When Mark Tyson first spotted the unusual bottlenose dolphin, with white blotches covering much of its otherwise dark body and a pink-tipped dorsal fin, the naming was simple: “Patches.” That was in 2006 off Orange County, Calif. These days, Patches, a rare specimen who appears to be partially albino, is famous. Sightings are infrequent; only a few are made each year between San Diego and Los Angeles. Thus, each confirmed sighting is special, and news of a Patches sighting spreads quickly on the Internet and via social media.
Patches as seen this year off San Diego aboard a Pacific Nature Tours boat. Credit: Melissa Panfili Galieti. Below image is from 2008 off Palos Verdes. Credit Alisa Schulman-Janiger
But are some people getting just a bit carried away? The dolphin was spotted Tuesday off Dana Point and the cetacean was featured Thursday in the Orange County Register.
Tyson, a naturalist for Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari, is quoted as saying, “When an animal is unusual, it’s sometimes shunned. To keep seeing him year after year, and most recently with a dolphin right next to him, means he’s been accepted as a member of the pod.”
David Anderson, who runs the whale-watching landing, said Patches “seems well-respected” by other dolphins, despite its peculiar coloration.
Could this simply be due to the fact that Patches, who measures an impressive 12 feet, is a bottlenose dolphin, and because dolphins are not subject to prejudice, as humans sometimes are?
Whatever the case, Patches is a fun story for Southern California marine mammal enthusiasts, who are in a slow period, awaiting the beginning of southbound Pacific gray whales as they travel from the Arctic to Baja California’s nursing and calving lagoons.
Tyson and Anderson said Patches could be a hybrid: part Risso’s dolphin, and part bottlenose. Risso’s dolphins are large, like bottlenose dolphins, and are identifiable by their blunt, rounded heads.
Risso’s dolphins are dark gray with extensive white scarring caused in squabbles with pod members. The scarring sometimes makes them appear white while they swim just beneath the surface.
Risso’s dolphins are often seen with offshore bottlenose dolphins and share similar feeding habits.
Patches, however, has the face of a bottlenose and its white blotches do not appear to be scars.
Dr. Thomas Jefferson, an expert in small cetaceans, inspected the photo atop this story and said: “It could be a hybrid, but as you suspect, probably more likely to be just a bottlenose with anomalous coloration. The only way to be sure would be to collect a biopsy sample and do the genetics.”
But whether just a peculiar bottlenose or a hybrid, Patches is always a welcome sight. Of the most recent sighting on Tuesday, Tyson, again seeming to give Patches human-like emotional qualities, told the Register: “I saw white underwater, and it grew whiter as he came up. He surfaced with another dolphin that came up with him every time he took a breath. He seems to have formed an alliance. Just like people, dolphins have their BFF.”