than not, you’ll be on board your vessel when you come upon them. If you’re in no big hurry, why not turn off your engines and simply float for a while? It’ll give you a chance to observe them in total peace and quiet, allowing you to hear their breath patterns and hone in on whatever activity that’s occurring. Or if you’re lucky enough to be in the sea when you see them, you may hear their clicks and whistles, maybe even feel the legendary “healing vibration” of their sonar scanning over you.

‘Mystical’ mammals

Throughout the ages, dolphins have been glorified as healers, oracles and mystical creatures of the sea. They’ve long been the subject of literature and myth, “protectors” of ancient mariners who’ve placed insignias on their ships, decorations in palaces, ceramics and funeral frescoes dating as far back as the sixth century B.C. Even the highly intellectual Greeks regarded them with value, placing their image on coins for more than 40 of their cities. Of all the animals on our planet, they are the most intelligent, with the same brain-to-body mass ratio as that of human beings.

But what exactly is it about them that shifts whatever’s negative within us when we happen upon them?

“I’ve seen big macho guys who really would have preferred to go fishing but their wives wouldn’t let them,” Baltzell says. “Next thing you know, they’re having these moments, being brought to tears.”

Dolphins love to play, they live in the moment, are highly intelligent, are beautiful and graceful. They rest when they’re tired, eat when they’re hungry and entertain their sensual urges when and with whom they want, regardless of gender preference. They protect each other and work together to co-exist with the best methods they can. Perhaps we are attracted to them because they embody the qualities we ourselves wish we held.

Whatever your belief, one thing seems indisputable — there’s really something quite special about them.

Originally published in the Summer 2006 edition of Keys Living.

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