As I write this article on August 6th, about 3 PM in the afternoon, I do so with a heavy heart. About 6 hours ago, the Dolphin Explorer was leaving the dock at Rose Marina for another great tour with 21 guests onboard. As we departed, two dolphins were seen moving slowly in the water, and a third one was on its back. This third dolphin, unfortunately, was deceased. There were no visible signs of physical injuries, such as bite marks from a predator or gashes from a possible boat strike.
We angled closer to the dolphins, hoping to get photographs of the two living dolphins which might help to identify the third. Photos of the dorsal fins, those fins on their back, would clearly let us know which dolphins were there. I was quickly able to identify one of our adult females, named Halfway, gently nudging the expired carcass. The other live dolphin popped up, but its fin was silhouetted by the dark seawall behind it and not recognizable in the shadow until I got home and expanded that image on my computer. It was a large male that we know.
The deceased dolphin is not a calf of female Halfway. She has not had any young to raise for nearly a year. Since the dorsal fin was underwater, it is a mystery of the deceased dolphin’s identity… for now.
Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) was called to pick up the expired dolphin and hopefully determine the cause of death. They might be able to send me photos of the deceased dolphin’s dorsal fin. I will stay in touch to receive as much information as possible.
So, why was the adult Halfway nudging at the deceased dolphin? Well, she has had experience with the loss of one of her own calves just this past year. She understands losing a family member. Which raises the question, “Do dolphins express grief?”
In the Fall of 2016, one of our adult females named Tess gave birth to a calf named Tiger. After just a few months, we noticed Tess with Tiger draped across her rostrum, that bottled nose, pushing it at the water’s surface; Tiger was lifeless. They were first sighted at Channel Marker 44, on the back end of Keewaydin Island. For three days Tess pushed her offspring along the water until she reached the Gulf of Mexico. At times, she was actually accompanied by other dolphins. She took her young, lifeless Tiger into the Gulf waters where she finally let go, then returned to her regular territory.
So, it does appear that dolphins do express sadness, if not grief. Both dolphins and whales are often seen attending to deceased companions or offspring with something that resembles bereavement. This post-mortem attention behavior has been observed in cetaceans around the world. Individuals have remained with deceased members of their species, frequently staying in contact and even keeping them afloat for days.
Recently, a female Orca, the largest member of the dolphin family, was seen with her expired calf across her head for seventeen days before letting it go. In some dolphin societies where there is a mated pair, one of the two might perform the above–mentioned ritual for its mate.
One study tells that just 20 of the 88 whales and dolphins species appeared to express loss. More than half of those studies described bottlenose and humpback dolphins. Both of these species have large brains and are very social and that could suggest that grief may have evolved in their societal groups.
As humans, we tend to project our characteristics into other animal species. Just look at the way most people treat their dogs and cats and give them human relational tendencies. In many cases, we try to get them to behave as we do. What we see with dolphins is mostly observed from a boat but much of the dolphin life is spent underwater. We shouldn’t appreciate animals because of the human-like features and habits that they exhibit. We could be completely wrong in judging them because it looks like they are smiling at us or obeying a command we have given.
In this case, however, it does appear that some of the smartest animals on the planet can express grief or the ability to “let go” of a companion or offspring that dies. Still, watching dolphins grow from birth to having their own offspring, and then suddenly losing a “loved one” is quite disturbing for me. It is rewarding to watch a life’s cycle, even when a life ends.
All in all, I am still grieving the loss of a dolphin family member on this day.
Bob is a Naturalist on the dolphin survey vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books and an award-winning writer for Coastal Breeze News and a regular speaker at area venues. Bob loves his super-hero nurse wife very much!