Baby dolphins mean quiet time at National Aquarium

Jun 8 2011 - 9:59am

Images

Maya, foreground, gave birth to her calf (background) this spring at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
Dolphins Maya (foreground) and Spirit (background) are pictured with their calves at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, June 1, 2011. The calves were born this spring at the aquarium. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
Dolphins, Spirit (foreground) and Maya second from background) are pictured with their calves at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, June 1 2011. They gave birth to their calves this spring. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, Allison Ginsburg, manager of dolphin training, feeds Spirit, one of the mothers who gave birth to a calf this spring, June 1, 2011. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
Maya, foreground, gave birth to her calf (background) this spring at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
Dolphins Maya (foreground) and Spirit (background) are pictured with their calves at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, June 1, 2011. The calves were born this spring at the aquarium. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
Dolphins, Spirit (foreground) and Maya second from background) are pictured with their calves at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, June 1 2011. They gave birth to their calves this spring. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, Allison Ginsburg, manager of dolphin training, feeds Spirit, one of the mothers who gave birth to a calf this spring, June 1, 2011. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/MCT)

BALTIMORE -- Shhhhh.

With two baby dolphins in the house, not only is Baltimore's National Aquarium asking visitors to keep it down, but the infants have also forced the attraction to reconfigure one of its most popular shows just as tourist season launches.

With little ones to consider -- to say nothing of their sensitive mothers -- the usually boisterous dolphin show, known for splashing and shrieking, has turned into a quiet zone, with hushed music, fewer visitors allowed in at a time and a video documenting dolphin births substituting for most of the noisy acrobatics.

Though showing off baby animals is a no-brainer at most zoos, a surefire visitor magnet, the aquarium is keeping its dolphin calves out of the public eye -- but showing them off all the same. With the survival rate of dolphin calves less than one in three and many babies not making it to their first birthday, the aquarium is hoping the short-term shushing, and limiting access to the cuteness to just a glimpse for now, will lead to healthier dolphins.

"It's a totally different feel than the typical show," says Nancy Hotchkiss, the aquarium's senior director of visitor experience. "But we want people to be able to share in the story."

The first of the two calves was born the morning of April 14, just as the aquarium staff was heading to work. She was born to Spirit, a 10-year-old first-time mother who shared her pregnancy with her half-sister Maya, who was also having her first baby.

Both dolphins were impregnated by a male named Chinook, in town from Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, just for that purpose. Maya's son arrived two weeks after Spirit's, on the morning of April 27.

Tiny, skinny and wrinkled, the newborns spent their first days learning to swim while their mamas tried to get the hang of nursing. Without really swimming on their own, the babies hitched rides in their mothers' slipstream, moving almost constantly as a proud yet fretful staff watched their every move, 24 hours a day.

After four or five days of drinking their mother's nutrient-rich milk, they both began to grow bellies.

Nursing for dolphins is as critical as it is complicated -- a procedure quite similar to a dramatic midair refueling operation. The calf must cup his tongue and latch it, strawlike, onto one of his mother's mammary glands. The mother squirts milk that the calf must quickly catch -- all while the two continue to swim. The whole thing begins and ends in seconds.

Maya didn't get it at first. Staff brought in one of the other female dolphins as coach.

Now almost 7 weeks old, Spirit's girl has emerged as the plucky one, endlessly curious and rather independent -- unafraid to check out the other side of the pool. Staff recently overheard what could have been her first vocalization, a little "eep" for her mother. Her cousin, on the other hand, isn't so bold. Tentative and timid, he stays as close to Maya as possible.

The calves have just started playing together, and opening their mouths when they see one another, or one might rub her pectoral flipper against the other, which staff says is a little like holding hands.

Not counting these two, 12 calves have been born at the National Aquarium since 1992. Of those babies, six survive today and live at the Aquarium.

Four other calves died within their first year of life. Two more died as juveniles.

The infants succumbed to everything from pneumonia and infections to breathing irregularities. In 2004, one 4-month-old died after being roughed up by two males.

There are 10 dolphins now at the aquarium, ranging in age from Nani, who's 39, to the baby boy, who's 5 weeks old.

The maturing of dolphins is still largely mysterious, says Brett R. Whitaker, deputy executive director for biological programs. A baby can seem fine one day, deeply in trouble the next.

"Things could completely change," he says. "Just like that."

That's largely why the aquarium has no plans to name the newborns until things are somewhat less touch-and-go. When that time comes -- perhaps this fall -- there will probably be a public contest to name them.

(c) 2011, The Baltimore Sun.

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