My experience volunteering at the Dolphin Research Center has provided me with the opportunity to learn a bit more about dolphins: their personalities, their social structure and how they raise their young in addition to learning about their abilities.
First let me give you a bit of information about how the DRC organizes their dolphins. They group them in separate lagoons as they would be grouped in the wild. That means that young dolphins, babies that is, and mothers stay together for at least a couple of years. Young dolphins that are juveniles stay together in a pod and adult males stay together in their own pod. Adult females could be together, or in some cases individual adult females may serve as babysitters and give mother dolphins a break from the constant attention that their babies require. I should also add that mothers nurse their babies anywhere from one to three years. Mothers are also responsible for teaching their babies how to do things.
This mother spends all her time with her one day old baby.
This brings me to one of the dolphins particularly important abilities. Aside from humans they are the best mimikers in the animal kingdom. They learn how to do things by watching older dolphins do these things. In the wild this means learning how to take care of themselves, learning how to catch fish and learning how to avoid dangerous predators. As a side note, a few of the dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center were rescued from dangerous situations such as the BP oil spill or attacks by a shark when they were quite young. They have been brought back to health but were too young at the time they were rescued to have learned how to take care of themselves in the wild. So they will stay at the Dolphin Research Center for their entire lives for that reason.
Jax was attacked by a shark when he was less than a year. Note the ragged dorsal fin.
At the DRC the dolphins use this learning or mimicking ability to learn how to perform activities that other dolphins already know. In some cases, however, the dolphins have come up with an action that they weren’t taught by anybody. They just chose to do it and then taught other dolphins how to do it as well. One of these activities is leaping up onto a floating dock and then sliding back into the water. One young dolphin this year spent hours practicing this particular activity on her own and eventually perfected it. She was never encouraged to do it but apparently wanted to do it, because she saw other dolphins doing it.
At this point, she still had improvement to look forward to.
The dolphins at DRC have become very interested in people. They seem to have become quite attached to the trainers and others who frequent their lagoon. I was cleaning off one of the docks
These dolphins are people watching.
recently, and one particular dolphin was playing with me or trying to play with me when she shouldn’t be. I didn’t encourage her and even backed away for a minute a couple of times to encourage her to find something else to do. Then I’d go back and work on cleaning the dock some more. A couple of minutes later she swam over to the dock carrying with her a gift for me. I knew it was a gift for me, because she held it in her mouth and brought it right up to me at the dock and held it up for me to take. It was a mangrove leaf.
As I mentioned above, these dolphins learn to copy others and also to copy the action of people. Sometimes they get a little carried away with their copying and add their own special touch. One dolphin that I’ve gotten to know a bit is considered the A+ dolphin. She has to do everything perfectly or better than everybody else. On this particular occasion, she was to copy a swimmer in the water who was bobbing up and down. She started bobbing up and down, but that wasn’t enough. She then started spinning in circles as she bobbed up and down and, as a final addition to the action, she jumped completely out of the water as she spun in a complete circle.
There are many other anecdotes I could share, but these give you at least some idea of the interesting experiences I’ve enjoyed during my time as a volunteer at Dolphin Research Center.
Of course I also spend a little bit of time with the birds there. There are a number of macaws and a couple of peahens in addition to chickens and pigeons, but that would be for another day and another update on the blog.