Hard knock life

"Two days before the moon was round, you felt the urge of sun's light beams
The muffled world of dolphin sound slipped down & back into your dreams
For nine full months that passed before, you learned of all life's ancient rhymes
Then mother sensed a farther shore and brought you forth into these times
So taste the air of your new world and gently guide us to your mind
It knows the winds and sails unfurled, and hold to heart the dolphin kind.

Welcome precious Earth-made child, we met you first in your father's songs
and mother's smile and waters wild, it's in this place you now belong
I know you know of all these things and feel the faith of a dolphin's sigh
For you were born on silver wings to taste the high-blown crystal sky
So sing one day to all of us, the songs you learned in dolphin lair
Giving hope to life as all we must and teach how their grace to share."

-- John Denver


While Surprise was the undisputed favorite dolphin of staff & vollies in Shark Bay, it was safe to say Nicky was the runner-up.  Nicky knew how to work the crowd  Adding to her fanfare, her 2 year-old daughter -- Missel -- was often in tow.  Who doesn't love a baby dolphin?

The matriarch of Monkey Mia, Nicky was one of the original irrabugas a.k.a. dolphins who frequented the marine reserve in the 1970s.  Her story -- much like Surprise's -- was plagued with heartache.  Nicky was part of the reason the dolphin interaction program existed.  Unfortunately, in the 70s one particular sailor's wife persistently conditioned the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins here to take fish from a human's hand.  This lead to dolphins gorging themselves on fish, not having proper foraging skills and -- worst of all -- the death of many unattended calves.  The casualties continued because of lax regulation.

Again, in 1995 Nicky's behavior indirectly spear-headed change in the program.  Her son, Finnick, passed away as a result of emaciation from human (and the fish they handed out) dependency.  Finnick never built the social network dolphins rely on for safety and hunting. Before 1995, another of Nicky's offspring was eaten by a shark because Nicky was too engrossed in receiving fish from a boat.  Even Missel beached herself as a newborn, lured by tourists who claimed they were "washing" their hands in the water.  In total, of Nicky's 7 babies, only 2 ever survived.

Nicky, too, exhibited the harm of human intervention as she regularly arrived for feedings. As already mentioned, I caught her begging for fish once the way Puck did. Staff learned Nicky was quite greedy so she was always the last of the irrabugas (pronounced "ear-uh-bug-uh") to receive a Yellowtail, otherwise she resorted to stealing the others' fish, which was exactly what happened to Piccolo one morning I volunteered.  Although no feedings ever occurred past midday (to ensure the 5 ladies acquired food on their own) Nicky swam in one afternoon [with Missel], probably hoping for an easy meal from DPaW's silver buckets.  She approached tourists at the water's edge, allowing them to touch her rostrum -- not a trait a wild animal should be practicing!  Then, she put on a brief show, fin up in the air, again in line with begging.

One evening, sailing aboard the catamaran Shotover, my mother spotted a fin off its bow. We assumed it belonged to another dolphin, as we had seen pods throughout the cruise around Shark Bay.  I lunged across the deck to capture a photo as the animal passed port side.  Its fin left a wide, shallow wake and its body was the length of a full-size truck.  When I noticed the creature's spots I couldn't believe my luck -- a whale shark!  Dead wrong.  Instead, the captain identified it as a Thaaka a.k.a. Tiger Shark!  A wave of anxiety washed over me.  Less than ten minutes ago a trio of irrabugas surrounded a small motorboat nearby.  We were so close to Monkey Mia -- where Nicky + Missel followed our catamaran to deeper waters as we cast off --  I could clearly see the shore without binoculars.  Where was the family now?  After the voyage, I still couldn't shake the girth and proximity of the Thaaka.  That night I prayed for all the dolphins in Shark Bay, especially the calves. 
While I wasn't keen on Nicky's brash personality, I still sympathized with her.  An employee of DPaW retold a gut-wrenching story of a mother dolphin feeding from a fishing boat whose calf was killed by a shark.  Inconsolable, the female pushed her baby's carcass around Monkey Mia for hours.  How had Nicky coped with the bereavement of not just one, but five, of her children?

I'm not trying to vilify Nicky, although you may easily draw the conclusion that she was a terrible parent.  She became a terrible parent because humans interfered & attempted to domesticate wild animals for personal pleasure, as is all too common in the history of the world.   Nicky's son, Nakita, also died as a result of overfeeding and her very first baby, Nipper, was poisoned by toxins from a septic tank leak. It is my hope that Nicky's misfortune disturbs you to the core; so much that you think twice before touching that wild animal or swimming with dolphins or littering on your next vacation.  Her sorrow and the death of most of her children was preventable.

During my last days in Fiji, another vollie tagged me in a Facebook post announcing that after a week of fruitless searching and finding an abandoned Missel, researchers declared Nicky dead.  Born 4 days after Christmas in 1975, Nicky was older than me and most of the irrabugas in Monkey Mia.  Yet, I did not sleep well that night, fearing how Missel would fare as an orphan. I could still hear Missel's high-pitched squeals in my head from that day volunteering when the fish feeding (and therefore, her milk feeding from her mother) took extremely longer than usual.  I heard the shrill franticness as she wailed from hunger the way a human toddler might, and imagined her emitting the same cries now over the loss of her mommy.
Despite there being no evidence to support my claim, I like to believe that Nicky gave her life defending little Missel from a predator.  Nicky must have righted some of her wrongs in raising her calf this time, as her daughter is reportedly thriving.  Perhaps the last gift Nicky bequeathed to Missel was the gift of time.  Indubitably, Missel will have to grow up much quicker now that she is alone.  But for two years Nicky protected & taught Missel enough that she could be a carefree, rambunctious calf.

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