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Bad Boys Of The Ocean
Definitely More Than You Wanted To Know About The "Secret" Lives Of Marine Mammals

By Doug Perrine


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Bottlenose Dolphins Open Mouth Threat Display
Bottlenose Dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, open-mouth threat display Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean Image #: 001824

Parents of the current crop of tattooed, pierced, and branded teenagers may take scant comfort in the realization that assisted self-mutilation has been practiced in various human cultures for thousands of years. In fact the practice may have arisen well before the appearance of humans on the planet – perhaps even before our primordial ancestors crawled out of the ocean onto the shore.

Consider the beaked whales. These mysterious creatures are large enough to have few, if any, natural enemies. Most, or all, species are believed to feed by vacuuming up soft-bodied squid in the deep sea, a seemingly low-risk endeavor. Teeth are needed neither for feeding, nor for defense, so they have been mostly dispensed with through evolutionary atrophication. In spite of the lack of predators or strongly-resisting prey, the bodies of many of these whales are covered with scars. The accepted explanation is combat between males for mating rights, using tusks which generally erupt only in males.

Internecine combat is likewise the most commonly accepted explanation for the appearance of Risso’s dolphins, Grampus griseus. Like some members of the Jackson clan, they are born dark and become progressively whiter as they age. In this case, however, the whitening is a result of the accumulation of scar tissue, rather than the other way around. Adults are often so completely covered by white scars that they appear as snowy white as belugas. In younger animals, it can be plainly seen that the scars occur in parallel tracks that roughly match the spacing of the teeth in a dolphin’s mouth. Risso’s dolphins have teeth (up to seven) only in the lower jaw, and, like beaked whales, feed primarily on soft bodied squid, so it seems that the teeth don’t function much in feeding. However, in older individuals, the teeth are often worn down to stubby pegs. Apparently they put so much effort into biting each other that it grinds their teeth down.

In Risso’s dolphins, the scars occur on both sexes. In bottlenose dolphins, like beaked whales, it is primarily mature males that are heavily scarred, especially roving bachelors. This is a more typical situation in cetaceans, and in the animal kingdom as a whole. It is generally accepted biological theory that females have a greater "parental investment" in their young than males. The biological resources required to produce an egg are thousands of times what is needed to produce a sperm. Additionally, female mammals are typically tied up for years rearing their offspring, and divert a large portion of their personal resources into producing milk to feed their young. Therefore females are inclined to be very "choosy" about their mates, in order to be sure that this big investment is bestowed upon an offspring that has good genes that will enable it to survive. Males, however, are driven by the "sperm is cheap" credo. They are motivated to mate with as many females as they can, but because females are choosy, the may have to fight other males for this right. By winning the fight, they show that they are the strongest individuals with the most worthy genes.

British biologist Colin MacLeod believes that scars on male cetaceans are not just a byproduct of these battles to prove genetic superiority, and gain access to females, but serve an important purpose of their own. MacLeod calls scarring an "indicator of male ‘quality’ (dominance and/or fitness) in aggressive social interactions." In other words, according to MacLeod, the scars on Risso’s dolphins (and 17 other species of toothed whales that he lists) serve a primarily decorative function. They make the scarred animals look "tough," which discourages less dominant animals from picking a fight with them, reducing the risk of unnecessary injury to both parties. He proposes that this is true in most of the toothed whales that feed on squid, and therefore do not need their teeth for feeding. In these species, including sperm whales, narwhals, and many of the beaked whales, the teeth have been modified to serve as weapons for fighting amongst their own kind.

Interestingly, in many of these species, scars do not regain normal skin pigment as they heal, and therefore remain visible and accumulate as the animals ages. Generally in marine mammals fresh scars are white, but pigment cells migrate into them, obliterating them over time. In bottlenose dolphins (which use their teeth primarily for feeding) scars inflicted by other dolphins usually fade in about a year. In Risso’s dolphins, on the other hand, such scars did not re-pigment during the course of a five-year study. Just as members of some African tribes rub ashes into self-inflicted wounds to produce permanent decorative scars, some toothed whales may permanently retain scars for use in social signaling – a visual display of that animal’s street-fighting career.

The idea that some whales and dolphins may behave more like street thugs than "gentle giants" may conflict with widely accepted new age notions that cetaceans live in feminist-oriented, mutually-supportive, conflict-free, highly-advanced societies in perfect harmony with each other and their environment, passing their accumulated wisdom down through the ages through telepathic communication, but it is not at variance with the picture that has emerged from recent scientific studies.

