Sunday, April 11, 2021

A Dolphin Coming of Age… Skipper

Stepping Stones

Photos by Bob McConville
| Kaya, Skipper ‘s older sister, leaps to get away from two pursuant males in January 2018. She is already pregnant and will give birth to Ariel later in the year.


 

Dolphin Explorer LLC is proprietor of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Study which was formed in 2006 to determine the abundance, social behavior, travel range, and genealogy of the local bottlenose dolphins. Records of our findings are now being shared with several other study groups in various parts of the world by means of quarterly and/or annual reports produced from our database. After 15 years, the study continues….

It’s hard for me to believe that I have been with the Dolphin Study program for over nine years. Every day on the water is like my first experience with dolphins all over again. I’ve watched calves leave their mothers’ sides and grow into adults and I’ve witnessed mothers become grandmothers. Recently I’ve noticed one of our young females, a favorite of mine, that leads me to believe that she is reaching maturity, if not already there. Her name is Skipper.

Photos by Bob McConville
| March 7, 2021…our little girl Skipper is all grown up!

Skipper is a bottlenose dolphin that resides in the north Marco Island waters. Her mom, Halfway, typically gives birth in late Summer or early Fall and in 2013 this beautiful, young calf named Skipper was born. She was the fourth calf known to be produced by Halfway and her older siblings are Seymour, Simon, and Kaya. Since Skipper’s birth, mom Halfway has calved Wyatt, Ben and Cubbie. Yep….mom has produced seven babies since our study began.

Even in her early months of life, Skipper seemed very playful, flitting around the water like a large gummy bear, but always returning to mom’s side for protection and the great supply of nourishing milk. Life is not always fun and games and Skipper did have to survive several trials in her first 12 months.

In March of 2014, she was noticed next to mom with a white, fleshy portion of her side exposed. After several photographs and some analysis, it was apparent that she had been bitten by a shark. By the shape of the teeth marks it appeared to be a Bull Shark. Fortunately, no vital organs seemed to be damaged, and Skipper continued to grow.

In late Summer of 2014, because of the continual photographs taken by the crew, she was seen with some fishing line tangled around her peduncle, close to the tail fin. The peduncle is the large, muscular tail section located between the dorsal fin and the tail fin (fluke). This was so close to the tail fin that there was a danger that the fluke could be severed from the body which would eliminate the dolphin’s ability to swim. This is similar to what happened to the dolphin Winter in “A Dolphin’s Tale”.

Photos were forwarded by an astute crew to Mote Marine in Sarasota. A team was summoned to try to poke the line loose from Skipper but was not successful. A major rescue ensued with several agencies becoming involved, including NOAA, Mote Marine, Rookery Bay, Sea World, and a few others.

On the morning of September 4, teams from the above-mentioned agencies were arriving at the Isle of Capri boat ramp, prepared to remove Skipper from the water if the injury was too severe. The Dolphin Explorer team was already on the water, searching for mom Halfway and the impaired Skipper, in three separate boats.

 



 

They were captured near Hurricane Pass, behind Keewaydin Island, and the rescue team determined that the injury was not damaging enough to remove Skipper to a rescue facility. The entanglement was successfully removed, and Skipper was given some antibiotics before she and mom were sent on their way to the waters that they know well. 

At three years old, Skipper watched mom introduce a little brother, named Wyatt, to the world. While most dolphins leave mom’s side at this time to begin life on their own, Skipper seemed a bit reluctant to go, but finally did. Halfway was an excellent teacher and Skipper thrived in the north Marco area.

There were occasional times when she would come back and visit with Halfway and young Wyatt and she also spent time with her older sister Kaya. Mom was an excellent teacher and Skipper became skillful in catching fish and continued to grow.

Photos by Bob McConville
| Skipper in April 2017 shows the scar from her shark bite and the notch in her dorsal fin where her rescue tag was initially placed.

In 2018 Skipper’s older sister, Kaya, gave birth to a son named Ariel. Kaya was born in 2010 which means she became pregnant at seven years of age. This is important to remember, because I was initially informed that female dolphins mature from eight to 10 years of age. Another one of our females, Jing Jing, actually became pregnant at six years and 10 months old.

In late Summer and early Fall of 2020, Skipper was frequently followed by two of our large males, which indicated that she may have reached maturity just like her sister, at seven years old. In January of 2018, I observed Kaya leaping six to seven feet out of the water, only to see that she was being pursued by two males named Mamawanee and Kona. By this time, she would have already been pregnant with Ariel. The pregnancy period for a female dolphin is about 12 months.

On March 10 of this year, I witnessed Skipper exhibiting this exact same behavior, leaping six to seven feet out of the water! Why? She was being pursued by two large males, Hatchet and Capri! Is this an indication that Skipper is pregnant and possibly giving birth to her first calf later this year? Just like her sister Kaya, did Skipper become pregnant in late Summer or early Fall of her seventh year? 

Time will tell, but I can tell you that recent photos of Skipper seem to indicate that she is a bit bigger than just a few months ago. If she does not give birth later this year one thing is for sure. This young lady has come of age. She survived a shark bite and a potential life-ending fishing line tangle. She is the daughter of the most productive female known in our area waters. If mom’s genes pull forward a generation, Skipper might be one of the most productive females in our area over the next few decades.

What a thrill it is to watch these beautiful animals in the wild and to witness them grow from birth to becoming the matriarch of a potentially new dynasty. I look forward to recording Skipper’s progress and keeping all of you informed.

Stay tuned! I think the best is yet to come!!!!

Bob is the primary Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer, one of the finest ecotours in south Florida. He is the author of two books and a regular speaker at area venues. He is also an owner of Wild Florida Ecotours, departing from Port of the Islands. Most importantly, Bob loves his wife very much!

 



 

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