When we interact with wild dolphins, we get to know them as individuals with personalities as unique – and often charming – as you or me. We would like to introduce one particularly charismatic dolphin with whom we have had the pleasure of meeting and working many times this summer. We call him ‘Scratchy’.
Scratchy is part of a very special pod of Atlantic Spotted dolphins that first approached some human divers more than 30 years ago. Since then the relationship has deepened, nurtured by a few dedicated human researchers and the voluntary interest of at least three generations of wild dolphins.
Scratchy is a very young member of this special pod. We know this because he is just beginning to have spots, which start to appear around 4 years. This is also the age when dolphins begin to explore their world independently of their mothers or baby sitters (developmentally comparable to a 6 or 8 year old human). He may have just recently stopped nursing and he is 8 or more years from being a sexually mature adult. Scratchy is a young kid – and as he has often shown us – a very playful one. He is the one who often pushes his way between Chisa and another dolphin when they are making underwater loops. He has a mischievous look in his big brown eyes.
Atlantic Spotted dolphins can often be recognized by distinctive patterns of their spots, which increase in density as they age. Sometimes, accumulated nicks and bite marks on fins and flukes can help to distinguish individuals as well. With new spots appearing all the time, youngsters like Scratchy can be hard to identify by physical markings. So far, he has a freckle on his left chin (rostrum), five recognizable spots in a little constellation over his left flipper, and a characteristic dark steak of grey on the left side of his neck. But it is never hard to recognize his personality.
Scratchy’s personality has also given him more than a young dolphin’s share of scratches around his head. This mischievous youngster doesn’t hesitate to jump into a rumble with older males. He doesn’t hesitate to get close to humans, either – dancer or camera person, alike.
As you can see in the video clip, Scratchy even makes attempts to ‘talk’ to us – making sounds that seem to be meant for us to hear and understand. This is quite a low sound for dolphins. There is no mistaking his gestures (both physical and vocal) that he wanted us to put down the camera and give him more attention.
We’ve seen Scratchy make his way from one person to another as we float at the surface, pausing in front of each person as if to make make sure he met every single human.
We often encounter Scratchy with Itchy, a young female who, although she has almost no scratches, also likes to come very close to the human dancers. Gliding past us side by side, they are often in gentle physical contact. Touch is clearly an expression of affection between dolphins, and Itchy and Scratchy demonstrate their fondness for each other and their taste for similar adventures. We believe they were already inseparable a year ago when they had no spots at all …
Whether Scratchy and Itchy’s behavior is a sign of youthful curiosity and playfulness or over-enthusiastic risk-taking, they certainly demonstrate incredible trust…not only on their part, but on the part of their mothers and/or babysitters. We know that when groups of youngsters like Itchy and Scratchy are at play, there is always an adult female around…sometimes nearby, sometimes at a slight distance…making sure all the kids are safe. Adults will round up the kids and hurry away (usually when they’ve dallied long enough and need to keep moving towards dinner) … the fact that the ‘babysitters’ never seemed to intervene when we danced with Itchy and Scratchy says a lot about how much wild dolphins trust us.
Beyond trust, there are sometimes gestures that seem to signal affection or appreciation. On a recent night, we entered the water to watch Scratchy and other adult members of the pod, fishing for squid, a staple of their diet. All the dolphins intermix moments of socializing with feeding – and Scratchy, true to form, was one of the more enthusiastic. Ben, in particular, had a sweet interaction with Scratchy, during which he darted away only to return a moment later to drop a stunned fish in front of his face, as if offering it as a gift. This is a common behavior between dolphins – but it was exceptional and very touching that he included a human in the pod with the gesture.
Each wild dolphin that chooses to dance with us has a distinct personality. We know from decades of research that they have an internal life of emotions and thoughts at least as rich as ours. We see it expressed in the way we dance together. We see it in the way some choose to dance, while others do not. Dolphins deserve all the rights that we would feel obliged to give to a human community – a right to freely determine how they live without humans imposing burdens on them. Pollution, hunting and capture, and fishing gear that turns dolphins into ‘bycatch’ impose a terrible cost on dolphins worldwide (see dolphin-dance.org/protect for a review of threats dolphins face). But dolphins have no legal representation in our human society, no legal standing to defend themselves. We hope that sharing these dances with a wide audience will raise awareness and understanding that each individual dolphin is precious just like each individual human.
Scratchy (and his babysitters) express such trust in us and so much generosity in sharing their lives (and the occasional fish) with us. We would like to inspire everyone who watches our dance to recognize that dolphins are people too, and to be considerate, respectful, and generous in return.