MADEIRA BEACH — There's cautiously good news about the injured bottlenose dolphin swimming around John's Pass with a badly lacerated back: Babyface seems to be improving.
"It appears that the animal is becoming a little bit more strong," said Blair Mase, a stranding coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mase said the team of marine biologists and veterinarians tracking the dolphin — a longtime resident of John's Pass known as Babyface — are "slightly encouraged."
But they still consider the dolphin's condition potentially life-threatening. She faces many obstacles, like being able to maintain adequate nutrition. Experts said it could take months for her injuries to heal.
NOAA officials first learned of the 9-year-old female dolphin's injuries last week, when observers told police that the mammal seemed lethargic and spending a lot of time at the water's surface, which is unusual for dolphins. Last week, biologists took photos of the dolphin's injuries, which showed several deep propeller cuts to its back and tail. The wounds contract and expand like an accordion when it dives under water.
Mase said it's likely the propeller cuts go as deep as the bone and may have even severed certain tendons that help the dolphin swim.
"Honestly, we're all pretty baffled that it is still swimming," Mase said, "and that it's swimming as well as it is."
Animal behaviorist Ann Weaver said it's common for dolphins to feign improvement when, in reality, they're struggling. To show weakness, she said, would alert predators and expose the dolphin's vulnerability.
In all her years observing dolphins, Weaver said she has never seen a dolphin injured this severely. She fears that Babyface may not survive her injuries, or even feed herself.
"There is no precedent for this," Weaver said. "The amount of pain she is in is indescribable. It is amazing that she has survived thus far."
Weaver has spent the past decade studying the hundreds of dolphins that have made John's Pass their home. For nine of those years, she has followed Babyface. Weaver named Babyface after the dolphin's mother, who had a dorsal fin that resembled a human silhouette.
As soon as she saw a photo of the injured dolphin, Weaver knew it was Babyface.
"I have watched her grow up," Weaver said.
This is why boaters need to slow down around sea life, Weaver said.
"It's nauseating," she said. "It's nauseating, because somebody hit her."
NOAA officials tracked the dolphin during the weekend and decided it was best for the animal to heal in the wild rather than endure the stress of being captured and rehabilitated by humans.
They arrived at that decision after seeing signs that Babyface was improving: she has shown more ease at swimming and been spending more time underwater.
"If she can remain in the wild and heal," Mase said, "we want to give her that best shot."
John's Pass dolphin showing small signs of improvement, condition still life threatening, experts continue to monitor pic.twitter.com/AFOJTDrV8Q— NOAA Fish Southeast (@NOAAFish_SERO) July 21, 2015
Either path is risky, however. Remaining in the waters of John's Pass could expose the dolphin to more boaters and even predators. But taking the mammal in for rehab could create additional stress and delay healing.
Or as Weaver put it: "You think an alien abduction is frightening."
NOAA will keep monitoring the dolphin for signs of a decline in health, such as weight loss or swimming impairment, before considering whether to capture and rehabilitate the dolphin.
Propeller strikes are common for marine life such as manatees, but Mase said they don't see as many dolphin victims. But Babyface's injuries are beyond anything she has seen.
"I don't think I've ever seen this severe of a prop strike in an animal that's alive," Mase said.
Mase reminded the public not to feed this dolphin or other marine wildlife. Human-fed dolphins change their behavior and are at greater risk for boat injuries, getting tangled in fishing lines or ingesting contaminated or dangerous items.
NOAA officials also asked the public to keep reporting sightings of the injured dolphin by calling 1-877-942-5343. Mase said they got 10 to 15 calls a day during the weekend, some as late as midnight.
"It's great to see the amount of concern that's out there," she said.
Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.