Here we are at the end of May. Magnolias are blossoming, Royal Poinciana trees are vibrant with colors, Swallow-tailed Kites are nesting here all the way from South America, and manatees are back in the Marco River enjoying the warmer river and Gulf.
Something else is going on in the waters as well! All of the bottlenose dolphin calves born last Fall are reaching a changing point in their lives! We all know that dolphins are mammals and that the infants’ nurse from their Mother’s milk to survive but at some point, they learn how to fish, and that time is now! They’ve been watching mom feed on fish from day one and that observation is about to pay off!
When calves are born, they don’t have any teeth so that thick, nutritious milk is the only food source they know. However, at about six to eight months old, the teeth begin erupting through the jaw, and at this point in time when the youngsters are nine months old, those pearly whites are ready to go to work.
Dolphins are very, very intelligent and infants have been paying attention. They’ve studied mom’s style of hunting and they are ready to try it on their own. Now, these infants will continue to nurse milk for another year or so, but they will begin to fish. Mom will be giving them some pointers and they will watch very closely.
In the waters on the north end of Marco Island, those dolphins currently aged 7 to 9 months old are Sand Dollar, Kalani, Shayne, Jimbo, Teigan and Elmo. All were born in the Fall of 2019. The mothers of these young are all experienced at raising other youngsters, so they are seasoned teachers. The young have watched the moms feed along the base of the Mangrove Islands, at the sandbars, channels and seawalls. This is where they too will go shopping for food.
These dolphins do not migrate like some dolphins in other habitats. Our area species stay here all year long. We are actually in a known third generation that have all fed themselves in this ecosystem. It is unknown how many generations before them have called this area home. It’s like you and I being raised in a neighborhood where our parents grew up, and their parents before them.
So, the above-mentioned youngsters were all born in 2019, and are again just getting those teeth working. What about the young born in the Fall of 2018? Where are they on the learning curve? That group would include Swoop, Ariel, Humboldt, Guac, Muffin, Pigeon, Sunshine, Marvel and Ginger. All of these dolphins are now about 20-21 months old. Their choppers developed a year ago, so they have been learning fishing techniques for a while. Also, they are at an age whereby the nursing period of their lives is over or just about complete. They will be catching the local fish for the rest of their lives.
More likely than not, when they leave mom’s side at 3-4 years old, they will stay right here where they learned to hunt. The birth class of 2017 turns 3 this Fall and that includes 360, Parton, Ollie, Wyatt and a few more. All of these youngsters are seen on a regular basis in the north Marco River area where they learned to hunt and appear to be permanent residents.
Why do they stay? Because this is where they were raised, learned to know their surroundings and learned to hunt. There seems to be little reason to go elsewhere. This is their neighborhood and they know how to get everything they need here.
So how are the young bottlenose dolphins doing? All signs point to “very, very well.” Your local dolphin study team will continue to monitor their behavior, habits and movement and keep you posted about the health and well-being of our friends in the water.
Bob is a Naturalist on board the dolphin study vessel Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books with a third going to print soon and is also an award-winning columnist for this paper. Bob loves his wife very much!