For Mother’s Day this year, we are shining the spotlight on all the dedicated dolphin mamas living in oceans across the planet. Highly sentient beings, dolphins possess exceptional mothering traits which are definitely deserving of our respect.
The beautiful bond between dolphin cows and their calves forms some time before birth. Expecting dolphin mamas croon to their babies in the womb, much like human mothers-to-be. Dolphins use signature whistles (much like a name) to identify themselves in the wild and researchers have observed that the signature whistle of an expecting mother intensifies significantly several weeks before birth and for several weeks thereafter. Scientists believe that this to be a form of vocal imprinting, and a way for the baby to identify its mother from the rest of the pod. Interestingly, during this time, the other dolphins become notably quieter, which the researchers believe is done so as not to confuse the baby and have it imprint on the wrong sound.
After a gestation period of 12 months, the calf enters its big ocean home tail first. Once fully out of the womb, the baby is then gently nudged to the ocean’s surface by the mother, where it takes its first breath of fresh air.
That’s when the mothering fun and games begin. From that moment on, the mother’s attention is focused entirely on her calf. We all know that one of the initial challenges faced by new human mothers is that of sleep deprivation. With dolphin mothers it’s no different. In fact, studies conducted by UCLA suggests that new dolphin mothers get little to no sleep at all for the first two months after giving birth, while the new-born calf sleeps for a lot of that time. (Interesting fact: Dolphins have actually evolved to sleep with only half their brains asleep, not only to keep from drowning, but also to remain vigilant.)
The ocean is a tough place to grow up, and therefore calves have a lot to learn if they are to withstand the host of threats to their survival. Dolphin mothers dedicate all their waking hours into nurturing their young in order to adequately prepare them for their future. During this time, the mother and calf form a very strong bond. The calf literally becomes the mom’s shadow, mimicking her every move – how to swim, how to hunt, how to socialise and how to survive the dangers of the deep.
The calf stays with its mother for 3-6 years, nursing for the first 12-18 months. They usually start learning to catch small fish when they are only about 6 months old. Calves take several months to learn to swim with proficiency and they spend a lot of time at the surface, where they often lift their whole head out of the water to take a breath.
In our terrestrial world we often say it takes a village to raise a child, and that notion is even more noteworthy for dolphins – where it takes a pod to raise a calf. New mothers often have an assistant “auntie” to help in delivering and raising the calf. Dolphins are excellent caretakers and are known to be altruistic, often helping overburdened mothers when needed. Calves are “opportunistic” in their feeding, nursing from whatever female is available to supply mammary milk. Adult females in nursery pods may keep calves in a protective “playpen” for added protection. When a calf gets up to mischief, mothers “buzz” the child and even holds I down near the bottom until it gets the point. Tough love indeed.
It isn’t surprising really that dolphins display such similar or perhaps even more dedicated motherly instincts than us humans. As more and more scientists explore the underwater habitats of these brilliant cetaceans, we’re learning just how highly complex their lives are, from their intricate social lives to their extraordinary intelligence. And dolphin mamas seriously rock motherhood in every way.