Names: Bottlenose Dolphin
Appearance: Varying light/dark grey/sometimes black
Weight: Up to ½ ton (1,100lbs.)
Size: 6 - 14 ft. in length
Lifespan: 40 - 50 years in the wild
Like most cetacean species, Bottlenose Dolphins live in groups known as pods. Pod sizes seem to vary due to the two eco-types - inshore and offshore. Inshore pods are often 20 or less in number, while offshore pods can reach up to several hundred individuals at a time. Mother - calf bonds may be strong, but individuals can be seen day-to-day with a variety of different associates.
These dolphins are typically generalists when it comes to their prey, as they feed on a variety of species that are native to their habitat. They have been observed feeding both cooperatively and individually, using high frequency echolocation to locate and capture prey.
Bottlenose Dolphins are known to employ various feeding strategies, including one known as “fish whacking”; the individual strikes a fish with it’s flukes and knocks it out of the water. Their diet mainly consists of a variety of small fish, crustaceans, and squid; they consume somewhere from 15-30 pounds of food every day. Bottlenose Dolphins have also been found to chase fish into shallow water as well as follow fishing boats for an easy meal.
Sexual maturity varies by population, and ranges from 5-13 years for females while males mature at 9-14 years. Bottlenose dolphins have a gestation period of 12 months, and are weaned at 18-20 months old. It has often been suggested that Bottlenose Dolphins mate for pleasure when females are not in estrus and can not produce calves, however a reliable source confirming this could not be found. Juveniles stay with their mother until around 3-6 years old. Females give birth once every 3-6 years and have been observed giving birth when as old as 45 years old.
Species & Hybrids
All Bottlenose Dolphins were formerly recognized under the genus Tursiops truncatus. However, the genus as been recently split into two species: T. truncatus and T. aduncus, or the Common Bottlenose Dolphin and the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin.
Hybrids of Bottlenose Dolphins also exist in both the wild and in captivity. The most well known hybrid is the Wolphin; a hybrid created by a False Killer Whale and a Bottlenose Dolphin. Even though many hybrid type animals are born sterile and unable to reproduce, the Wolphin is fertile. Bottlenose Dolphins have also been observed in captivity, and sometimes in the wild, hybridizing with Rough-Toothed Dolphins, Common Dolphins, and the Atlantic Spotted Dolphin.
Protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in U.S. waters, the Bottlenose Dolphin is generally plentiful in population size, but some areas are near depletion. While they are listed as ‘least concern’ on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, there are many threats, both direct and indirect, that face this species. Incidental injuries that may turn fatal include being exposed to various pollutants and biotoxins, viral outbreaks, and becoming trapped within fishing gear such as gillnets, purse seiners used to catch tuna, and shrimp trawls.
Boat collisions, noise pollution, habitat alteration, human interference (feeding & swimming) are not only threats to Bottlenose Dolphins, but other species of cetaceans as well. These dolphins have also been known to become victims of drive fisheries such as in Taiji, Japan where they are either selected for display in marine parks and aquariums, or they are slaughtered for their meat, despite there being very little to no demand for dolphin meat.
Dolphins in the Navy
Using cetaceans in the Navy for various tasks is not new. In the mid-to-late 1960’s, the U.S. Navy employed a couple of male Killer Whales, named Ishmael and Ahab, and trained the pair to perform certain tasks.
In 2003, the U.S. Navy had trained Bottlenose Dolphins working to help locate anti-ship mines on the sea floor near the port of Umm Qasr, as well as other locations. While the Navy’s underwater electronic hardware did come in handy, it became virtually obsolete when compared to the sonar capabilities of their dolphins. The Dolphins are not only able to locate mines that may or may not be buried in the seabed, they can easily distinguish them from objects such as coral, rock, and man-made debris.
However, Dolphins and Killer Whales have not been the only non-human recruits. Trained California Sea Lions were used in the same year; though they lack the dolphins’ sonar capabilities, they do possess excellent directional underwater hearing as well as the ability to see in near-darkness. They were used to retrieve submerged objects and have even been trained to locate enemy divers, attach restraint devices or markers, and make a quick get away.
