OCEAN CITY — One month after his most recent sighting in Ocean City, the famous “Dolphin 56” made another appearance in the area this week, swimming up to and showing off for a group of local boaters near the Inlet on Tuesday.
For over three decades, the friendly dolphin has been turning up in the waters up and down the coast, putting on a brief show and perhaps collecting a little reward before slipping away again. The ancient dolphin was corralled as part of a research project in Florida in 1979 and branded with the number 56 on his dorsal fin, and while he has been spotted occasionally over the years from Maine to Florida, it appears he might be taking a liking to the mid-Atlantic area and Ocean City.
Last April, several boats reported encounters with Dolphin 56 in the bay near the mouth of the commercial harbor in West Ocean City, the first reported sighting in the resort area in years. Last month, Dolphin 56 appeared again in the area, putting on a brief show for boaters before disappearing again.
This week, the famous dolphin was spotted all over the local area, from a reported sighting near Wallops Island on Monday to another encounter near the Ocean City Inlet on Tuesday.
Erik Quisgard, an accountant with Bergey & Company in Berlin, and his son were out fishing near the Inlet with AGH Dr. Jack Gillespie and his son on Tuesday evening when they caught a glimpse of the famous dolphin.
“Dr. Gillespie spotted something breaching the water near the green buoy just inside the Inlet,” said Quisgard this week. “We saw the breach again and realized it was a dolphin. I recalled reading a story recently about a friendly dolphin that frequented the area, so we took the boat out of gear and, sure enough, Dolphin 56 swam right up to the boat and held next to us for a few minutes.”
True to form, Dolphin 56 put on brief show for the Quisgards and the Gillespies before disappearing again.
“He came very close to the side quite a few times, poking his head high up out of the water to check us out and even nodded a few times,” said Quisgard. “After a bit, he lazily swam off and we went on our way. It was a fantastic experience for all four of us and the boys even got sprayed from his blowhole.”
In August 1979, a group of marine biologists 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.
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. 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.
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 England and beyond. According to a full-length feature in Outside Magazine in July 2009, 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.