Thursday, May 28, 2020

Annual Dolphin Update… A Record Birthing Season

Stepping Stones

Ariel, Marvel, Muffin, Ginger, Swoop, Sunshine, Guac, Humboldt, Pigeon and Gypsy… sounds like a hippie group from the ‘60s getting ready for some peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, these are the names of the 10 new dolphin calves that were recorded by Kent Morse, Michael Tateo, Eddie Farr and myself, on board the Dolphin Explorer last fall.

Travelling the Marco River and Intercoastal Waterway on the north end of the island up to Rookery Bay, these are the new calves that were found. Birthing season in this area of the world takes place primarily in September, October and November, although calves can be born any time of the year. Why at this time of the year is a bit of a mystery. Tour guides on the other end of Marco have stated that newborn have been seen at other times as well, and it is completely different up the coastline around Sarasota, as well as on the other coast of Florida.

With mom Kaycee right behind, six-month-old Sunshine hams it up a bit.

The fall of 2017 did produce 10 new babies and that seems to be a record for the area. We have had several seasons when seven newborns were recorded. Combining this number with other recent years, the dolphin population is booming! We are fortunate to have a good, clean ecosystem and a relatively shallow coastline which may keep larger predators away from the coastline. Also, the red tide bloom that devastated marine life from northern Collier County all the way to Tampa Bay spared Marco Island, for the most part.

Some dolphins did wash ashore on Marco’s beaches but reports from Mote Marine and NOAA indicate that those carcasses drifted down this way with the Gulf Stream current and the tides.

Our survey is not aware of any local dolphins deceased by this event.

There are some dangers for the young of year. We do have sharks in the waters here and those calves would be on the menu for bull sharks and hammerheads. Over the years we have lost several young to shark attacks, but we also have some great survival stories to tell.

Skipper, now 5½ years old, was bitten by a shark at 14 months old and is doing very well. Parton, offspring of Dolly, is now 2½ years old and had quite an episode about a year ago when it was bitten on the back and again over the right eye. The team had concerns that Parton’s vision might be affected but, a year later, this calf is socializing and feeding as if nothing ever happened. The survival rate of calves making it to their third birthday in our waters is much higher than other areas of Florida and around the world.

The first year of life is especially tough for young dolphins. Being mammals, they nurse from mother’s milk for almost two years, so they depend on mom’s fishing abilities to provide enough food for both of them. The will begin to “cut their teeth” at about 6-8 months old so they are learning fishing skills before they stop nursing. Once the nursing period has stopped the adult female could actually become pregnant again. The gestation period (pregnancy term) is one full year, so the two-year-old has 12 months, and sometimes less, to prepare for life on its own. We have actually seen a few calves leave mom’s side at 33-34 months old. That’s a big hint to the survey team that mom is, indeed, preparing for birth.

Photos by Bob McConville |

The birthing process is also interesting. While many mammals are born head first, dolphins here are born tail first, and for good reason. Dolphins breathe though a “blow hole” on their head and the birthing event can take 30-45 minutes. If the new calf was born head first, the blow hole could be under water for quite a while and not able to get a breath. Being born tail first, the blow hole is exposed with the last push and mom will now help that newborn to the surface for its first breath. Thank you, Mother Nature.

With the 2019 fall birthing season right around the corner there are a few females who could potentially give birth to a new little one. One of my favorite adult females is a baby machine. She has been giving birth to a new calf every three years, like clockwork, and her name is Halfway. In 2004 she gave birth to Seymour; in 2007, Simon; in 2010, Kaya; in 2013, Skipper (mentioned above); and in 2016, Wyatt came along. Wyatt is now 2½ years old so there is a good chance that he will be on his own in the next several months. Parton, the shark bite survivor, is also 2½ and could be on its own if mom Dolly is pregnant. Avery also has a 2½ year old, as does Sydney and several others.

Some of our other dolphins are reaching their sexual maturity so the Dolphin Explorer team will keep an eye out for another first-time mother or two. Stay tuned, we will keep you posted as we know more. Come on out to the Rose History Auditorium at the Marco Island Historical Society on March 26th to hear more about our local dolphins!

Bob is a Naturalist on board the Dolphin Explorer, departing from Rose Marina on Marco Island. He is the author of two books, available locally, and a member of the Society for Ethical Ecotourism. Bob loves his wife very much!

Dolphin Presentation

Join Bob on March 26th at the Marco Island Historical Society’s Rose History Auditorium, 180 S. Heathwood Drive, for his annual dolphin presentation. The last two years this program was standing room only. Come learn about our population, meet the new calves and just plain have a fun evening. The program starts at 7 PM. Come early to get a seat! Free to MIHS members and only $10 to the public.

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