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Posts Tagged ‘dolphin’

 

When I was growing up, I spent a large part of my summers at the beach. My aunt and uncle had a condo on the Outer Banks, and my family used to spend three weeks a summer there. We would go when school was out for the summer, and then we would go again for the Fourth of July. We would make a final trip before school started again. It was a way to spend the summer– part of it in the bucolic countryside of West Virginia and part of it only sea-salted air of the Outer Banks.

I am not a person who sunbathes. I don’t think we humans are meant to be walruses, hauling our bodies onto the shore and letting the sun beat down on us. I am a beach comber, and I have always been interested in what animals use the littoral zone. I am pretty good at identifying the shorebirds of the North Carolina coast, and I have seen sea turtle tracks that reach from the surf to their nesting places on the beach. However, to get to really experience these things, I would always walk as far as  I could from the public bathing areas and the resorts. Only the intrepid would ever go so far, for the sand flies and mosquitoes tended to be rather strong at certain points during the summer and narrow barrier islands are rather hard to negotiate during high tide.

I have seen lots of interesting things wash ashore.

I remember walking along the beach during what we call “spring break” in the US. It actually happens in the late winter. In fact, it was snowing in West Virginia when we left. However, the beach in winter can be a remarkable place. I saw lots of cormorants diving among the waves. I also watched large numbers of brown pelicans dive into the water. Now, in the summer months, I rarely saw cormorants, and the number of pelicans diving from the sky was much lower.

But that was not the most interesting bird I saw on that trip.

I saw a dead white bird that had washed ashore in a raft of seaweed. When I approached it I could see it was a northern gannet, a bird I had only read about but had never seen. It was too bad that I had come across a dead specimen rather than a living one.

But even that bird wasn’t the most interesting thing I’ve found while beach combing.

One summer I was walking along the coast early in the morning. The tide was out, but at the narrow points on the beach the surf was beginning to come in. The surf was starting to nip at my heels as I passed the public bathing area.

As soon as I was through, the beach opened up in all its white sandy glory. Joggers were running down the coast. Some of them at the far end of the island were but tiny specs.  The sea breeze was blowing gently. The gulls were lining the shore, while the turns squabbled over their position on the beach. A skimmer hovered over the surf, occassionally lowering its thick bottom jaw into to the water to troll for small fish. All was as beach on the Outer Banks should be.

As I walked on, I saw a grey shape looming ahead. I noticed a mother and a daughter stopping to look at it. They had baskets full of shells, and I assumed they had found some interesting shells around that grey lump of flotsam or jetsam.

I continued on, keeping my eye peeled for the dolphins I had seen the day before. They were Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. I had often seen them foraging just a few yards off shore.  The day before the dolphins had come in really close. I surmised that there had been a shoal of small bait fish close to the coast that day, and the dolphins had cornered them up against the beach for easy picking.

As I kept walking, I noticed that the grey lump had a tail. In fact, the tail had a fluke, just like a dolphin. Could it be a dolphin that beached on the shore?

I  hastened my pace. I did not full out run, because I knew that if I started running towards the shape, it would definitely draw attention to it. So I kept walking, just at quicker pace.

When I got close enough to the grey lump, I realized that I had come across something really interesting. It was a cetacean. And unfortunately, it was quite dead.

However, it was not a bottlenose dolphin.

It head was thick and rounded, much more like a whale than any dophin I had seen. Its bottom jaw was tiny by comparison. Its jaw was lined with thick, sharp teeth.

I knew what I had come across. A few months before, I had purchased a guide book to the marine mammals of North America. I had learned that there were three species of sperm whale. One was the cachalot, the great whale that grappled with giant squid many fathoms down below the surface. It was the species immortalized in Melville’s Moby Dick.  The other two were much smaller. The one most common on the East Coast is the pygmy sperm whale, and it is better known for being a light shade gray and a more conical head shape. The other species of sperm whale is also small. It is called the dwarf sperm whale. It has a squarer head and darker coloration. It also has a larger dorsal fin in proportion to its body size.

I knew that I had come across a pygmy sperm whale. I was quite surprised. I ran back to tell my parents, who followed me closesly back to the whale. By then a crowd had gathered aroud the whale. And suddenly found myself like George Costanza, an impromptu marine biologist. I explained the taxonomy of the species and how it was related to the bigger sperm whale that everyone knows. I explained how its jagged teeth helped it catch squid, which are its primary food source.

I suppose someone from Marine Fisheries collected the animal. It wasn’t there when I went on my afternoon excursion down the beach.

The whale had a large gash on its head. I had guessed that it had been cut by teh propeller of a boat, which had mortally wounded the whale. It had then staggered in closer to shore, hoping that coming closer to shore would keep the sharks at at distance.

But then I began to wonder about the dolphins. Perhaps the dolphins had been attracted to the whale’s distress cries and had come to its aid. Maybe they hadn’t bunched up a shoal of bait fish against the beach after all.  Perhaps the propeller had damaged the whale’s melon, and it couldn’t find its way back to deeper water. Or maybe its brain was damaged, and it went to shore to die. The dolphins could have been trying to lead the whale back to deeper water.

My suspicions were furth substantiated when I read about this Indo-Pacific bottlenosed dolphin in New Zealand. This dolphin had helped a female pygmy sperm whale and her calf that came to close to the shore. The dolphin guided the whales back away from the beach and into deeper water. Perhaps that was what the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were doing that day in North Carolina.

So a pygmy sperm whale is the most interesting thing I’ve found on the beach. It’s not the Montauk Monster, but it was far more interesting.

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