The best-studied species of toothed cetacean is the bottlenose dolphin. Carol Howard, in her book Dolphin Chronicles, describes one well-known researcher as "…not alone in regarding bottlenose dolphins as juvenile delinquents, perhaps even with a malicious streak." Howard describes wild dolphins drowning sea turtles for sport, and a captive dolphin doing experiments with pipefish – plugging them into holes in the pen to see where they would fit.

JoJo, a wild lone male bottlenose in the Turks and Caicos Islands is famous for harassing marine life. He’s been observed tormenting everything from starfish to manta rays to sharks. The sharks often end up dead after he’s done "sporting" with them. Jojo has nearly died as a result of "sporting" with sting rays. The "sport" often includes sex with the victim. JoJo has been videotaped raping a nurse shark. Humans have not been spared from JoJo’s approaches either. He has attempted to force himself on a number of swimmers, and tried to abduct some by pushing them out to sea.

In Great Britain, at least two "friendly" lone male bottlenose dolphins have become serious problems due to frequent attempts to have sex with humans. Bottlenose dolphins grow much larger in the cold water there than they do in the tropics, reaching lengths of 12 feet or more. Both of these dolphins have been photographed using an erect penis like a prehensile organ to drag divers around. In one case, I was called upon to submit an affidavit as an expert witness declaring that such behavior was actually fairly typical of bottlenose dolphins and did not constitute proof that the defendant (who had been charged with bestiality) had been encouraging the dolphin.

In Brazil, another "friendly" male bottlenose reacted to a drunk that tried to stick a popsickle stick down the dolphin’s blowhole in the same way that many humans would respond to such an insult. He slammed the aggressor so hard in the chest that the fellow died at the hospital.

Lest you should conclude that aggressive sexual and violent behavior is limited to those aberrant lone dolphins that seek out human company in preference to their own kind, I should mention the recent studies in Western Australia that described male "coalitions" (we’d call them "gangs" in human society) engaging in pitched battles with other coalitions, abducting female dolphins for use as sex slaves, and forming shifting alliances with other groups in order to dominate their competition. In the Bahamas they have been filmed group-raping smaller spotted dolphins (male spotted dolphins, no less). In Scotland, wild bottlenose dolphins were found to be ramming and killing smaller porpoises, apparently "just for fun."

Nor can it be said that such aggressive behavior is limited to male dolphins. "Honey," a lone wild female bottlenose that used to frequent Lighthouse Reef in Belize, bit and rammed a number of people, sometimes for offenses as simple as attempting to get out of the water before she was done playing. These were not just love nips, either. Some resulted in stitches and broken bones. I once came upon Honey "pleasuring" herself on a shackle connecting the anchor line of a sailboat to the anchor chain. She was rubbing her genital area up and down against the shackle with her eyes closed in an apparent state of bliss, and seemed totally unaware of my approach. Her movements became more and more forceful, until with a violent thrust the shackle parted, and the boat began to drift away, propelled by the stiff trade winds. I will never forget Honey’s expression when she opened her eyes to see me approaching with a camera. With the wide-eyed look of a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar, she dashed out of sight, leaving me to swim after the boat and bring it back to its anchorage.

At one swim-with-dolphins facility in the Florida Keys, the owners abandoned the traditional practice of training the dolphins exactly how to interact with the human clients in favor of a laissez-faire attitude of just letting the dolphins behave naturally. Natural behavior for a dolphin, of course, is having sex every five minutes. Dolphins, said legendary researcher Ken Norris, "use sex like we use a handshake." The facility had to defend itself against a number of lawsuits from clients who, expecting a joyful, healing, and therapeutic session with the dolphins, were instead humiliated, abused, and in some cases suffered minor injuries.

Real life events at this and other captive dolphin facilities doubtless inspired the dramatic conclusion of Carl Hiassen’s novel Native Tongue, in which the villain falls into the dolphin tank of a Florida amusement park, and is bonked to death by the horny dolphins. Both the novel and actual events were very much on my mind one day when I entered an ocean pen to photograph a group of captive male bottlenose. The trainer had seemed a bit nervous about the idea, but promised to stand by and make sure things went smoothly. As long as the trainer was there, everything did go well. But when he was called away to take a phone call, the mood suddenly changed. The dolphins, which had up to that point been acting as if I wasn’t there at all, immediately surrounded me at close quarters, giving me an intense sensation of having wandered down the wrong dark alley. When the largest dolphin "unsheathed his sword," so to speak, that beatific built-in smile suddenly began to look more like a s…-eating grin. I curled myself up into a ball, and before I knew it was being used as one, being rolled spout over teakettle across the bottom of the pen. When I reached the edge of the pen, I was out of there faster than you could say "Thank you, m’am!"

