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All my life I have heard people along the northern Gulf Coast refer to the marine mammals cavorting in our near shore waters as “porpoise”. To this day, I have customers on my eco tours ask me questions about “porpoise”. The marine mammals that we see in our waters are bottlenose dolphins – not porpoises. So, why the confusion, and what’s the difference? I believe the confusion stems in large part from the fact that the fish known as dorado or mahi mahi in other places is called a dolphin in our area. If the fish is a dolphin, then the mammal must be a porpoise, right? No, both dolphins and porpoises are marine mammals from the order Cetacea, but from different families. Dolphins are from the family Delphinidae and porpoises are from the family Phocoenidae. While these two families share many traits, they are as different as cats and dogs or horses and cows. There are almost 40 different types of dolphins worldwide, including five different fresh water or river dolphins. There are only six different types of porpoises. The Gulf of Mexico is home to nine different kinds dolphins, but there are no porpoises in the Gulf.

Both dolphins and porpoises are air breathing, warm blooded mammals. They both give live birth and mothers nurse their young from mammary glands. They all have large, complex brains, high intelligence, and use echolocation to navigate and hunt. The physical differences between dolphins and porpoises can be broken down to faces, fins and body shapes. Dolphin faces have a prominent, elongated rostrum, or beak, and toothy grin. Their teeth are conical and are used for grasping, not chewing. Their top or dorsal fins tend to be curved and their bodies long and lean. Porpoises have blunt heads and smaller mouths and their teeth are spade shaped. Dorsal fins are triangular- shark like – and their bodies are more “portly”. The name porpoise is derived from the word porcopiscus or pigfish – not very flattering. Dolphin is derived from the Greek, delphus, interpreted as “fish with a womb”. Now that we have that straightened out, let’s focus on our bottlenose dolphins.

The bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus, is the species made famous by TV’s Flipper and through marine parks and “swim with the dolphins” tourist attractions. A 1995 study estimated the bottlenose population in the Gulf to be at least 67,000. These are highly intelligent, inquisitive and playful animals. Their brains are actually physically larger than humans – 1500-1600g. Vs. 1200-1300g. They communicate with a series of whistles and clicks and identify themselves with a signature whistle. Bottlenose dolphins are very social and often swim in pods. They are also known to assist each other in hunting, child rearing, and protection. One of the most interesting traits of dolphins has to do with their sleep patterns. Dolphins breathe through a blowhole in the top of their heads. The blowhole is closed in the relaxed position, so they have to consciously open it to breathe. To accomplish this while sleeping, they rest one half of their brain at a time to allow the conscious side to control breathing. They sleep up to 8 hours a day, and while sleeping, move very slowly at the surface in a behavior called logging.

 Throughout my career running eco tours, I have been privileged to observe these amazing animals engaged in a in a variety of activities. I see them often around the mouth of the Apalachicola River where they will round up schools of mullet and herd them up against the bridge piers, using the concrete structures like corals. This method seems to be especially popular with pods of juveniles who will throw the mullet in the air and seem to be having a great time. Mothers who are teaching their young to fish will also use the bridge piers. After rounding the mullet up, they slap their tails on the surface to stun the fish for their young. One time, I witnessed a small pod of dolphins drive a school of mullet up onto a flat in the marsh. The dolphin pushed themselves up onto the grass, grabbed the flopping mullet, and then wiggled themselves back into the water. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Keep your eyes open for these wonderful marine mammals. You can spot them along the beaches, in the bays, and around the mouths of rivers all over the Forgotten Coast.

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