OCEAN CITY — A handful of local boaters taking advantage of an unusually warm day last Friday were treated to a rare encounter with an ocean legend when “Dolphin 56” swam up to their vessels in the bay behind Ocean City and put on a brief show before taking off again.
At least two boats reported spotting the famous Dolphin 56 last weekend. For more than 30 years, the friendly dolphin has been turning up in the waters up and down the east coast, putting on a brief show for curious boaters before slipping away again. The dolphin was corralled as part of a research project in Florida in 1979 and branded with the number 56 on his dorsal fin.
For the last three decades, the dolphin has been spotted numerous times up and down the coast from Maine to Florida, each time with a similar account of the encounter.
Last week, local angler John Doak, Jr., was returning from a fishing trip when he got his first glimpse at the famous dolphin.
“We were on our way back in from striper fishing when we saw him,” he said this week. “We saw him working around the fishing pier when we made the turn to go under the Route 50 bridge.”
Doak said he has had other encounters with dolphins over the many years he has fished in and around Ocean City, but he had never previously encountered Dolphin 56.
“I try not to disturb them,” he said. “I had an encounter a few years ago when I was trolling offshore and had one jump onto the transom of the boat. I just don’t want to see them get hurt.”
Meanwhile, another local boater, Tim Romberger, and his party, including his fiancé and son, were out on a pleasure cruise last Friday when they had their own encounter with the famous Dolphin 56.
“We were going under the Route 50 bridge right by the Coast Guard station when we saw this dolphin flipping around by another boat,” he said. “It was up by the gunwale of the other boat and was just playing around like he was putting on a show.”
Romberger said this week it was an encounter he won’t soon forget.
“It was the strangest thing,” he said. “He came right up to the back of our boat and jumped and played around for a few minutes. It happened so quickly. He just popped out of the water behind our boat and looked us right in the eye and did a few tricks for us.”
Romberger said he didn’t know about the legend of Dolphin 56 until he returned home later. A quick Internet search turned up hundreds of pages of information about the dolphin, who also has his own Facebook page.
“It was cool,” he said. “He went on his way and we went on ours. We didn’t know anything about him until we got home and did a little research.”
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.
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 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.
Researchers 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, Dolphin 56 was playful and interacted with the local boaters despite his years. His face showed wrinkles and other signs of aging, but otherwise, he appeared healthy.