On March 13 The Marco Eagle reported a that 500-600 pound dolphin jumped into a boat in the Marco River. Fortunately the only injuries were a superficial wound to the dolphin's pectoral fin and a sprained ankle for one of the boat's passengers.
As the Marco River is in the heart of our main survey area, I was curious which of the many Area One dolphins was at the center of this misadventure. One of the photos from The Marco Eagle's Report of the rescue operation provided the necessary piece of evidence, a clear picture of the animal's dorsal fin. There could be no mistaking matters: that fin with its nick at the top and square notch at the base belonged to none other than Oscar, dolphin number SE10004.
Compare the closer view of the above dorsal fin with another picture of Oscar's taken on a recent survey. The angle is different but the features are unmistakable.
Oscar, as it happens, is one of the first dolphins we photographed when we began the 10,000 Island Dolphin Project over five years ago. Since then we have recorded over 150 sightings of him, about forty of those in the Marco River.
His known range extends from Marker 44 on the Intercoastal waterway between Marco Island and Naples to as far south as Tripod Key, a distance of about twelve miles. There are only two sightings north of Marker 34 and he has not been seen in any of the surveys conducted in the Gordon River. He appears to stay in the passes and the estuary behind barrier islands and has never been sighted along the coastline in waters open to the Gulf of Mexico.
On all but a very few occasions, Oscar has been sighted with his partner SE10003 Sharks. This pair represents one of the most consistent and enduring male pair alliances we have observed in the course of our study; Oscar and Sharks are almost never apart.
So here is the picture that comes to mind. Oscar and Sharks are swimming along; Sharks sees Oscar leap out of the watery element as he has done many times before but this time there is no splash announcing his return. We don't really know how dolphin brains work but you have to think that something just didn't compute for Sharks - one minute his wing-man Oscar is swimming near him, and in the next moment he leaps and just plain disappears, visually and audibly. And for Oscar - it wasn't just like an alien abduction - it was an alien abduction. Well, we can know a lot of things, but what goes on in the mind of our spouses is often a mystery so let's not go too far in thinking we can imagine the experience of another species.
The term "male pair alliance " or "male pair bond" was coined by researchers at the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program to describe the sort of close and enduring social bond that Oscar and Sharks exhibit. Male bottlenose dolphins tend to form a partnership with one or more other males as they reach maturity. Their research suggests these partnerships can increase a male dolphin's chance for reproductive success. You see, male coastal bottlenose dolphins like Oscar and Sharks, when they are not jumping in tour boats, have three things at the top of their priority list: foraging for food, avoiding predators and winning in the competition to mate with females. A review of available data by Edward Owen suggests that this tendency to team up with another dolphin probably increases the possibility for success in all of these endeavors, but especially mating.
This is because bottlenose dolphins are promiscuous, that is, both male and females will mate with a variety of partners. The object for males is to gain access to females in estrus and deny such access to potential rivals. Working with a partner apparently offers a significant advantage in this respect.
Of the 145 recorded sightings of Oscar and Sharks, in 35 the two of them are travelling or foraging alone, but in over 100 others they were associating with one or another of the fifteen mature females in Area One. Fully 35 of these sightings have been with one female in particular - Sparky, a female that gave birth most recently September 16, 2010. In the following photo Oscar and Sharks do time with Sparky.
Oscar and Sharks featured in another recent post about strand feeding dolphins near Tripod Key just south of Marco Island. In that post I mentioned that over the years we have noticed a strong preference in Oscar and Sharks for feeding in very shallow water. The strand feeding in which they are nearly beached in their pursuit of fish is an extreme example, but on numerous other occasions we have observed them cruising along in water barely over two feet deep and stirring up the muddy bottom when they attack their prey.
The story of Oscar accidently (one supposes) leaping from his world and finding himself suspended temporarily in ours highlights how essentially alien these creatures are to us. We know how JoAnn Lorek, the woman whose ankle Oscar landed on, experienced the event. She told in an interview of her initial shock, the fear, pain and finally the gratitude that she was not more hurt. Our communication with dolphins, however, has scarcely gone beyond the point of "I'll give you a fish if you perform a trick for me," so we have little idea what Oscar's experience was. We do know that it was stressful - one account explained that, until Oscar's eyes were covered, he appeared paniced and flapped his pectoral fins so hard, he bruised the JoAnn's leg.
The episode brought to mind another occasion in June of 2008 when Oscar and Sharks, together with eight other dolphins were in attendance as Tess, a female dolphin, travelled out of the Marco River toward the Gulf pushing the body of her deceased calf in front of her. The calf was very young, perhaps stillborn and it was very poignant and moving for those on the Dolphin Explorer that day to witness this procession. As for what Oscar was experiencing, what his intentions were for being present in that group - a complete mystery.
But isn't it fun to imagine that dolphins do have something like a language and what the conversation between Oscar and Sharks would be when reunited after his brief alien abduction?