OCEAN CITY – A handful of local boaters enjoying a perfect Easter Sunday afternoon on the water this week were treated to a rare encounter with an ocean legend when the so-called Dolphin 56 swam up to their vessel near the mouth of the commercial harbor in West Ocean City and put on a brief show before taking off again.
A group of Stephen Decatur High School students were fishing in a boat near Assateague when they decided to head into port. As they approached the commercial harbor, they spotted a dolphin that appeared to be swimming right at their vessel at a rapid pace. Fearing they might collide with the dolphin, the boys shut off the boat’s engine and drifted to a stop.
The dolphin then swam right up to the boat and stood out of the water with its head near the vessel and seemingly smiled at the boys on board. The boys quickly pulled out their camera phones and snapped a few pictures of the friendly dolphin. In the meantime, the family of one of the boys returning to the area on a different boat observed what was going on and stopped about 100 yards away.
The friendly dolphin, later identified as the famous Dolphin 56, swam over to the second boat, jumped out of the water long enough to pose for a few quick pictures and quickly returned to the boys in the other boat. Local resident Jeanice Dolan, who was on the second boat with her husband Josh and their two young children along with two other kids, all Ocean City Elementary students, said this week the brief interaction with the famous bottlenose dolphin was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
“My family and I were also on our way back in and spotted the boys interacting with Dolphin 56,” she said. “Dolphin 56 swam to visit us and back again to the boys. What an amazing experience and a much better find than any Easter egg.”
Josh Dolan agreed the encounter was a memorable one and said he nearly had an opportunity to do more than just watch the famous mammal.
“We were coming in and we saw the dolphin with the boys, so we swung around for a closer look,” he said. “He swam right up to boat like he was ready to rest his head on the side. I reached out to touch him and got my hand about six inches from his head before he dove under and disappeared. It was pretty amazing.”
Similar encounters with the famous dolphin have been reported from Florida to New England over the last 30 years or so. In August 1979, a group of marine biologists from the Hubs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Orlando, Fla. corralled six dolphins near the NASA causeway in the Indian River Lagoon off the central Atlantic coast of Florida for a research project.
The dolphins were branded numbers 55-59 so they could track their movements for a research project. The dolphins were “branded” on their dorsal fins with a brass branding iron super-cooled in liquid nitrogen that raised their respective numbers on their fins for eternity before being released. Pictures of the dolphin that interacted with the boaters in the waters off Ocean City last Sunday clearly show the famous “56” branded on his dorsal fin.
For the next 17 years or so, Dolphin 56 stayed close to the area in which he was first captured and was sighted dozens of times over the years in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida. At first, he was not significantly different than the other dolphins captured and branded for the study, but it soon became apparent he was unique.
Typically, male dolphins live in pairs, or in some cases groups of three called alliances. Not Dolphin 56, however. Early on, for reasons unknown to the scientists who studied him, Dolphin 56 adopted a solitary lifestyle, preferring to interact with his human neighbors rather than his dorsal-finned brethren.
In the early 1980s, Dolphin 56 began his pattern of following boats and begging for fish. He soon became even bolder, jumping up and putting his head on the low-lying sides of the vessels. According to some reports, Dolphin 56 would often perform an elaborate flipping and splashing show before begging for a little reward.
Dolphin 56 was sighted two dozen times in the area of the Indian River Lagoon and was recaptured two times during the early 1980s so researchers could update his measurements. At the time he was first captured and branded in 1979, he was estimated to already be about 12 years old. In the spring of 1982, the contract for the study expired and it was shut down, but Dolphin 56 and his antics continued to be reported by the public.
Somewhere along the way, Dolphin 56 decided to take his show on the road. In early 1997, he was sighted and interacted with a vessel in the area of Jacksonville, some 300 miles from where he was first captured. In April 1997, he was observed by boaters in the area of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Dolphin 56 continued to appear further and further north of his original Florida home with his fame growing.
For the next 13 years or so, Dolphin 56 interacted with boaters, kayakers and surfers in much the same way from Florida to New York and beyond. According to a full-length feature in Outside Magazine last July, Dolphin 56 was sighted three times in the waters off New York from 1998 to 2001; 50 times off the coast of New Jersey and Delaware between 1998 and 2008; 69 times off the coast of North Carolina between 1997 and 1999 with two more sightings in 2001 and 2004; eight sightings off the coast of Maryland and Virginia between 1997 and 2001; 11 off South Carolina from 1997 to 1999; two times off the Georgia coast from 1997 to 1998; and 40 times off Florida’s coast from 1979 until 1996.
Researches estimated he was about 12 years old when he was first branded in 1979. After roaming the Atlantic for the last 30-plus years, Dolphin 56 must now be in his low to mid-40s, which is well beyond the average for bottlenose dolphins. According to the best available research, typical bottlenose dolphins have a life expectancy of about 25 years with a known maximum of about 50 years, meaning Dolphin 56 should be nearing the end of his days.
However, when observed last week near the mouth of the commercial harbor in West Ocean City, Dolphin 56 was playful and interacted with the local boaters despite his years. His face showed wrinkles and other signs of aging, and it appears his jaw may have been injured at some point, but otherwise, he appeared healthy.
His legend has grown over the years, fueled recently by technological advances including social network sites on the Internet. Dolphin 57 has his own Facebook page where those who have spotted him report his movements. In addition, a simple Internet search pulls up dozens and dozens of pages of websites, blogs and articles about the famous dolphin.
It remains uncertain just how long he will remain in the Ocean City area if he hasn’t moved on already. According to the most recent entries on his Facebook page, he was last seen extensively off the South New Jersey coast late last fall and if his history is accurate, Dolphin 56 could be making his way south again.