Life and Death in the Water

Posted on February 11 2015 in Costa Rica

Just as in our own lives, a healthy birth and the death of a child are the most joyous and tragic events possible, so it seems, they are for dolphins. On our voyages collecting data, we have been privileged to witness incredible, intimate moments in the dolphin lifecycle.

A couple of weeks ago, while we were cruising twenty or more miles from the coast, we noticed a boiling of the water thirty feet from the bow of the boat. We slowed to watch, hoping it was a “bait ball.” Often the dolphins will join together in a group, swimming in circles, using their sonar to confuse a school of fish, gathering them tightly together in a huge ball twenty or more feet in diameter. You can look down into the stunningly clear, deep blue waters here and watch as the dolphins swim through the smorgasbord with their mouths open, feasting. After they are done, the water sparkles with fish scales sinking slowly to the depths, like sequins falling to the dance floor.

If the ball is close to the surface, the shining fish are scooped up by a frenzy of magnificent frigate birds that appear out of nowhere to take advantage of the dolphins’ work. Magnificent frigate birds, those long, slender, black and white, angular birds with forked tails and expandable red throat balloons, do not have the necessary oils on their feathers to protect them if they get wet. Instead of diving, they use their long bills to grab fish from the surface without ever touching the water. The dolphins’ hunting tactic is an important part of their survival.

On this particular day, there weren’t any frigate birds around the boiling of the water, however, so we were a bit perplexed as to what was causing the disturbance. As we drew closer, we could see three dolphins swimming rapidly upward in a circle, causing a vortex to form. Then the dolphins broke the surface and leapt into air. In the center, pulled up by the current that they had created, was a newborn dolphin calf, taking its first breath with the help of its mother and two “aunties.” The word that came to mind, and the feeling that came along with it as the dolphins flew skyward, was joy.

A joyous celebration of birth.

We watched as the adults surrounded the calf in guard formation, then swam away from us, keeping pace with the calf protected in the middle, its floppy dorsal fin appearing then sinking as they stitched their way through the now-glassy surface of the water.

A few days later, though, we saw the other side of that joy. On another trip far out from the coast, on the west side of the continental shelf where the ocean floor drops 1000 feet causing an upwelling of nutrients from the cold waters below, we saw something that, at first, none of us could identify.

As we approached, a tragic site met our eyes. At first it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing, but as we drew nearer, it became clear. It was a mother dolphin, swimming very slowly at the surface, carrying her dead calf, not more than a few days old, on her dorsal fin. There were a couple of other adult dolphins following at a respectful distance.

We had happened upon a funeral procession.

It is a known behavior, but is very rarely seen. At that moment, I was torn between being a scientist and being a fellow sentient being. It was incredibly important that the behavior be documented, it is true, but to me it was equally important to respect the grief we were being privileged to witness.

We had the equipment on the boat that would have enabled us to preserve both the behavior for science and the dignity of the event: a telephoto lens specifically purchased to enable photographing the dolphins from fifty meters or more away.

Instead of backing the boat away from the slow moving dolphins and using our telephoto lens, however, Sierra Goodman, the owner of Divine Dolphin, the tour company on whose boat we took data, ordered the captain to move closer, as close as ten feet, so that Sierra could take photos with her short-range camera. In response, the mother dolphin changed direction away from the boat. Sierra ordered the captain to turn and follow.

We were acting like paparazzi at a funeral.

The mother dolphin changed direction, again. The dolphins who had been accompanying the mother disappeared.  On the mother dolphins’ third attempt to get away from us, I couldn’t watch any longer. I was standing at the back of the boat, next to the captain, and turned my back on the spectacle.

A few minutes later, an exclamation of the captain caused me to turn around in time to see the mother dolphin sink, leaving her calf floating alone, then resurface and use her beak to push the corpse under the water. In my view, it was an attempt to hide the baby from our prying eyes.

At that point, I sat down and wept, silently, face in hands. Many more minutes later, after requests from the other researcher and one of the tourists, Sierra finally allowed the captain to pull away and resume our route.

There are clear laws here in Costa Rica proscribing how close boats are allowed to get to whales and dolphins, regulating how long boats are allowed to remain in proximity of them, and outright prohibiting swimming with them. Sierra ignores each and every one of those laws.

I had been intensely uneasy from the beginning about how she interacted with the dolphins. I went out day after day on that boat and saw how our boat’s behavior changed the behavior of the dolphins we encountered. Our boat would head directly into the center of pods of dolphins, speed up to chase them, provide snorkel gear to the guests for a swim among them. The young marine biologist from the University who joined our team in January confirmed my suspicions: every day we were breaking the law.

That night, after saying a prayer of safe journey to the dead calf and a prayer of apology to the mother, I ruminated on what I should do. I was on the cusp of sending an email resigning my position, when I received an email from Sierra. What she wrote made me change my mind and stay. After berating me for my behavior on the boat, she insisted that she had been in telepathic communication with the mother the entire time and that the mother had been telling her that she wanted Sierra to see, so the baby would not have died in vain.

It was delusional self-justification, and it frightened me as to what other bad behavior she was capable of excusing. At that moment it was decided: if I could stand it, I would stay the full length of my commitment to the data collection to be able to bear witness to any other incidents.

As of February 1, I completed my commitment and am now free to speak the truth. Last week, I traveled to Rincon in the back of a pickup truck to the headquarters of CEIC, the group that is leading this research effort to personally tell my story to the program director in the hope that he can influence Sierra to change her behavior. I will recount my concerns to other agencies that may be able to bring some pressure on her as well, and I can speak with tourists and suggest they go out with operators who obey the law.

I know it is not much, this belated bearing of witness. It feels so small in comparison to the distress that we caused the mother dolphin, but it is the only means I have to show my respect for both the living and the dead.

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