It’s officially spring, and the evidence is everywhere. Though plumes of pollen may be causing mass sniffles and watery eyes, a subtle warmness in the air hints at an approaching blossom of life. Sharing in our excitement for spring are the local bottlenose dolphins. Eager to gorge on a fresh meal and find new mates, they display some impressive and photo worthy antics.
Warming waters signal an impending invasion. Local channels, more sparse with life during the winter, begin to sport massive schools of migrating mullet. Florida Captain Glyn Austin describes, “what they do is move in and get into pretty much all the little coves and the flats.” Sensing their frenzied vibrations, dolphin start to team up for some spectacular feeding. Seen only along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, strand feeding is a relatively new form of hunting. Many biologists believe this to be a taught, rather than innate, behavior. Here at COA, we’ve watched mother dolphins meticulously teach their young the craft. Taking advantage of the slick pluff mud banks, these intelligent creatures use teamwork and precision timing to – wait for it – strand, their meal on the shore!
It’s a tricky and labor extensive process. Groups of two to six, staying in constant contact, begin to pressure the mullet. As a natural defense the fish pack tightly together creating a “bait ball”. They’ve been fooled. While instinctively it seems safer to stay together, the dolphin take advantage of the concentrated food source. Dazed and confused, the school is blind to the looming danger. Taking positions like marines on a battlefield, each dolphin plays a critical role. One exposed pocket and the day’s dinner could narrowly slip away. Much energy is needed for the assault. This has to work.
With mullet disoriented and dolphin poised, one unified drive towards the shore creates a powerful bow wave. The force litters the beach with a jittery feast. Beaching themselves along with their meal, each dolphin lays uniformly on its right side. The reasons for this have left many scientists puzzled. Some hypothesize the dolphin are protecting vital organs running down their left side. Other research suggests it’s a byproduct of efficient hunting strategies. Coordinating an attack from the same side allows the team members to eat off each others’ backs rather than let fish waddle through the gap. Bellies full, the pod shuffles back to the comfort of deeper water.
The return of bait fish stimulates rampant breeding activity as well. Though dolphins mate year round, rates spike in the spring. With a gestation period of twelve months, a dolphin is pregnant for an entire year. In order for calves to have ample food during the crucial early stages of life, these aquatic births are timed in line with bait fish migration.
Dolphins practice polygamy, meaning they have many partners. A female dolphin signals she is ready to mate when her belly turns a soft pink. Males will crowd the female and begin a day long battle of wills. Snouts to the gut, bites to the fin, flukes to the face-these fights can be brutal. Only once the strongest has deterred all other contenders can the mating begin. Exhausted, the promiscuous pair part ways. While the male will venture off in search of another mate, the fresh new mother will team up with other females to communally raise the next generation.
Every new season brings its own uniqueness. For many species in our salt marsh, thawing temperatures signal hope. Though, with no doctors’ offices or Harris Teeters lining the grass beds, every day will bring new challenges.
Thank you for reading! What did you think? We’re excited to start this new summer blog series and want to hear from you. Stay tuned for our next post where we will continue exploring the yearly travels and adventures of our local bottlenose dolphins.
Ready to see some dolphins for yourself? Click HERE to book your next adventure! We have daily tours that will get you up close and personal with our friendly neighbors. We can’t wait to see you out here!