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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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A career amidst dolphins
But now the scientist spends more time trolling for funds.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007
Dr. Randy Wells started his biology career as an eager young volunteer at Mote Marine Laboratory. After more than 30 years, his documented study of Sarasota Bay's dolphins is by far the longest-running study of wild dolphins in the world.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Jason Allen, lab manager, Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, Mote Marine Laboratory, photographs a dolphin as it surfaces in Palma Sola Bay, just east of Anna Maria Island.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Jason Allen gives data from a dolphin sighting in Palma Sola Bay to visiting scientist Dr. Abdul Wakid of Assam, India. Both were researching dolphins with Dr. Randy Wells.
On Sarasota Bay
The glare of the August sun bounces off the waves, making them shine like a thousand tiny spotlights. Randy Wells and Jason Allen squint at the shimmering water.
A dark fin slices through the brightness, there and gone. Allen snaps a photo, studies it and announces, "F173."
Another dolphin identified. Wells nods at his 28-year-old assistant, then mentions that F173 is a juvenile and its mother is named Pumpkin.
"There are a bunch of juveniles out there," Wells notes. "Juvie girls, that's the future of the population right there."
There was a time when the bearded and barefoot Wells, 53, would have been able to name any dolphin in the bay with just a glimpse at the nicks on its fin.
After all, this is where he started his biology career as an eager young volunteer at Mote Marine Laboratory. And this is his project, which, after more than 30 years, is by far the longest-running study of wild dolphins in the world.
Lately, though, Wells has been stuck in the office trying to keep the $1.1-million study going. "The whole idea of sitting in front of a computer trying to find money for people to do what I want to do, there's something wrong with that," he grumbles.
About 150 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins use Sarasota Bay on a regular basis. Some range up into Tampa Bay, but most of them stick close to home. Wells' study has documented nearly 35,000 sightings of Sarasota Bay's dolphins since 1975.
Examining a dolphin community for so long "allows us to put together pieces of their lives in ways that wouldn't otherwise be possible," Wells says. He can rattle off the names of five generations of dolphins in one family, tell stories about their behavior, identify where they hang out.
Well's office at Mote Marine is well organized, with nautical charts on the wall and a bookshelf lined with dissertations written by Wells' many successful students. But sometimes his gaze drifts toward the window and to the bay beyond.
He'd rather be out on a boat, tracking the dolphins. They are almost all he thinks about.
"I dream about these creatures sometimes," Wells said.
He's come a long way from his first job, which essentially required him to be shark bait.
* * *
The skinny kid with the glasses really wanted to work at Mote. He would cut up fish, clean the tanks, sweep up - anything.
Wells' family had just moved down to Sarasota from landlocked Peoria, Ill. Up there he had watched Flipper on TV and read Jacques Cousteau's books, but that was as close as he could get to the undersea world. Now here he was, virtually next door to a marine science lab.
But Mote didn't want him. He was just 16.
Then one day in 1969, a newly hired Mote scientist named Blair Irvine walked into the real estate office run by Wells' dad, looking for a house. His dad "told me about this really bright kid who was really bored at school," Irvine recalled recently.
So Irvine took him on as an assistant. Mote was known then for its shark research, but Irvine had a Navy contract to study dolphins. So Wells helped Irvine train a dolphin named Simo.
Their goal, dictated by the Navy: Train Simo to chase sharks away from a diver.
The plan called for a year of training at Mote. Then Irvine was going to take Wells and Simo to Bimini, put them in the water together, "and draw the sharks in and then have the dolphin demonstrate how it keeps them away," Wells said.
Simo did all right with some shark species. But when they put a bull shark in the tank, the dolphin "would freak out completely," Wells said, grinning. "I didn't get the trip to Bimini, but I didn't get the last vacation I would ever take, either."
They released Simo into the Gulf of Mexico. The dolphin leaped three times and disappeared.
But the notion of studying dolphins remained, and grew. Soon Irvine and Wells were experimenting with ways to tag wild dolphins in Sarasota Bay to see where they went.
To their surprise, they found that the dolphins didn't stray far. The bay offered plenty of fish to eat, and the temperature didn't get too cold.
So the two men captured some dolphins and took their vital statistics. They documented what the dolphins did and where. Then their funding sputtered, "and it was catch as catch can," Irvine said.
But Wells stuck with it, even when he went away to college, even as he pursued a Ph.D.
"He was like a bulldog," said Irvine, who has left marine biology. "He never let it go."
* * *
The sky turns gray. Drops of rain dimple the water. Three, four, five fins pop up nearby.
Dolphins signal each other underwater with whistles and chirps, Wells explained recently as he eased the 24-foot Palmer boat along after them. Heavy rain hitting the surface sounds like white noise, so they swim closer together, he says. Then he warbles a few bars of Singin' in the Rain.
One of the dolphins Wells and Allen spot is Nosepicker, so named because its fin has a finger-like hook on its tip. The dolphin usually hangs out near Safety Harbor, but this summer while visiting Sarasota Bay it gave birth to a calf.
Another frequent visitor from Tampa Bay, Pecan Sandie, taught the other dolphins a new way to hunt for food, a method Wells calls "kerplunking." The dolphin drags its tail through the water, creating a geyser of bubbles that flush out small fish, making them easier to catch.
Now that Pecan Sandie has taught other dolphins the move, Wells says, "They'll kerplunk in a circle sometimes, and then go in and feed."
Wells has traveled the globe teaching other scientists his techniques, and visitors have flocked to Mote to observe his work. On this boat trip he's accompanied by a biologist from India trying to save a dolphin species in the Ganges River endangered by fishing and pollution.
Over the years, Wells has seen changes in Sarasota Bay. Some are good - the city stopped dumping raw sewage - and some not so good, such as an increase in speeding boats.
"It gets crazy out here. We won't come out and do any work on the weekends because so many boats are passing by," he says.
Then there's the polluted stormwater runoff. Pesticide residue has shown up in dolphin blubber and milk, and could be the reason some calves die, Wells's studies have found.
Near noon, the rain lets up. North of the Cortez Bridge, a dolphin pops up next to the boat, grabs a pinfish, rolls on its back and dives beneath the surface.
Wells watches it go. He's not sure which one it was, but he's happy to be on the water again.
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.