What about the toothless cetaceans – baleen whales? Because their feeding methods seem more like grazing than predation, and because they don’t have teeth to use as weapons, we tend to think of them as more gentle than the toothed whales. However, males face the same sort of competitive pressure when it comes to getting their genes into the next generation. In right whales, courtship activity may superficially appear to involve cooperation, rather than competition. Two or more males may work together (whether by intentional collaboration or accidental) to force a female into a position that one of them can mate with her. In this case, it is not the whales themselves, but their testicles that are competing. Because female right whales are promiscuous, the male most likely to impregnate one is the male that can produce the largest volume of semen, to wash out the sperm of his rivals, and replace it with his own. To this end, right whales have produced the largest gonads on the planet. The combined weight of the testes can be over a ton.

Humpbacks compete in more traditional fashion, with up to dozens of males fighting it out for access to a female. It was once believed that the third whale usually accompanying a mother and calf was an "auntie" or helper. Now it is known that the third whale is invariably a male, known as the escort, who is standing by to mate with the female when she is ready again, and kick fluke on any other male that tries to move in. A group of males competing for access to a female is known as a "competitive group" or "rowdy group." Although humpbacks do not have teeth, they are fully capable of inflicting grievous injury on each other with the blunt force of their heads, tails, and bodies. It is not unusual to see males in a competitive group bleeding from fresh injuries to the head nodules (sensory bumps) and dorsal fins. A few years ago, a male humpback in a competitive group died in the middle of the action, and was promptly humped by one of the other males. Underwater video footage taken by researchers courageous (or foolish) enough to swim into the middle of a competitive group has revealed males slamming other males violently, holding them down so they couldn’t come up to breathe, and one case of a whale using its long pectoral fins to grab a smaller male then extruding its penis and humping its squirming victim.

Even supposedly docile vegetarian marine mammals such as sea cows exhibit scars inflicted by their own kind. This does not appear to be true of manatees, which get most of their scars from motorboats. They have only flat grinding teeth set far back in their mouths, and do little more than bump and jostle each other when competing for mates.

Dugongs are also plant-eaters, but a pair of short tusks erupts in mature males, and sometimes in very old females. Dugongs often exhibit long meandering scars decorating their backs about the same distance apart as the tusks on a male dugong. Male dugongs also engage in much fiercer competition for females than do manatees. However, the scars are nearly as prevalent on the backs of females as males, and also occur on juveniles. Fishermen and scientists suggested to me three ways in which the scars might be acquired: being raked by the tusks of other dugongs; colliding with coral or other sharp objects during lively social encounters; and deliberately scratching themselves against a rock or other object. Remarkably, I saw instances of all three of these events during a week of observing a group of dugongs.

Dugongs are not just "Pacific Ocean manatees," but are unique in appearance, behavior, physiology, and social structure. Their forked flukes look more like the flukes of dolphins than the round tail paddles of manatees. They are more social than manatees, and more aggressive. In some areas males stake out courtship territories and attack any other male that attempts to enter. In other places, courtship consists more of a mad melee with up to dozens of males competing violently for access to a female. Anthony Preen, the only scientist to have observed this from the water, reported fearing for his life during the chaos. Lone male dugongs, like lone male bottlenose dolphins, although usually benign, have been known to assault human swimmers, both sexually, and with apparent malicious intent.

Paul Anderson, one of the foremost authorities on dugong behavior has seen some scars that he suspects came from sunburn and from shark attack, but believes that the vast majority are inflicted by other dugongs. In fact the tusks may have evolved primarily for this purpose (although other scientists believe they are used mainly for digging up sea grasses). If so, the tusks could be considered sort of a biological tattoo needle. If the dugongs don’t believe the scars enhance their beauty, at least they don’t seem terribly concerned about them. And, as long as they don’t start dying their bristles green and inserting pins through their nipples, I don’t suppose we should be unduly concerned either.