Summer of Dolphins
There are two upsides to Global Warming. First, it has extended the sailing season from April 1 to Thanksgiving as the waters of the York River remain warmer longer into the year. Second, it has led to more dolphins arriving earlier and staying later. The first pod visible this year showed up in mid-May, and the last Sept. 1.
As recently as 15 years ago, we had to wait until mid-August to see any dolphins, and they were way out near the Thoroughfare between Dandy and Goodwin Island. Today they are everywhere, most notably at the entrance to the Sarah Creek channel and movable spots from the Coleman Bridge over to the USCG Yorktown Training Center. A few weeks ago we saw them range for half an hour on the north side of the bridge. That was a first, and boats stopped dead in the water to observe. If the dolphins had gotten any closer to the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, they might have been recruited for military duty.
It used to be we saw dolphins two or three times a year, for as little as a minute or as long as ten minutes. My friend Greg Smith said the other day, “They were out there for an hour, all around us. I thought they had escaped from an aquarium!”
Rising water temperatures are the key factor to dolphin migration. As late as Sept. 4 the York River was 81 degrees. We still had kids swimming off the stern. (By the way, people don’t swim with the dolphins in the York. They don’t even try as it’s enough to watch them roam and play.)
Our friends are Bottlenose dolphins who like to swim in brackish water of 50-50 salt-to-fresh. They are the leading breed among 40 classes of dolphins. They are typically five feet long and grey or white while the babies are smaller. People on board Let’s Go Sail are astonished at their size when they get close to the sailboat. Sometimes we can hear them before we see them as they blow stale air above the surface. Typically they surface briefly and dive in a second or two. But sometimes they slap their fin when going down, as if waving to us. They also can whistle or make clicking noises, though I haven’t heard that.
Dolphins can swim as fast as 30 mph. They catch slower fish by simply overcoming them and swallowing them with their conical teeth. Dolphins cruise at 5-15 mph, which makes them wonderful companions as we zoom along the river at comparable speeds. The base of my lead keel looks like a captured shark, and they seem to enjoy teasing it by diving under the boat and surfacing on the other side.
The first thing we see is the boneless dorsal fin as it breaks the surface of the water. One particular dolphin has a torn dorsal that is prominent enough that we can identify him over multiple days. They tend to swim alone or in pods of two or three. Their tail fin provides propulsion for speed. They organize by size depending on the available fish, and ours are typically ten or fewer. Great video exists of hundreds of dolphins racing along the California coast at Laguna Beach (above), as they do along Virginia Beach.
Dolphins are said to be the second-smartest mammal after humans, but it’s hard to tell because they won’t sit still for an aquatic interview.
From Wikipedia: “Dolphins have long played a role in human culture. Dolphins are sometimes used as symbols, for instance in heraldry. In Greek myths, dolphins were seen invariably as helpers of humankind. Dolphins also seem to have been important to the Minoans, judging by artistic evidence from the ruined palace at Knossos. During the 2009 excavations of a major Mycenaean city at Iklaina, a striking fragment of a wall-paintings came to light, depicting a ship with three human figures and dolphins. Dolphins are common in Greek mythology, and many coins from ancient Greece have been found which feature a man, a boy or a deity riding on the back of a dolphin. The Ancient Greeks welcomed dolphins; spotting dolphins riding in a ship’s wake was considered a good omen.”
Virginia Beach offers several ways to see dolphins.
Hop aboard the Atlantic Explorer, a 90-minute excursion operated by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, for up-close sightings of dolphins as well as sea turtles, brown pelicans, bald eagles and more. Tours run throughout the spring, summer and fall.
Or you can head to the harbor at Rudee Inlet. Hop aboard a boat tour and watch the wake as dolphins race to keep pace. Rudee Tours offers dolphin and whale watching tours where dolphin sightings are guaranteed. The Rudee Rocket finds dolphins who love to play in the boat’s wake.
For a closer look, you can try a sit-on-top kayak or stand-up paddle board, from Chesapean Outdoors, at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. GoKayak! offers guided kayak nature and dolphin tours out of Rudee Inlet and First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach.
Besides the Oceanfront, dolphins are frequent visitors to the calmer inland waterways off of the Chesapeake Bay. Tula Adventure Sports located in the Chesapeake Bay District offers tours to kayak with dolphins. Paddle out to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel for some prime sightseeing. Even if you opt to stay close to the beach, you can still often find yourself paddling alongside a pod of dolphins, which is an experience you have to see to believe.
A sailing colleague with deep knowledge of the York River said the dolphins should stay around for another two or three weeks. But now, with Hurricane Dorian moving up the East Coast, I imagine they have headed out to sea, perhaps south for warmer waters. See you next summer.
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