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The secret life of dolphins: biologist Randy uncovers the fascinating world of Sarasota's dolphins.


Randy Wells stands at the wheel of the sputtering motorboat. His bare thighs steer the vessel through Charlotte Harbor, and his hands hold a black Nikon camera with a lens the length of a healthy carrot.

Eyes are forward and focused, glued to the water to spot any shiny, gray triangular shapes that might slice the surface.

"Dolphin!" he suddenly yells to his two assistants. "OK, here's one ... two ... three. We have some definite socializing going on right here."

As the three slick mammals surface for air - "Pssshhhhhh!" - Wells quickly turns in their direction and shoots off three frames. They are successful shots of fins, flawlessly timed, and the dolphin researcher relaxes his shoulders and smiles.

His assistant, Kim Urian, reaches into a blue cooler and takes out a bound notebook with "Environmental conditions" scribbled on the cover. She neatly prints the time and location of the sighting, carefully describing the wind and cloud cover. And the fin.

Dolphin dorsal fins, Wells explains, are the equivalent of the human face. No two look alike. One might be more pointed, another might have a serrated notch from a shark attack. Curly, for example, was named for the way the top of his elastic-like fin helplessly dangles to one side, like a loose lock of hair - the result, Wells guesses, of a boating accident. "You must have a photograph to identify these," he says. "You can't just drive up and say, `That's George.'"

This is what Wells calls his census work. For nearly 20 years, the behavioral ecologist has been counting and cataloging the dolphins off the coast of Southwest Florida. It is the longest-running research project of its kind in the world. Several have studied dolphins in captivity, but no one has studied dolphins in the wild more than Wells, who grew fascinated with dolphins as a Riverview student when he volunteered to help with a shark-dolphin interaction study at Mote Marine Laboratory. Today he's well-known in environmental circles for his work with the community of nearly 100 bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay. He's studied their sexual behavior, their health, their social rules - which, he's discovered, bear some startling resemblance to those of humans. He's even given many of them names.

Now Wells is concentrating more on the dolphin populations in Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay, so he'll have different communities to compare with the one in Sarasota Bay. Eventually, he hopes to find out whether different dolphin communities have different cultural rules.

In a seminar setting, Wells comes off as a precise, cool, unexcitable scientist, right down to his wire-framed glasses and impeccably parted hair. He speaks in a slightly nasal monotone, choosing a vocabulary straight from the glossary of a biology textbook. This is a man who answers a question about how long he's been married to his wife Michelle by saying, "One-point-five years; I met her while she was working on a study of sea lion cognition." This is a man who once told a newspaper reporter, "It's kind of sad; I know a lot more about the dolphins down here than I remember about people from high school."

But though Wells himself comes across as dry and academic, his discoveries are fascinating. He's done much to demystify these perpetually smiling mammals that have won the public's attention and affection from as far back as the days of "Flipper" all the way to today's controversy surrounding the tuna-fishing industry.

Unlike those who study the species in captivity, Wells must search out his subjects, spending long days on the water scanning the horizon. That's why we're out in Charlotte Harbor. Wearing thick, prescription sunglasses and a dirty blue-and-white baseball cap, Wells looks out over the windshield as he feeds the boat more fuel and gains speed. He heads south, toward Pine Island Sound.

After 20 minutes or so, after one manatee and one loggerhead turtle, he sees another fin about 50 to 100 yards away. The untrained eye sees nothing but water and ... more water.

Wells stops the boat and discovers a calf and its mother. They swim closely together, never more than a few feet apart. He's learned that the bond between mothers and their young is very strong. Their relationship lasts anywhere from three to six years, after which the calf finally leaves home. (In one case, a runt named Wee Willie spent 10 years with his mother before separating.) He's not sure why they stick together for so long, though he guesses it's to protect the babies from sharks, the only animal - excluding man - that kills them. More than 20 percent of the dolphins Wells has seen bear sharkbite scars.

When they do leave home, males join a pack of other male dolphins and roam the sea, looking for young females to impregnate. Wells is fairly sure they're not monogamous.

But the females return. When it's time for them to give birth, they come back to their mothers, who most likely have stayed in the "neighborhood" they've occupied most of their lives. Dolphins, Wells says, have specified boundaries they call home. The dolphins of Sarasota Bay rarely leave a 30-mile area of the Intracoastal Waterway, though they'll sometimes - like inner-city gangs - butt heads with a group of dolphins that ventures down from Tampa Bay. For the most part, dolphins are pacifists; Wells is not sure why the Sarasota colony gets aggressively territorial. Maybe it's to protect the food supply; maybe it's for a reason he doesn't know yet.

Then again, maybe the dolphins are simply protecting their families from intruders. On the dolphin value scale, it seems that family ranks right up there with mullet, their favorite food. For example, when a calf is born, older brothers and sisters will return home to visit their new sibling. They'll sometimes even baby-sit while the mother goes off to feed. Biologists at the Dolphin Plus research center in Key Largo say mother dolphins show a similar reverence for human life. When a pregnant woman - even one who's not yet showing - gets into the lagoon to swim with the dolphins, they go right to her, circling and protecting her. They find the young fetus by using delicate sonar systems that help them "see" inside bodies. You can hear this sonar in action when you swim underwater with the animals - a squeaky, clicking sound emanating from their heads as they pass by.

