Dolphin

As folks gathered at the Oceanfront the morning of Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, to watch the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team release three rehabilitated sea turtles, they were treated to an array of other wildlife, including pods of dolphin.

The joy of watching a dolphin jump and play in the water is one of the best attractions of the sea.

But many visitors, even residents, aren't sure if the mammals they are watching are dolphins or porpoises.

Pilot reader Raymond Mattes is one. He recently queried the newspaper's Glad You Asked initiative, where readers send in questions for Pilot reporters to investigate: When locals see dorsal fins and splashes, which animal are we watching?

For our region, think Flipper, the star of the popular '60s television show. Flipper was a bottlenose dolphin, the same species that charms the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina by the thousands during the warmer months of the year.

Dolphins and porpoises have about the same color pattern, but dolphins can grow to 12 feet in length while porpoises are typically a few feet shorter.

Also, according to a 1985 paper written by Virginia Institute of Marine Science biologist Robert Blaylock, the shape of their heads is a dead giveaway. A porpoise's head is rounder and its snout is short. A dolphin's head is more sleek and its snout is longer, shaped kind of like a bottle.

Dolphins tend or be more inquisitive and will interact with humans more readily. That's why they love to be around boats. They also are more talkative, sending out a series of clicks and puffs through the air hole on their backs.

Bottlenose aren't the only dolphins in the mid-Atlantic region, where 12 out of 22 species make their home for much of the year. But they are the most common. Other species found here, mostly well offshore, include spinner and striped dolphins. 

Skip Feller said he's seen more bottlenose than he can count in his decades running dolphin and whale watching trips for Rudee Tours.

"People just love them because they'll surf the wakes or ride the bow so close to the boat," Feller said.

A dolphin's tendency to have fun when not feeding — leaping out of the water, wave riding, back-flipping and tail-slapping — are other reasons why people seem so enamoured with them.

When dolphins aren't playing or putting on a show, they're eating anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds of fish a day. They love croaker, spot and sea trout — three regional mainstays, which accounts for their presence here — but will eat menhaden, squid and other small species when need be.

"We're seeing a lot of them," said marine biologist Kristin Rayfield, who narrates most of the viewing trips for Rudee Tours. "There seems to be a really good population right now." She added that they have no real predators.

Bottlenose can live to be anywhere from 40 to 60 years old, with females living the longest. 

So next time you see a pod racing around in front of your boat, don't call them porpoises.

Flipper wouldn't appreciate it.

Lee Tolliver, 757-222-5844, lee.tolliver@pilotonline.com

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