Like raccoons with picnic coolers or urban coyotes with pet cats, West Florida's bottlenose dolphins are learning that proximity to humans can make for easy meals. They shadow boats, waiting for anglers to discard fish they can't keep. They cruise piers, snatching fish and bait right off lines. Some stick their heads out of the water and beg, as cute as cocker spaniels. Tourists and locals alike are often delighted to reward them. What's cooler than watching Flipper chow down?
Tampa Bay's 800 to 900 dolphins have exhibited such behavior from time to time, but a red tide in 2005 raised the stakes by wiping out most of their natural prey.
Since then the prospect of a free lunch has kept spreading.
"We are able to document lineage, from grandmother to mother to calf,'' says Jessica Powell, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, "all following fishing boats and taking thrown-back fish."
At times, the result isn't pretty: boat propellers slice into bodies. Hooks and lures end up in bellies. Fishing lines cut through skin.
"It's scary,'' she says.
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With its abundance of boaters, a vibrant fishery and Sea World ambience, Florida has always provided opportunity for wild dolphins to lose their natural fear of humans.
Ever-tighter fishing regulations mean anglers throw back more and more of their catch. A fish weakened by a fight is a snack waiting to happen.
The red tide in 2005 was so severe it killed off about 75 to 95 percent of the fish that dolphins normally eat, says Dr. Randy Wells, director of dolphin research at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory.
"We suspect that the dolphins were hungry,'' Wells says. "Their main prey base was gone. Seeing a fresh pin fish dangling from a line might look pretty good to them. And once they learned that anglers are a source of food, they don't forget that very quickly.''
That squares with what St. Petersburg fishing guide Doug Hemmer has observed.
About six or seven years ago, Hemmer says, anglers could scare off Tampa Bay dolphins by throwing lures nearby to make noise.
By 2005, some dolphins had lost their fear and "would sneak up and hide behind you, making no noise,'' Hemmer says. "When you release an undersized trout or oversized redfish, they zoom in and eat it.''
About two years ago, he says, some started snatching fish right off the line, particularly in the winter when bait is scarce.
Skyway fishing piers have become dolphin magnets, says north pier manager Jamie Foster.
"One female out here ... grabs the mackerel off the hook and just shows it to the angler,'' Foster says. "It's like, "Look. I just got your fish.' "
On a recent mangrove snapper trip to the Skyway, Hemmer says, two dolphin stole his first two catches. He was about to leave, but the dolphins left first — at least Hemmer thought so.
Instead they hid behind one of the pier columns.
"I put another bait down and they came back and nailed that one too," Hemmer said. "They have just gotten smarter and smarter and smarter.''
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Maybe not so smart.
"Whenever animals become reliant on humans for food, it puts them at jeopardy,'' says Wells, "If they are coming to boats or piers to get fish, they are swimming through a maze of lines, hooks and lures and those lines are designed to be invisible under water.''
In 2006, three Sarasota Bay dolphin bodies showed up with fishing lures lodged in their innards. One usually traveled with another male dolphin who started mooching off tourists and anglers at Anna Maria piers. Within several months, that dolphin also disappeared and presumably died.
Comparatively speaking, losing four dolphin in Sarasota Bay is like losing 20,000 Pinellas County residents to unnatural death.
Mote researchers estimate that only about 160 bottlenose dolphin live in Sarasota Bay, a stable, slow-reproducing population, with some living 50 years. Females give birth only every three to six years. On average, the group might produce only eight babies a year.
Losing just one dolphin to human interaction "is tragic,'' says Powell. "If these rates of strandings in Sarasota were to continue, the population would disappear in 100 years.''
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Some call him Mooch, others Freddie the Freeloader. Mote researchers know him as Beggar — 8 feet and 400 pounds of ne'er-do-well.
Since he was a juvenile 20 years ago, Beggar has waylaid friendly humans in a narrow stretch of Intracoastal Waterway near Nokomis Beach.
He approaches boats within minutes after they crawl through the Albee Road drawbridge at no-wake speed. Though feeding wild dolphins is illegal under state and federal law, he often gets his reward.
Researchers have spotted people feeding him potato chips, macadamia nuts, oranges and apples as well as rotting shrimp, squid and other fishing bait that reek with bacteria.
Beggar's skin is devoid of major scars though he routinely swims just inches from boat propellers.
The human-dolphin interaction seems to work — in his favor.
Regulators and wildlife officers say Beggar has bitten dozens of boaters, sending many to the hospital for stitches. His main target: those who try to touch him.
"The perception is that they are not harmful. Not wild. They are playful and this is what they are supposed to do and this is okay,'' says Stacey Horstman, dolphin expert for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The perception is not that this is a big mouth with a lot of teeth."
Recently, a company outing of Clarke/Eric Mower in Sarasota brought about 20 people through on two pontoon boats.
"Beggar! ... Beggar!'' they call, slapping the boats' sides.
He surfaces right on cue and sidles up to one boat, staying just beyond outstretched hands. The boat lists toward him as riders push to get close and snap cell phone photos.
After a minute or so with no handout, Beggar shifts to the second boat. Still nothing but adoration and hands reaching toward wet, sleek skin.
So he heads to a third boat and makes his mission more clear — sticking his head vertically out of the water and opening his maw.
Finally, a fourth boat proves enticing.
A man leans from the transom, arm straight out, dangling a dark object about 3 feet above the water. Beggar heads over and shoots half-way out of the water, mouth agape, before breaking off at the last second and snubbing the offering.
Even a begging dolphin has standards, and a bottle of beer lacks protein.
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A clever public service ad put out by the Fisheries Service shows a AA-like gathering where a cartoon dolphin discusses his addiction to human food with a seagull, raccoons, bear and another dolphin.
"For me, it started with one hit of sardines,'' he says. "It was easy to score free fish ... Yeah, it's illegal, but no one cares... I was Jonesing for people food.''
If human-delivered food is habit-forming, then Florida's Panhandle is crack central.
When the shrimp industry installed fish-escape hatches in its trawl nets, bottlenose dolphins learned to jam their head into the hole and inhale lunch.
"They take their turns, one at a time,'' says federal biologist Dan Foster. "Occasionally, one seems to like staying at the opening a little too long and other ones will give it a nudge in the side and he'll move away.''
A commercial fisherman out of Panama City grew so frustrated with dolphin stealing his catch that he threw pipe bombs at them. His prior felony record didn't help and he was recently sentenced to two years in prison.
For years, tourists have flocked to Panama City for "swim-with-the-dolphins'' tours. To assure dolphins would associate boats with handouts, operators once fed the resident St. Andrew Bay population.
Federal law banned wild dolphin feeding in the early 1990s, but by then the St. Andrew Bay bunch was hooked.
They continue to approach boats three and four at a time. And as YouTube videos attest, people are still happy to provide dinner.
"Grab me a minnow, Patty! Feed 'em!'' yells a man in one video.
"They aren't going anywhere,'' another man responds. "They'll be here until we stop feeding them.''