Dolphin Explorer LLC is the proprietor of the 10,000 Islands Dolphin Study Program which monitors the travel range, abundance, social behavior, feeding habits, genealogy and overall well-being of the bottlenose dolphin population around north Marco Island. The program has an extensive database and information dating back to its inception in 2006. The study continues….
As I write this article on June 17th, my mind wanders, happily, to the thoughts of the 30+ dolphin calves that our survey team on board the Dolphin Explorer have recorded as newly born babies over the last four years. Watching these young learn and grow beside their mothers is absolutely amazing! Nearly 90% of the young have survived their early years, which is an exceptional rate. All of the babies born in the fall of 2021 are still alive and well but there was a close call just a few days ago.
On the morning of June 14th, Captain Eddie and I set out on our morning excursion with a nice group of anxious guests on board. During this trip we saw one of our adult females, Darwina, feeding along the base of a mangrove island with her 9-month-old calf, Jersey, in tow close by. It was a normal sighting and everything seemed perfectly fine.
When we departed the dock for our afternoon tour, again with guests on board, our first sighting was very unique! There was a shark in the waters close to our marina and it was moving very strangely. It would swim upright then list to one side and continue in a circle performing the same, strange pattern. The shark stayed near the surface and did not dive or attempt to move away from us. It appeared to be injured. So how did this happen?
Just about 50 yards away we noticed several dolphins. Among them were a few moms and calves as well as an 8-year-old male. As we photographed them to obtain their identifications, we noticed a younger dolphin with a white mark in front of its dorsal fin. It was an injury! Several photos were taken from many angles to determine the young dolphin's ID and to observe the extent of the wound. Then a familiar fin popped up and we realized that mom Darwina was there and the injury belonged to young Jersey. The cut looked fresh but not very deep along the back. Jersey was not happy and was in obvious pain. Mom was right there to help her calf.
The other dolphins in the area seemed to surround Jersey. Our observation was that the wound was not deep and was far enough away from the blow hole that breathing was not an issue either. All of the other fins were intact as well, but Jersey was, indeed, feeling some pain.
The wound seemed very clean and there were no obvious signs of teeth marks from a shark biting this youngster, but it became clear that the shark in the area was there to finish the job. Sharks will try to grab a calf at the backbone with the intent of breaking its spine and providing an easy meal. This shark, however, met its match!
Although the encounter was not witnessed by the crew and guests, it became clear that this shark was driven away, forcefully, by the dolphins now protecting young Jersey. The rostrum, or extended nose, of a dolphin is pure bone and dolphins will sometimes ram a shark in the gills at a high speed. The gills will bruise and swell, making it difficult for the shark to pass water through the gills and that could be a life ending event. This is the reason the nearby shark was listing to a side and swimming with difficulty. The dolphins beat it up pretty well!
There seemed to be no cause to call for a rescue since Jersey’s injury appeared superficial. This was verified on the afternoon of June 17th. On tour with guests aboard, mom Darwina was seen with Jersey by her side. The calf was playing with a mangrove seed pod, tossing it in the air and retrieving it again. Photos of the wound clearly showed that it was healing well and Jersey’s motions and swimming abilities seemed very normal.
Without a doubt, Jersey will have scar tissue in the area of the wound but, thankfully, this youngster will join the ranks of other dolphins Parton, Skipper, Achoo and Porkchop who are shark attack survivors.
Stay tuned for updates regarding Jersey and our other dolphin stories here with the Coastal Breeze News. It’s always an interesting time on our local waters!