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Warmer Oceans Are Bringing Out the Dolphin Bullies

Warmer water is attracting dolphins to Monterey Bay, and they're a bunch of bullies.

by Ben Richmond
Aug 1 2014, 10:00am

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Truncatus

Here's the latest telltale sign of oceans that are too warm: Unrepentant dolphin bullies.

Yesterday around three in the afternoon, a buoy in Monterey Bay recorded the highest water temperature on the books—a whopping 68 degrees Farenheit (20 Celsius). While that still sounds pretty cold, according to KSBW, the average temperature in late July should be down around 50 degrees (10 C).

Even more unusually, northwest winds have slowed the cold water upswelling process. It'll probably start back up soon, but for now we're seeing the breaking of a record that has stood for all of a week.

As the oceans heat up, this unusually warm weather could be a sign of things to come in the warming climate of the future.

It's a boon for some in and around the bay. Surfers are going without wet suits, cheerfully reporting that, "it's like SoCal out here!" Whale watchers are having a great time, as KTVU reports, "about 10 humpback whales have recently been hanging out in Monterey Bay just a quarter mile out from moss landing harbor." The warm water has brought anchovies closer in to shore, and the whales have followed.

"One came up right by the boat. It was really cool," KTVU reported "one enthusiastic young watcher" saying. "You could smell the whale's breath." As much as the breath of an anchovy-swilling whale sounds just terrible, who doesn't envy that kid?

But there are also less enviable aspects to the warm patch. Kate Cummings, a naturalist and co-owner of Blue Ocean Whale Watch in Moss Landing, told Jason Hoppin of the Santa Cruz Sentinel that she's seeing more of the long-nosed dolphins in the bay area.

That sounds like fun, right? Dolphins, after all, are the fun-loving intellectuals of the sea, giving each other nicknames and getting high off of pufferfish.

But word is spreading on dolphin d-baggery. Groups of male dolphins have been observed teaming up on single female dolphins and forcing them into mating with all of them. Flipper has also been known to commit infanticide.

They're also just huge bullies. Most of the time, when you think of stories of dolphins teaming up to save humans from sharks, they seem just great. Family from under the sea, right? But maybe dolphins aren't doing that to help their fellow mammal; maybe they just like picking on things.

Because historically, when El Nino allows bottlenose dolphins to swim into Monterey Bay, it's also allowing them to beat the hell out of harbor porpoises that are normally scooting around safely in the cooler waters of the bay.

Harbor porpoise in happier times. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Roberta Kwok explained over at Conservation magazine, "From 2007-2009, researchers saw 23 bottlenose dolphins attacking porpoises in Monterey Bay. And examinations of 216 porpoises stranded in California from 1998-2010 revealed that about a quarter of the animals had likely been killed by dolphins. Cause of death: blunt force trauma."

Apparently bottlenose dolphins love picking on the much smaller harbor porpoises. As they aren't really competing for food, it's sort of a mystery as to why, but Kwok found a study stating that "male dolphins—which sometimes kill young dolphins—may be 'practicing' their infanticidal behavior on the porpoises or simply mistaking porpoises for dolphin calves."

As much as it's foolish to project human values onto other species, those are both really douchey-sounding reasons: the dolphins are either practicing to kill baby dolphins or they're just in such a rush to kill baby dolphins that they don't bother noticing that it's instead a blunt-nosed little porpoise, one of the smaller cetaceans.

When the dolphins are around, the porpoises tend to quiet down; researchers said they observe porpoise chatter only four minutes per hour when dolphins are present, down from 11 minutes per hour when they don't.

But porpoises are sort of an unloved member of the family—orcas have been observed abusing them in the Pacific Northwest as well. Maybe those four minutes of porpoise chirps are really insults, who knows? It's safe to say that the porpoises will be happier and safer once the northwest winds get going again though.