A dolphin has been putting on a show around the southern tip of the Key Peninsula.
“The acrobatics I witnessed were incredible and unlike anything else outside of Sea World,” said Longbranch resident Jeffrey Tritt. His string of encounters with the rare cetacean began July 18, on the return leg of a boat trip to Olympia.
He was passing the red buoy off Devil’s Head when another boat appeared. “Two people stood in the boat laughing and pointing at a dolphin weaving across their bow and at times going completely airborne,” he reported. Tritt has enjoyed encounters with porpoises over the years, but this animal was something special.
When the dolphin left the other boat, Tritt did a circle of the area. Before long the dolphin appeared just off his bow. As Tritt sped north the dolphin kept pace, at times leaping on either side of the bow. Tritt’s son and his son’s girlfriend lay in the bow of the boat and Tritt watched as the dolphin rotated its body to give them a close look from 4 feet away.
The animal is a long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis), a species with a global range in warm-temperate and tropical waters that is the most abundant cetacean in the world, with a population estimated at 6 million. These dolphins are numerous off the coast of Southern California and Mexico, living in groups of hundreds or even thousands of individuals, but rarely do they venture farther north.
In 2016, according to Cascadia Research Collective, two pods of these dolphins made an unprecedented excursion into Puget Sound, finding their way to its southern reaches. Most soon exited, but a handful of individuals stayed behind and have been living in South Puget Sound ever since, spending much of their time in Case Inlet, near Olympia, and around Anderson Island, with occasional forays as far north as Tacoma.
One male in particular, nicknamed Cinco, has been photographed often over the last year. Usually alone, Cinco is described as being playful and having a breach like a skipping stone. Experts identify individual dolphins by examining photographs of their dorsal fins — something Key Peninsula boaters can aim to record to help the research collective better understand these rare animals.
A few other species might be mistaken for a common dolphin.
The first, the more well-known bottlenose dolphin, reached Puget Sound a handful of times over the last few decades, most notably in the fall of 2017 when five or six individuals spent several months in Washington waters. One of them was photographed well enough in Hale Passage to be identified by researchers in California. Incredibly, it was a female named Miss who was first photographed in Orange County in 1983. Miss has a long record of expanding the range of bottlenose dolphins northward, being one of the first to reach Monterey Bay and, later, San Francisco Bay. To reach Puget Sound was a significant leap.
In comparison with long-beaked common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins have a much shorter and rounder snout.
Far more likely to be seen than any kind of dolphin in Puget Sound are harbor porpoises. Historically native to the Sound, harbor porpoises had all but vanished by the 1960s before they began to reappear after 2000. Today they are quite common.
Harbor porpoises are small and dark. They often travel in groups of three to 10 and make a gasping noise when they surface. Unlike the curving, swept-back dorsal fin of dolphins, they have a triangular dorsal fin.
Long-beaked common dolphins eat many types of fish and squid. Individuals often remain loyal to a small area. Unlike many dolphins and whales, their pods are not matrilineally organized. And their playful antics are not confined to speedboats — they have been observed bow-riding large whales.
Tritt’s wife missed the first dolphin encounter. On the following Saturday afternoon he took her out in his boat to check the area near the red buoy. Sure enough, the dolphin reappeared and repeated its performance. “At times he went airborne six feet in the air 10 feet away parallel to the boat, wriggling his tail vigorously,” said Tritt.
A week later they had a final sighting while having an outdoor dinner at a friend’s house. From the high bank property, which has a commanding view from Pitt Passage to the Nisqually Flats, they saw an inflatable with two people aboard.
Again and again the dolphin launched itself into the air around the tiny boat. The inflatable went back and forth and the dolphin showed no signs of tiring as it leapt.
“A very entertaining after-dinner act, indeed,” Tritt reported, calling it the most incredible encounter of all.
“We went to our home around the corner on Filucy Bay. The inflatable actually led the dolphin into the bay. Many people were outside their homes enjoying the weather. The dolphin continued to go airborne accompanied by the cheers of those watching from shore with incredulous eyes!”