Playing with Patches

By Chuck Graham   |   December 21, 2021
Patches is a well-known bottlenose dolphin that frequents the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel

It was quite similar to many other channel crossings: overcast skies and silky-smooth sea conditions seemingly stretching from the coast to the Channel Islands National Park. It was also ideal for spotting wildlife on the Santa Barbara Channel. Common dolphins are almost a guarantee, pods numbering in the thousands seen splashing for hundreds of yards surrounding the Island Packers ferry.

After a guesstimated amount of channel crossings that number at least a couple thousand, I have to admit, I get a little jaded, maybe taking things for granted when it comes to dolphin sightings on the channel. However, there was a recent marine mammal sighting that caught my attention and everyone else’s.

A pod of offshore bottlenose dolphins was playing around the boat, leaping six to seven feet out of the water, and skillfully surfing the stern wake. However, there was one bottlenose that stood out like no other. It was a bottlenose dolphin that resembled a Risso’s dolphin, not only due to its size (10-14 feet and weighing 1,000 pounds), but mainly because it had patchy splotches of white mixed in with its typical stormy gray skin tones. He’s known as Patches, and he has a rare skin disorder known as leucism.

My girlfriend Holly Lohuis, a naturalist on the Island Packers ferry and a marine biologist, spotted Patches and the rest of his pod from the boat on the south side of Santa Cruz Island on November 4, 2021. When she showed me her photos of Patches, I thought, what are the odds of seeing him? At that point I thought my chances of an encounter were practically nil. A little more than two weeks later, there was Patches frolicking around the boat with the rest of his cohorts.

We saw Patches on the morning of November 19, 2021, just beyond the oil platforms. He came up alongside the starboard side of the Island Packers ferry. He hugged the boat surfing the stern wake, happily breaching toward Santa Cruz Island. The boat captain drove in broad circles several times enticing Patches and the rest of his pod to surf alongside the boat, allowing everyone a good look at a unique marine mammal.

Patches has been spotted as far south as San Diego

Patches was first spotted by naturalist Mark Tyson in the San Diego region in 2006, making the rare bottlenose at least 16 years old. Patches is considered to be a young male. Bottlenose dolphins can live between 45 and 65 years. Tyson gave Patches an appropriate name. Since then, Patches has been seen by charter and private boats between San Diego and Santa Barbara. He’s usually spotted with his squad of about 40 other bottlenose dolphins. On November 19, we guesstimated Patches was traveling with 20 to 40 of his own kind. 

His unique appearance from leucism is the partial loss of pigmentation in an animal. It causes white, pale, or splotchy coloring. It can occur throughout the animal kingdom. That could mean lighter colored hair, fur, feathers, scales, but not the eyes. The skin disorder forces less melanin, the natural pigments found in most organisms. 

As Patches surfed next to the Island Packers boat under a foggy canopy, I noticed the edge of his dorsal fin was actually a lightly colored pink. He also had scuff marks from sparring with other bottlenose dolphins. When he dove underwater his light patches stood out, reflecting from the diffused light above.

All dolphin species thrive within their pods. Social interaction and security in the pod protect them from predators, and gives them better opportunities while hunting for prey. Their skin color camouflages them in their ocean realm. However, leucism may expose Patches if a predator like a pod of orcas were around. 

For at least the last 16 years, Patches has figured it out with the help of his pod. He appeared robust, healthy, and happy as he continued breaching through the stern wakes along with his comrades. Suddenly, the pod veered off to the east. Food trumps everything in a channel deemed one of the best in the world for wildlife sightings. Within a few seconds, Patches and his pod had vanished into deeper water.


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