Caretakers at Coral World Ocean Park on St. Thomas are paying particularly close attention these days to one of their charges: Ping, the coastal Atlantic bottlenose dolphin.
Suspicions that Ping was pregnant were first raised last August and then confirmed by ultrasound in September. She is the first marine mammal at Coral World to become pregnant, and her calf will be the first dolphin to be born under the park’s care, said Kristine Tartaglio, assistant curator of marine mammals and birds.
With a gestation period of 12 months, Ping is due to deliver her calf in about two months, said Tartaglio. Meantime, her caretakers are closely monitoring the expectant mother.
“We have a vast, shared body of knowledge from veterinarians, scientists, and animal care professionals from all over 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 network of support, we are giving Ping everything she needs to maintain a healthy pregnancy.”
That includes monitoring Ping’s body condition carefully and making sure to keep everything as normal as possible since she has always received a diet well balanced in fats and proteins from high-quality fish, said Tartaglio in a recent interview via email.
“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 expenditure as a nursing mother,” she said.
Ping has never lived in the wild, having been relocated to Coral World’s nearly 2-acre St. Thomas Sea Sanctuary in Water Bay in 2019 from a zoo on the U.S. mainland. It was her first time in natural ocean waters, said Tartaglio.
“It has been wonderful to watch her learn about ocean waves, currents, fish, and invertebrates. This is such an incredible habitat for Ping and all the dolphins at Coral World to call home. While we can’t recreate 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 wellbeing, Tartaglio said in the press release announcing the pregnancy.
The Coastal Zone Management Committee approved Coral World for a maximum of 15 dolphins at a hearing in 2019, 12 of which can be part of the park’s interactive program while an additional three would be allowed if the dolphins reproduce.
Park officials said at the time that breeding was not a part of the plan but also could not be completely ruled out. “There is no perfect way we can keep the animals from breeding, short of separating them, which is not a humane thing to do,” Kellar said then.
“Ping has been a mother before,” said Erica Palmer, a veterinary technician at Coral World, in the press release. “We have every confidence that she will have an uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, although we will prepare to handle every possible outcome and support Ping in every way we can.”
As Ping’s due date draws near, staff will be “baby-proofing” a special area of the dolphin habitat that her caretakers believe to be her favorite location, with the number one goal to ensure that she has a comfortable and safe place to deliver her calf, said Tartaglio.
“This space will be able to be blocked off so that she has the option to be with only the other females in our group as dolphins do naturally. As her delivery date approaches, Coral World’s curators and veterinary staff will decide when the best time is for her to stay in that location,” said Tartaglio.
Naturally, dolphins have their calves in small, familiar female groups and once the baby is born, her caretakers will watch Ping’s behavior closely so they can determine which social companions she feels most comfortable with, said Tartaglio.
“Of course, we already have a pretty good idea of who that will be, but dolphin social groups naturally change often and the behavior of our dolphins has been consistent with this. So, it will be important for all staff to be vigilant to any signs from Ping that indicate her preferences have changed and we will act accordingly,” said Tartaglio.
Following the birth, Ping will nurse her baby for anywhere from 18 to 24 months, perhaps longer, and the pair will remain together for some time after that, said Tartaglio. “In the wild, dolphins will stay with their mothers for an average of three to six years. However, after they no longer rely on nursing for their primary source of nutrition, they are frequently observed separating from mom to learn to forage and socialize with other dolphins as well,” she said.
As for who the father might be, they can’t be 100 percent certain, but the animal care team is fairly confident it is Sonny, said Tartaglio. “Sonny is our dominant male and was frequently seen pair-swimming with Ping all through last summer,” she said. “After the birth, Coral World will have genetic testing performed to confirm paternity.”
For now, Ping’s caretakers will keep a close watch and, like all expectant families, wait.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled to bear witness to the birth, growth and development of the first dolphin born at Coral World. Coral World considers each animal under our care to be a special part of our family, and therefore it is both our privilege and our responsibility to do all that we can to provide them with highest standards of care and well-being throughout their lives,” said Tartaglio.
“Ping has a strong and wonderful personality, and we can’t wait to have a little more of Ping in our family,” she said.