National Geographic Grantee Whitney Friedman is studying some of the smartest creatures in the sea- dolphins. Their complex alliances and social interactions may be more similar to humans than any other species. Follow her expedition on Explorers Journal as she joins a 30-year study on male alliances among bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia’s Shark Bay.
After all our on-land preparations for this season’s field work, finally we took to the water. We putted out past the “beachies,” those dolphins hanging out near visitors to the Monkey Mia resort–pausing to watch Surprise and her calf Sonic, Puck and calf Samu, and Nicky, the best know of them all. Excitement building, I raised my binoculars to look again for those non-beach-visiting dolphins whose lives we’d begin again to glimpse through each survey and follow to come. I wondered what changes in social dynamics had occurred since last November, and hoped that the famed “Real Notch” would be around for another season.
Our first group after the beachies was Clownfish and her calf Damsel. Clownfish was busy foraging, her peduncle (muscular tail stalk) rising above the surface of the water as she dove up to 7.7 meters, occasionally kicking her flukes as she dove. Damsel, who we expect to wean soon, was nearby Clownfish but doing her own thing, and another juvenile joined this mother and calf for a brief encounter.
We carried on group to group throughout the day, finding others busy foraging as well, one group surrounded by gannets (seabirds) fluttering 5 meters above the surface before folding their wings and diving fast and headlong into the same area where the dolphins were foraging, all perhaps feeding on a school of fish below.
A capstone to a great first day on the water–we found Real Notch! He too was busy foraging in a shallow area of the bay, all dolphins perhaps getting ready for the mating season to come. Real Notch was among the dolphins that our team leader Dr. Richard Connor began studying when he made his first trip 1982. Watching this one individual consistently over thirty years has provided incredible insight into the complex social dynamics these dolphins spend their lives negotiating.
Dr. Connor says that Real Notch was a central figure in the male dolphin alliances for well over two decades and has taught us more than any other individual about “dolphin politics” in Shark Bay. Needless to say, he’s quite the celebrity for our research group, and it’s always thrilling to encounter him. Look for more about Real Notch and his associates in a forthcoming book by Dr. Connor!