Keepers of Coral World Ocean Park on St. Thomas are paying particular attention to one of their charges these days: Ping, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin on the coast.
Suspicions that Ping was pregnant were first raised in August last year and then confirmed by ultrasound in September. She is the first marine mammal in Coral World to become pregnant, and her calf will be the first dolphin born under the care of the park, said Kristine Tartaglio, assistant curator of marine mammals and birds.
With a gestation period of 12 months, Ping will give birth to her calf in about two months, Tartaglio said. Meanwhile, her caretakers keep a close eye on the mother-to-be.
“We have a vast, shared amount of knowledge from veterinarians, scientists and animal care professionals around the world,” said Lee Kellar, general curator and director of facilities at Coral World, in a press release announcing the news on Mother’s Day. . “Through a global support network, we give Ping everything she needs to maintain a healthy pregnancy.”
That means keeping a close eye on Ping’s body condition and making sure everything stays as normal as possible, as she has always been fed a well-balanced diet with fats and proteins from high-quality fish, Tartaglio said in a recent email interview.
“Understandably, the amount she eats daily has increased and we are prepared for her diet to increase even more after the birth to keep up with her calorie consumption as a nursing mother,” she said.
Having never lived in the wild, Ping moved in 2019 to Coral World’s 9-acre St. Thomas Sea Sanctuary in Water Bay from a zoo on the U.S. mainland. It was her first time in natural ocean waters, Tartaglio said.
“It was great to watch her learn about ocean waves, currents, fish and invertebrates. This is such an incredible habitat for Ping and all the dolphins in Coral World to call home. While we cannot replicate every experience of life in the open ocean, we do our best to give them natural experiences and reproduction is definitely a natural experience,” and a sign of her well-being, Tartaglio said in the press release announcing the pregnancy. .
The Coastal Zone Management Committee approved Coral World for up to 15 dolphins at a hearing in 2019, 12 of which can be part of the park’s interactive program, while a further three will be allowed if the dolphins reproduce.
Park officials said at the time that breeding was not part of the plan, but also could not be ruled out completely. “There’s no perfect way to stop the animals from reproducing other than to separate them, which is not a humane thing to do,” Kellar said at the time.
“Ping has been a mother before,” Erica Palmer, a veterinary technician at Coral World, said in the press release. “We are confident that she will have an uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, although we will prepare to address every possible outcome and support Ping in every way we can.”
As Ping’s due date approaches, the staff will “babyproof” a special area of the dolphin habitat that her keepers believe is her preferred location, with the main goal being to ensure she has a comfortable and safe place to drop her off. to deliver. calf, said Tartaglio.
“This space can be closed off so she has the opportunity to be alone with the other females in our group, as dolphins naturally do. As her delivery date approaches, Coral World’s trustees and veterinary staff will decide when is the best time for her to stay at that location,” Tartaglio said.
Of course, dolphins have their calves in small, familiar female groups, and once the baby is born, her caretakers will keep a close eye on Ping’s behavior so they can determine which social companions she’s most comfortable with, Tartaglio said. .
“Of course we already have a pretty good idea who that will be, but of course dolphin social groups often change and the behavior of our dolphins is consistent with this. So it is important that all employees are vigilant for signals from Ping that its preferences have changed and we will act accordingly,” Tartaglio said.
After the birth, Ping will nurse her baby for 18 to 24 months, maybe longer, and the couple will be together for some time after that, Tartaglio said. “In the wild, dolphins stay with their mothers for an average of three to six years. However, after they are no longer dependent on breastfeeding for their primary source of nutrition, they are often observed to separate from their mothers to also learn to forage and socialize with other dolphins,” she said.
They can’t be 100 percent sure about who the father might be, but the animal care team is pretty sure it’s Sonny, Tartaglio said. “Sonny is our dominant male and was often paired with Ping all summer,” she said. “After birth, Coral World will conduct genetic testing to confirm paternity.”
For now, Ping’s caretakers are keeping an eye on them and, like all expectant families, are waiting.
“We couldn’t be happier to witness the birth, growth and development of the first dolphin born at Coral World. Coral World considers every animal in our care to be a special part of our family, which is why it is both our privilege and responsibility to do everything possible to provide them with the highest standards of care and welfare throughout their lives.” said Tartaglio.
“Ping has a strong and wonderful personality, and we can’t wait to have some more of Ping in our family,” she said.
Visit the Coral World website and Facebook page for more information and updates.