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Chopper: One Dolphin's Life

Spotted Dolphin Chopper
Chopper pictured in the foreground.

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"Chopper and friends save Hardy
from Hammerhead Shark"

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We have known the dolphin we call Chopper for more than twenty years. This is the story of an interspecies friendship.

Most of us are fascinated by the dolphins and whales of the world. Their graceful movements, beautiful, haunting sounds and complex social systems can seem so familiar and yet so foreign all at the same time. But what does a dolphin do in a lifetime? What can he experience and communicate to other dolphins and, perhaps even to us humans? Very few biologists have been able to study a dolphin from birth into adulthood, Knowing an animal from birth allows for a more complete understanding of the animal and its interactions with others.

One of those lucky few who has followed a dolphin over almost its entire lifetime turned out to be not a researcher studying captive populations, but a filmmaker and conservationist with a passion for understanding dolphins. Hardy Jones first began studying and filming the spotted dolphins of the Bahamas in 1978 when he and fellow producer Julia Whitty discovered an expanse of white sand 14 miles long and a mile and one half wide. On one side of the white sand, in the direction in which the sun rose, grassy sand banks stretched out, seemingly for ever. On the other side a reef buttressed the sand against the flow of the endlessly deep Gulf Stream.

Among the friendly spotted dolphins of the White Sand Ridge were several unusually friendly dolphins. Hardy and Julia and became constant companions with one of them for the next 20 years. He was particularly easy to identify because he had a blunted notch in his dorsal fin and was incredibly responsive to the filmmakers. He became known as Chopper and is still seen every summer. Chopper became a trusted and dear friend to both Hardy and Julia and, in one case, perhaps saved Hardy's life.

From the many identifications of the spotted dolphins of the White Sand Ridge, Julia and Hardy gained insight into the social workings of the school. It was fascinating to begin to see patterns of dolphin society emerge and to see the long term relationships which exist among the members of the pod. By the mid 1980s they had made identifications of more than 60 individual dolphins, defined distinct social groups and charted the territory of this pod of spotted dolphins.

It was soon discovered that Chopper was a male who was less than a year old when they first found him. Chopper's uniform pearl-gray color gave away his age. In the early days, Chopper always accompanied Didi, a female with a remora or sucker fish attached to her ventral side. But, as other scientists became familiar with him, it was found Chopper switched alliances and was accompanied by other young males as he matured. No matter who Chopper was with, however, he was present over the white sands when Hardy and Julia would enter the water.

Although Hardy and Julia felt they knew many of the dolphins, primarily from unique markings, size and temperament, they had no idea how intimately they might get to know a dolphin who hadn't even been born yet.

Imagine what the experience is for new spotted dolphin coming into the world! What would it have been like to be Chopper being born? From an event Hardy witnessed in the summer of 2000 we can imagine what it might be like for Chopper to be being born. In the late spring the event of birth was quick. There is no time in the sea for long labor. Sharks would make short work of any dolphin immobilized more than briefly.

Before birth the fetus would have been recording information from the outside world. Dolphins hear the world more than see it and sounds from the ocean world would have penetrated to the mother's womb. As birth progressed, a feint light would be detected for the first time. Then the squeezing intensified and light exploded into the newborn's senses.

The infant male was born spotless pearl gray and could not swim effectively. His tail flukes were folded and limp to allow passage through the birth canal so he was lifted to the surface by his mother and attending aunt. When his nose broke the plane of the sea it triggered a reflex to inhale. He rested there, held afloat by the pectoral fin of his mother. A hammerhead shark lurking around the periphery of the school probed the dolphin defenses, dropping to the bottom to try to approach unnoticed. But the coalition of seven heavily spotted males which forms the nucleus of the school's defense detected the lethal intruder immediately, first with their interlocked sonar, then visually as it moved across the white sand bottom.

Their intense, buzz-saw bursts of sound let the shark know the cost of attacking would be it life. The hammerhead flicked its vertical tail from side to side and drifted off toward the reef, storing in its primitive memory the fact that a very young dolphin was in its territory and that the day would come when the school might not be so vigilant.

The youngster was inspected by his mother, aunt, sister, then other members of the school. It was determined through sonar examination of his internal organs that he was perfectly healthy, though a tip of his dorsal fin was folded sharply. This tip would soon break off leaving the trailing edge of his dorsal flat, rather than rounded, and lead him to be named "Chopper" by another species which would soon arrive on the scene. Chopper developed rapidly. At first his head had been disproportionately large but now his body elongated somewhat. His flukes had become firm and he was learning to use them to propel himself forward, to reach the surface then coordinate breathing so that he inhaled during that brief instant when his open blowhole was in the air. He was short and stubby with a large head so he still looked a bit like a football but he could move under his own power.

Chopper spent his time in a nursery group composed mostly of several females with their newborns. But occasionally males rotated into the baby sitting role.

He practiced making sounds, primitive whistles to get his mother's attention, and some clicks, which he did by forcing air from one chamber in his head into another. Gradually he learned to use his sonar abilities as one might a flashlight in the night, generating a wide beam of sound to ensonify the surrounding ocean but sometimes tightly focusing the beam to examine something closely. Chopper's earliest moment of terror came when his mother first left him. The sun had set and his mother's older sister, sixteen years old and fully spotted, was at his side. His mother touched him, pectoral fin to pectoral fin, made comforting sounds, then arched and dove into the blackness of the Gulf Stream. Frightened by her departure, he whistled but to no avail. She would not turn back. He made clicks trying to track her but they were erratic and he could not follow her into the depths.

His aunt remained with him, comforting and trying to distract him. But on the first night of being alone he was inconsolable. Yet before long he learned that his mother would return after brief forays to feed. She would then feed him and all would be well again.

How had Hardy and Julia gained the dolphin school's trust in the first place? "We learned immediately that to keep them with us we had to be interesting. We deployed our "underwater piano" and it brought them swarming in, intensely curious and excited," remembers Hardy. Film continued to run through the camera gates as they became ever more inventive in attracting and holding the dolphins' attention. They would cranked up the mother ship and dolphins raced to ride the bow. They hung from ropes attached to the bow sprit and were dragged through the water only inches from the dolphins.

"We began to learn a protocol of how to approach them," recalls Julia. A dialogue had been opened. The film we brought back startled scientists. Some were enthusiastic, others upset. The footage showed that behavioral science on dolphins could be done in the wild. Dolphins would no longer have to be captured or killed to be studied. More than that, the footage showed dolphins as they had never been seen before in the wild - curious, friendly, playful and affectionate amongst themselves. It was footage that could revolutionize the way we viewed dolphins.

Acoustical experts recorded dolphin vocalizations for later playback to them. Hearing the dolphin sounds coming from the underwater speakers fascinated Chopper, Didi and some of the senior males. At the time their experiments with the spotters were entirely unique.

Chopper is now more than 20 years old, fully grown and in the prime of his dolphin life. He is still seen each summer over the white sands where he will come and approach Hardy and Julia, interact with them as they try to communicate with computer generated sounds or simply play with props they bring from the boat.

To have a relationship with any animal is a gift, but to befriend Chopper for an entire lifetime is a rare and wonderful experience to be celebrated and shared.

BlueVoice.org will continue to report on Chopper's life story.

 

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