by Capt. Fred
Several years ago, I took a group of folks from Detroit on a dolphin tour, the same tour that I offer today.
We left the Marina and headed south towards the Coast Guard Station, when I spotted a dolphin feeding against the sea wall at Albert Whitted Airport.
Dolphins are smart hunters. They like seawalls where they pin the fish they prey on against the wall and limit their escape route.
So naturally I edged closer to give my passengers a better look. As we approached, I could see that the loan hunter was a female and that she had a calf. If we had been in open water, we would never see a mother and calf outside the pod, but it’s quite common in Tampa Bay where dolphins have few predators.
A mother dolphin has been gifted by natural selection with many high level and effective sense mechanisms to let her know what’s going on around her. By human standards she has super powers.
Everyone knows she has acute sonar. She can make sounds that spread out and bounce back after they have hit an object. She’s got the brain power to echo-locate most objects including fish to a tiny fraction of an inch. In addition she has beautiful vision, although it the water was kind of murky that day. So what. She can see with her ears, which are many times more sensitive than a human’s. She’s constantly chirping and clicking away and evaluating the echos that come back to her. It would be nearly impossible to surprise a mother dolphin.
Besides, she was fishing a seawall and her field of vulnerability was cut in half.
But dolphins do have predators in Tampa Bay.
Probably the most deadly are bull sharks. Bull sharks love shallow, murky water. They can exist in both salt and fresh water. According to WikiPedia, bull sharks probably have more interactions with humans than any other species of shark and they also prey on dolphins, especially calves.
And that’s just what I spotted. An eight-foot shark approached from the deeper water of the Bay and was angling toward the seawall. I pointed it out to the passengers.
When we looked back to where we saw the mother dolphin hunting, she was gone. And the calf was there all alone, nonchalantly sounding and breaching without a care in the world.
There was nothing to say. Nothing to do. We just watched and waited.
The shark almost lazily continued toward the calf.
Suddenly, its whole body lifted up out of the water like it was performing at Seaworld. When it splashed back down, the water boiled with white froth. We couldn’t see anything but bubbles.
Then is was quiet. The whole event took only a few seconds, but as I look back on it, it seems like it took a lot longer.
A mother dolphin is well equipped to take care of herself and her calf. Nature has given her lots of sharp, interlocking teeth, larger teeth than male dolphins.
In addition she is an agile and very fast swimmer. Although smaller than male dolphins, she’s superior in speed. Speed kills.
And dolphins are deadly using the pod on top of its head for ramming.
And like all mammals, mother dolphins are very protective of their young. I have read that they have even attacked humans when they felt their calf was threatened.
Mother/calf bonds are very long lasting. Gestation period is 12 months. The female will nurse her calf up to three years. A young calf will nurse every 20-30 minutes 24 hours per day. The calves generally stay with their mother up to seven years and never totally leave their mother. The female generally has a calf every seven years or so.
Strong family ties.
And like I said before, they can see in the dark using echolocation.
In this case she probably attacked the shark from underneath and rammed her pod into his soft underbelly, no doubt rupturing organs inside with the trauma of a 20-30 miles-per-hour collision.
We could see bits of flesh on the surface once the bubbles cleared.
We all looked everywhere, trying to spot the dolphins. Then we saw them swimming calmly toward Tampa Bay. The mother and calf were side by side, perhaps closer than usual on this day.