FINE-FINNED FRIENDS

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They knew we had food. As sure as we were putt-putting down the waterway looking for them, they had come looking for us.

It was 8 o'clock in the morning, and my younger brothers and I were in a small boat, motoring through an ocean inlet in Sarasota, Fla.

The man at the boat-rental place had given us a map and told us to head south. ``You can stop by the marina snack bar and get something to eat,'' he said. ``You can also buy sardines to feed the dolphins.''

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So we did just that. The man at the marina told us to let the sardines thaw a little while. ``Dolphins don't like their fish frozen.'' With my brother Bruce at the wheel and the sardines thawing in the sun, we motored for about a mile. ``I see one, over there,'' my brother Todd shouted finally.

A gray fin sloped up and out of the water, nearer to our boat.

Todd dangled a smelly sardine over the edge. The dolphin swam up and opened his mouth to reveal a bunch of little white teeth. He appeared to be smiling, almost ready to let out a laugh, but made no sound at all.

After Todd dropped him a sardine, the dolphin gulped, bobbed his head as if to say ``thanks,'' and swam away.

Then he brought friends. Soon, we had several dolphins swimming alongside our boat. We dangled sardines a little higher, making some dolphins jump up to snatch them away. Our favorite one was a baby (we could tell because his beak or snout was much shorter than the others) who was somewhat of a showoff. He would swim away from the boat, get a ``running start'' by starting deep underwater, then surprise us with a high jump to get his sardine. It was a fun morning.

* * *

When I got home from my vacation, I decided to do a little research on dolphins. Ever since I was on a YWCA swim team - and the dolphin was our mascot - I've been fascinated by them. I learned a little about dolphins from TV shows - that they are very intelligent, communicate well, and are good-natured animals. I had also seen dolphins perform at an adventure park. (Some people think keeping dolphins in captivity is wrong; that dolphins should be in the wild.) But I knew there was much more to learn.

So, I started out by visiting my friend Skip who works at the New England Aquarium in Boston. There, two white-sided dolphins - a mother and her son - are being cared for after they got lost and then stranded recently in a marsh in Wellfleet, Mass.

``We don't know why they ended up beached,'' he said, ``but now that they've been rescued, they're being cared for.'' (Families visiting the aquarium aren't allowed to see the dolphins because they're in a special tank. But Skip let me watch them through an observation window.) When they're rested up and feeling better, the aquarium will help them find their way home.

* * *

Next, I called a dolphin-research facility in Florida.

The woman who answered scolded me: ``You should not have been feeding the dolphins. That's not allowed!''

``Sorry,'' I said, ``but the man at the boat place said....''

``Well, the authorities are going to become more strict about cracking down,'' she huffed.

She transferred my call to Randall Wells, a dolphin expert who has been studying the same population of bottlenose dolphins for many years.

``What's wrong with feeding dolphins?'' I asked Dr. Wells, who is a conservation biologist with the Chicago Zoological Society and is doing his field work in Florida.

He explained that you shouldn't feed the dolphins because they become ``conditioned'' or trained to rely on food from boaters. Dolphins should be hunting for their own food in their habitat, he said.

Boaters are just a small problem, compared with other things, Wells told me. He's especially worried about environmental pollution.

If you want to learn more about dolphins or sea creatures, check out some of the films in your video store (Nova and National Geographic have some good ones). Also, look for books at the library or visit a place that specializes in animal education, such as an aquarium.

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