As part of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Project team on board the Dolphin Explorer, our staff monitors the movement, social behavior and genealogy of the local bottlenose dolphin population in the north end of the Marco River. More than 100 of these amazing cetaceans call this area home and it is so curious to document their travel range, and more importantly, why they move from one area to another.
These dolphins don’t migrate long distances from where they were born, which is why we get to know them so well. But they do travel, and one of them is in a location of significance at this time. One of our adult females named Nibbles is now taking up residence on the west side of the Judge Jolley Bridge, in the area of the rookery known as the ABC Islands.
Most of our sightings of this lady occur along the Intracoastal waterway about 4 to 6 miles north of Marco Island, between channel markers 21 and 48. However, as mentioned above, she is much further south and we haven’t seen her down there in a year. Why does she make the move now? We have a very strong suspicion for this.
The birthing season for dolphins in this area typically occurs in the Fall. It varies from one location to another along the Gulf, around the world in fact. Dolphins in a setting further up the coast give birth in the Spring or early Summer. Out in the Gulf, offshore from Marco, it happens about now. On the other coast of Florida, it may be April or August depending on a specific locale, but in the north Marco waters, it is usually September, October and November.
Nibbles is a very productive female, giving birth to Jayson in 2007, Coco in 2012 and Popcorn in 2016. And where does she give birth? You guessed it! Right in the area she has recently traveled to, east of the Jolley Bridge. It has been her habit, via our observations, to give birth to Jayson, Coco and Popcorn in this area, raise them there for a short while and then move back north up the intercoastal where she continues her motherly responsibilities.
Baby dolphins typically stay with mom for 3 to 4 years. Adult females sometimes become pregnant when their calves are 2 years old. With a gestation period of 12 months, mom can give birth when her calf is as young as 3 years old. It was no surprise when we saw Nibbles in her birthing area in May of 2019. Popcorn was approaching 3 and the possibility that Nibbles was pregnant became very, very real. Yet no new calf was seen!
I for one was quite surprised that there was a Fall sighting of Nibbles back to the north and Popcorn was still by her side. During late Fall, and into Winter and early Spring, there were the usual sightings of this mom and calf in their normal habitat. Doing what they normally do, where they normally do it. And then came late May of 2020 and here Nibbles is again, back in the area in which she gives birth. There have been five recorded sightings of Nibbles in the last 40 days. Popcorn has been by her side twice, but away from her on three other occasions, socializing and feeding with other dolphins. Is this “parting of the ways” a sure sign that Nibbles is, for sure, going to have a new calf this Fall? Only time will tell.
One thing is certain, turning 4 years old very soon, Popcorn has learned all that is needed from mom and is indeed ready to go out on its own. Given the 4 to 5-year intervals between calves in Nibbles’ cycle, it seems very likely that another baby is on the way. Again, time will tell.
The team will keep a careful watch on this girl, recording her locations and habits over the next few months to see if she does produce a new calf. We have several females on our list in addition to Nibbles that should be calving as well. Stay tuned for updates or, better yet, come join us on an excursion!
Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is also the author of two books and a regular speaker at local venues (when the “virus” is not around). He is also an award-winning columnist for the Coastal Breeze News. Most importantly, Bob loves his wife very much!