September 19, 1964. The very first episode of Flipper aired, starring a dolphin, named Flipper, who played the role of a companion animal to the Ricks family. Flipper’s role in the family was to help widowed father of two, Porter Ricks, enforce regulations in the [fictional] Coral Key Park & Marine Preserve in southern Florida, assist with rescues out at sea, as well as keep a watchful eye on Porter’s two sons, Sandy and Bud.
In real life, outside the fictional world of TV, Flipper was actually played by 5 different female dolphins; Cathy/Kathy, Susie, Patty, Scotty, and Squirt. Female dolphins tend to be less aggressive, making them safer to work with. There was also the absence of rake marks that males often sport after altercations with each other. Susie starred as Flipper in the beginning, however Cathy was often used most often to play the role.
Richard Barry O’Feldman (later changed to O’Barry), a teenager just released from the navy for Christmas 1955 on a 14 day leave, took his mother and brothers out to the new Miami Seaquarium to celebrate. It was there where his dreams of becoming a dolphin trainer began.
As soon as Ric got out of the Navy, he went back to the Seaquarium and began training dolphins, as well as Hugo, a Killer Whale who used to live at the park. This was how he spent the sixties, and soon enough, in 1964, O’Barry began training Cathy, Susie, Patty, Scotty, and Squirt for the new show. In fact, O’Barry lived in the house used in the show.
However, when the show ended in 1967, some of the Flipper dolphins were sold to traveling shows in Europe. Cathy was placed in a steel tank by herself after being retired; here, her health began to decline and she apparently was very anxious.
O’Barry went to visit Cathy in 1970 on the very first Earth Day, and climbed into the tank with her. However, when he got into the tank, she swam into his arms before she ceased breathing all together, sinking to the bottom of the tank. To this day, O’Barry is convinced that Cathy committed suicide, as he emphasizes that dolphins are conscious breathers; meaning they can stop at any time. Two days later, Ric was arrested and jailed for attempting to free another dolphin.
Afterwards, for the next 30+ years, he began to fight the captive industry in which he had helped launch. To this day, he continues to fight against dolphin captivity and events such as the drive fisheries in Taiji, Japan, where many cetacean species are captured and either taken captive or routinely slaughtered for their meat. Ric worked with a film crew to create ‘The Cove’, a 2009 documentary that exposed the inner workings of the Taiji Drive Fishery.
In December 2005 in Florida, a female Bottlenose Dolphin was found with her tail caught in a crap trap. Unfortunately, the rope in the trap cut off circulation, and she lost most of her tail, resulting in her having to unnaturally swim side-to-side. She was brought to the Clearwater Aquarium by a team of SeaWorld staff with assistance from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
In order to make swimming easier for the dolphin, Winter was to be fitted with a plastic and silicone tail that would enable her to swim normally. It took nearly 18 months to develop the prosthetic, and many hours trying to develop something that would both move along with Winter’s spine, and enable a 400lb. dolphin to propel herself out of water. The end result was a gel-like sleeve that fits to Winter’s body and keeps her tail suctioned to her body like a surgical glove on a human hand.
Winter was also the subject of a popular film called ‘Dolphin Tale' released in 2011. After the movie was released, attendance at the Aquarium skyrocketed from 100,000 to over 750,000.
Though this was a problem, as the Aquarium used to be a sewage treatment plant, and the building was not necessarily meant for the overflow of people. Children with disabilities and families were drawn to Winter’s story, but the narrow walkways made it difficult to maneuver wheelchairs through. However, the surge in attendance did help to expand a turtle ICU as well as build a dolphin rehabilitation deck, while other areas remain outdated.
In December 2010, a 2-3 month old Bottlenose Dolphin was discovered in the shallows of Indian River Lagoon. Her mother had died after becoming stranded, and the calf was still attempting to nurse. She was taken to the Clearwater Aquarium where she was named Hope; though she was deemed unfit for release because she was too young to have learned how to survive on her own in the wild. Hope currently resides in the same tank as Winter, and starred in the sequel, ‘Dolphin Tale 2' that depicts her rescue.
American Cetacean Society
Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
Nat Geo: “Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq”
PBS Interview w/ Ric O’Barry
New York Magazine
Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project
The Cove (Free viewing is available at time of this publication)
"What is…" series:
What is a Killer Whale?
What is a Narwhal?
What is a Beluga Whale?
What is a Pilot Whale?
What is a Risso’s Dolphin?
What is a Vaquita?
What is a South Asian River Dolphin?
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