The strong mother-infant bond also can be seen when a calf dies. Walls recalls the time they came across a Sarasota mother with a stillborn child. "She pushed it around for days and days before abandoning it, as if it weren't dead."

Do those family ties last a lifetime, as in human families?

To find out, Wells released two dolphins off the coast in September. Misha and Echo were born into the Sarasota community but have spent the past two years at the University of California in Santa Cruz, were biologists studied their sonar systems. Wells is anxious to see how the dolphins' families accept them after their absence.

It's taken 20 years to figure out all these complex social rules and behaviors. Since Wells began studying dolphins as a high school student, he's spent about four months each year working with the dolphins of Sarasota Bay. He's now employed by the Chicago Zoological Society, which is helping him finance his research. Besides the census-taking, Wells and a team of biologists spend some of their time studying the sounds dolphins make to speak with one another. Using several boats, they'll surround a community of dolphins, trapping them with a big net. Then they place a microphone-suctioncup device on the forehead of one of the creatures and tape-record the sounds he makes as he swims in a small area around the boats. They've learned that each dolphin has a specific voice, called a signature whistle, which is often similar to his mother's whistle. Wells doesn't know for sure why, but it's further proof that the dolphins have a sophisticated communication system that humans are only beginning to understand.

But much of Wells' work simply involves the counting and identifying. That way he can see who's died, who's left, who's had children. It is truly tedious work, though the view of the coastline makes up for it, he says. Wells interrupts his job on the water only to bark out a quick order, eat a peanut-butter sandwich or explain some bit of dolphin lore.

Wells on fish-whacking: Dolphins are known to use their tails to swat mullet up to 30 feet into the air. That stuns the fish, so they're an easy lunch that won't wiggle on the way down. "Dolphins, regardless of the smile on their faces, are very strong," he says. What especially interests Wells is the dolphins' politeness. If one whacks a fish, another will not claim it, even if it lands right before his nose.

Wells on sex - dolphin sex, of course: Male dolphins have the highest sperm count of any mammal. They're prolific breeders and zesty mates. They'll even try to have sex with humans who swim in the water with them, rubbing up along the leg. Often male dolphins engage in homosexual copulation. Biologists don't know why they seem to be so sexual, though some guess it's just their way of being social. A professor of Wells' once said, "Dolphins have sex the way humans shake hands."

Wells on why dolphin research matters: Dolphins are at the top of their food chain, he explains. That means, if we monitor their population and health, we'll know the health of the Gulf. What intrigues - and encourages - Wells is that the dolphin community has chosen to stay in Sarasota Bay, despite all the development and boat activity. In the future, he and his peers will analyze mothers' milk to see how much all the coastal development, with its gasoline, sewage and other pollutants, is contaminating and endangering marine life.

Wells on dolphin captivity: He won't bash Sea World. There's no proof, he says, that dolphins in captivity die faster than those left in the wild. In fact, when you look at percentages, those who swim the concrete circles in ocean parks live longer because there's simply nothing - no sharks, no boats - to kill them.

In his clinical, don't-jump-to-emotional-conclusions style, Wells says he doesn't approve or disapprove of dolphin captivity. But he does say this: Landlocked members of Congress don't get much change to see dolphins, except at places like Sea World. And when those who pass environmental laws actually see and experience dolphins, they're more likely to care about them.

The day of dolphin-hunting is coming to an end by 3 p.m. Wells steers the aqua motorboat back toward Placida, in Charlotte County. For the past few hours, he's watched a wall of noisy, northbound gray clouds over Lee County. The water is choppy and restless now, and it's impossible to sight any dorsal fins when they're hidden between short walls of waves.

Back home again, asked about his most intense experience with dolphins, he thinks for a moment and starts off in his just-the-facts Wellsian manner. "I suppose you want to hear an anecdote here." He begins to describe the day he and his wife Michelle returned Misha and Echo to southern Tampa Bay in September. Resting in blue hammock-like swings, the dolphins were slowly lowered into the water. "They swam onto a sandbar and got stuck at first," he says. But Wells and his wife helped them off and watched as the two, inseparable after their years together in captivity, slowly swam out of sight. Wells' voice takes on an unexpectedly emotional timbre. "They appeared to be in great shape ... It was incredibly satisfying getting them back home ... That's where they belong."

PHOTO : Family album. Wells has photographed most of Sarasota Bay's 100-some dolphins. From top: Despite their perpetual smiles, dolphins defend their territory aggressively and are strong enough to launch their bodies completely out of the water. They feed on mullet, first stunning them by swatting them as much as 30 feet in the air with their powerful tails.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Clubhouse Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hudler, Ad
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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Next Article:Vanishing Florida; images from the American Society of Magazine Photographers.

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