Monthly Archives: January 2015

Never turn your back on the ocean: my shark/dolphin encounter.

I had one of those once in a lifetime type experiences today. Naturally I did not have a camera. The camera is with hubby dearest who is in Dallas doing his academic thing. I went off to the beach at Alligator Point with the two dogs. It was cold, with a nasty wind so the place we were was empty of other beach denizens. I was delighted to see a large group of dolphins feeding on fish I presume were mullet very close to the shore. The dolphins were coming so close into the shore that a good portion of their bodies were up out of the water and they were really close. The dolphins feeding were the larger dolphins in the group. It was the four very large ones I have seen before plus some of the medium sized ones driving the fish into shallow water and attacking them. I could see other smaller dolphins surfacing and some even jumping completely out of the water in what looked like racing play beyond them. I was enthralled. I love dolphins anytime but to see real live wild dolphins doing their wild and free thing is just a delight beyond describing. I have walked the beach at Alligator Point many times and seeing dolphins there just never gets old for me.

In the midst of this wonderful display I heard a particularly high shrilling squeak noise and I looked up to see a very small dolphin racing toward the large adults. The baby was leaping clear out of the water as it raced. It was making a bee line towards the adults at a 45 degree angle from the shore, swimming at top speed making this weird squeaky noise. I saw a fin behind it and my first thought was

“Oh isn’t that cute, they’re playing tag with the baby.”

Then I looked again.

This was no dolphin following that baby. It was a large shark. Baby was racing full speed towards the large adults on the shore and I assume the noise was a terrified baby distress scream. With the hair rising on the back of my neck and every Mommy/Grandma instinct I have on full alert, I watched that baby and then out of nowhere one of the medium sized dolphins threw itself hard against the side of the shark knocking it off course and slowing it down so the baby gained some distance as it raced straight toward the adults near the shore. I found myself screaming at the big dolphins to do something and I felt sick thinking I might soon be seeing a baby dolphin get killed.

And then the fight started. The shark was about 20 meters from the shore and right behind that baby when suddenly the water was full of thrashing smashing adult dolphins. The baby was gone. For a long moment the shark was rolling around in a mass of bodies and foaming water snapping and bending its body but unable to get a grip on anything. The four biggest dolphins appeared to be attacking it in a coordinated manner and keeping well clear of the front end, taking turns smashing it with their full weight. With the crashing about as the big dolphins attacked, the shark at one point was shoved into water so shallow it was half exposed and I saw the big head with all the teeth in profile in the air for a split second as it flailed. The dolphins made loud ferocious exhalations with deep harsh grunts, spewing spray from their blow holes as they slammed the shark with their bodies and heads. I could also see the shark was about a foot or two shorter than the biggest dolphin crashing into it. I had a crazy urge to jump in and beat on that shark myself but fortunately good sense asserted itself and I stayed on the sand. The dolphins were handling it quite well without me. The shark finally rolled back towards deeper water, thrashing hard. The shark vanished under water with the four dolphins right behind. I watched and after a moment I spotted two of the big dolphins surfacing and then going down again, far away, moving very fast to the south east, and then it was quiet.

The medium sized dolphins, six of them, were very near the baby and there was a lot of blowing and squeaking and I ran down the beach like an idiot shouting “Are you okay baby?” wondering if the baby was hurt, hoping it wasn’t. I stopped when the dolphins, probably alarmed by the lunatic human, moved further away. I was very happy to see that the baby seemed to be unhurt.

After another long moment the four large adults were suddenly back and there was much swimming close around the baby and all the smaller dolphins, and many gentle body nudges and heavy blowing. The entire group then took off along the beach in the opposite direction from where I saw the dolphins presumably chasing after the shark, all moving very close together, baby surrounded by adults. No one seemed injured, which was a huge relief. The whole thing probably took five minutes or less from start to finish but I had such an adrenalin surge I felt head achy, nauseous and I was shaking. My two dogs appeared to be completely oblivious to the whole thing. I was too shook up to finish our walk so we headed back home.

When I got back to my computer I went on line to look to see if I could identify the kind of shark. The first problem I had was that the shark appeared to be entirely black but none of the Florida sharks in the identification guides are black. The only thing I could conclude was that it was not a hammerhead. However, as I considered it, I realized the black colour was likely a trick of the light because the dolphins also looked completely black to me in the bright sun, thrashing in the water with all that white foam around. Yet, I know these dolphins are common bottle nose (Tursiops truncates) and these dolphins are grey not black. So ignoring the black colour and going only by the shape of the head and the shape of the dorsal fin and the small far back placement of the fin near the tail, small eyes and general body shape, I would say it was most likely a bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). Given that adult bottle nose dolphins can reach 10-12 feet in length and these adults were the biggest dolphins, that would make the shark about 8-10 feet long. The little dolphin was only about 3-4 feet by contrast with the adults, making it a very young dolphin and a tasty meal for a hungry bull shark.

I then went and read up on bull sharks and the whole thing makes sense. Bull sharks like to hunt in shallow water. They do attack and eat baby dolphins. They do appear in Florida in winter even when the water is colder. This was a big shark too, fully adult sized and quite dangerous as sharks go. The scientist in me can stand back and objectively say the shark was just being a shark and doing what sharks do. It is not evil or bad. The scientist in me hopes it was not killed by the dolphins but rather got away. The mother and grandmother in me is 100% behind those brave dolphins risking themselves defending their little baby, especially the medium sized one who knocked that shark away before the big dolphins arrived. That part of me says I sure hope those dolphins killed that awful shark so it can never hurt a baby dolphin again.

