Jun 8, 2022 - News

Tampa Bay's dolphin mystery solved

A trainer signaling to a dolphin at Mote Marine Laboratory Aquarium.

A trainer signaling to a dolphin at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota. Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Turns out, all the weird dolphin stuff we've been noticing lately is probably just dolphins behaving badly. And guess what? We probably caused it.

  • That's the word from the best dolphin experts we could find β€” biologist Anna Panike with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Randy Wells, who leads the world's oldest longitudinal study of dolphins in the wild from the Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota.

What's happening: "Adverse human interactions with dolphins have been increasing along our coasts," Wells tells Axios via email.

Between the lines: Anglers like to catch fish. So do dolphins. And they often go after the same kind, putting them close together.

  • And sometimes dolphins get fish from anglers β€” like when a fisherman tosses a catch overboard, or when a dolphin steals a fish from a hook or preys on a dazed fish an angler has released.

Threat level: The risk to the dolphins is huge. Boat traffic! Hooks! Entanglements!

  • Yes, but: The reward is great, so dolphins have learned to follow fishermen. Wells tells us that mothers teach calves this unnatural behavior, passing it down through generations and causing many dolphin deaths.
  • His studies show that interactions with fishing gear are the most common cause of death for local dolphins.

Case study: Reader Chris Rafter tells us he was snapper fishing in May when two or three dolphins approached his boat and circled for a few minutes. He hooked a fish and watched a dolphin dart by and snatch it clean off his line.

  • He moved three pilings away and the dolphins followed, keeping a distance of 30 feet while breathing at the surface. They stole four fish that day.

Rafter writes: "They seem to have learned this is an easy technique to get fed and they must have learned how to listen for when a fish is hooked and fighting, because that's when they moved in."

  • Wells' advice in that situation? Reel in and wait until they leave, or go fish somewhere else.

Meanwhile, what about the dolphin that approached Ben's daughter's boat and floated nearby, seemingly asking to be pet?

  • Panike tells Axios that "sounds like an animal that has been fed in the past and is begging for food from the people. They have been known to approach boats and just wait for a handout." Like a panhandler dolphin.
  • She also reminds us it's illegal to pet and feed them.
  • Looking for a hand-out, or curiosity, could also explain the behavior of the dolphin that approached lawyer Bjorn Brunvand's Largo dock and turned to swim on its side.

Parting shot: To Zach in Tampa, who reports that he was followed down the Riverwalk this weekend by a tail-slapping dolphin springing fully out of the water like a SeaWorld stunt, over and over, from the Sheraton to Curtis Hixon Park?

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