Another day at the beach. And people wonder why I don’t like to go into the water.

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A Worthy Cause

I have never before used my blog to ask for funds for a worthy cause but this is an emergency and involves something I care deeply about, which is saving sea turtles and educating people about the marine life in the world. Please have a look and if you can donate and pass it along to anyone who might be interested in helping.

Thank you!

https://www.tilt.com/campaigns/clean-water-for-gulf-specimen-aquarium/contributors

see it on You Tube

Update: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2015/01/30/marine-lab-needs-help-keep-caring-sea-creatures/22593803/

We succeeded! GSML raised more than goal and was able to get their new ozonator and also update other parts of the water system.

Canoeing at Otter Lake

Things have been quiet with us not doing much worth reporting. However today we went to Otter lake to go canoeing. Otter Lake is a natural fresh water lake within the Appalachacola National Forest and it is a 6 miles drive from Panacea. Along with Dick and I were our friends Jack Rudloe, Jane Brand and Ed Komarek. Jack and Jane went in one canoe and Ed was in a kayak. It was a pleasant and lovely day with bright sun and a light breeze. It’s still considered winter here and so it was quiet, the trees are still bare and the alligators are sluggish. The locals don’t recommend the lake during warm weather, especially during the alligator mating season but now it’s safe. We did see alligators, with Ed reporting two more than 12 feet long but they didn’t bother us. They immediately fled into deep water and stayed away. They hunt gators for meat and sport here so they are wary of humans.

One of the alligators favorite foods is dog. In fact if you are walking your dog and the dog barks the gators will head over to check it out. Jack has had one dog snatched and eaten by an alligator in this lake and lost another one in another spot not too far away. We left the dogs at home. Fred loves to jump out of the canoe and have a swim so it was not a great place for him.

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Here we have just left the boat launch to start our paddle around the lake.

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The trees are bare though some are beginning to bud like this one showing red pollen flowers.

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The nest of the osprey did not hold any young because it is the wrong time of year but the ospreys were flying around overhead.

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This large tree serves as a turkey vulture and a black vulture roost. The two species hang out together. These are ugly birds up close but a pleasure to watch as they fly.

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Staying near the shore means we can avoid the breeze and see the birds up close.

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We saw a large flock of at least 12 snowy white egrets.

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The egrets included brown juveniles staying close to the adults. Two alligators patrolled nearby as egrets make fine alligator food. The alligators fled when we got close.

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This was an especially large cypress.

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Dick found the bended cypress knees from times when the water is deeper particularly fascinating.

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About an hour of leisurely paddling later, we pulled back into the launch area. A lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Beach Walks

We have been in Florida for six weeks now and we still haven’t unpacked the bikes we used almost daily in Manitoba. We also haven’t taken the canoe off the truck yet. The “problem” is the beach. The Florida coast consists of the peninsula which is mainly just suburbia now, then miles and miles of mangroves and salt marshes in the big bend to the east. I hope it stays wild because this stuff is required to feed the ocean critters and act as a nursery for the babies of crabs, fish and other things we eat. But it isn’t much fun to be around. Panacea is at the beginning of the many famous white sand beaches of the forgotten Gulf Coast’s Florida Panhandle. We are close to the first and second of these beaches when going west. The first is Mashes sand on the east side of the Ockloconee river/bay and Bald Point State park/Alligator Point on the west. The west is not quite a full barrier island. We like the Alligator Point beach best for a daily walk because dogs are allowed and it stretches for five miles of wide white sand. Who cares about bike riding when there is a white sand beach to walk on? So almost every day we pause mid afternoon or early evening to walk the beaches. Eventually, we might get bored of going to the wide sand beaches and go back to our bikes, or take the canoe somewhere, but we just aren’t there yet.

Houses on beach Not snow!

This is the view of the houses on the beach. if I ever win the lotto I will buy one. They range in price from a million dollars to 200,000 for a tiny one bedroom. The point is sandy. Every time I see this I have to remind myself, this is white sand, not snow.
Trusty on Beach Dogs on Beach 2 Dogs on Beach

And of course what could be finer for a dog than a walk on the beach? 
Locals

The locals love the beach too. Note the extreme racial tension of the south. It is not 1960 in the south anymore. To all appearances we have seen it is pretty much gone in the south and is actually far worse up north in big cities.

Fishing net Golf

Many of the locals net fish. People, especially tourists, are also golfers. But watch out for that water trap. And of course there is surf fishing with a long sturdy pole. They use far heavier ones than mine since catching a really big fish (or a sting ray or shark) is fairly common.

Beach junk Shells CoralSeaPork

And what would a beach walk be without beach junk, shells and sea pork (the ball is sea pork which is actually some kind of living creature).
Sandpiper

And the other kind of locals and snowbirds: We have seen a lot of wild life on the shore. Loons, cormorants, ducks, pelicans, storks, cranes, egrets, herons, several kinds of sandpipers. We even see dolphins sporting off shore every so often, but not today.

And of course there is what I am missing back home.

RedZone

Red marks zones of extreme cold and windchill, -40 at the point where C and F scales cross. I wish we had a transporter so I could transport all my friends and family in Winnipeg here to have a day off from the cold.