Dolphin moms and human moms, both protectors, aren't so different

The pod of male bottlenose dolphins approaches the pod of females.

The playful, super-intelligent mammals often roam in gender-segregated pods, feeding at the same seafood banquets, but keeping to their own gender until the call of nature guarantees a next generation.

But the females don’t want to play this day. Among them is a mom and her young male calf, and the pod knows males may kill the young one if it is perceived as a distraction. The mom keeps her offspring close and the other females form a circle around them. In their protective stance, they are not receptive to the advances of the males, who eventually swim off to bluer waters.


I watched the amazing scene on PBS’s Nature production titled “Spy in the Pod.” The rare peek at underwater life was filmed by robot cameras made to look and move like familiar sea creatures, so the dolphins go about their lives as usual, sometimes trying to befriend or play with the unusual cameras in their midst.

I tell this story as my way of shouting out, “Happy Mother’s Day, all you moms of the world!” We humans often relate our mothers’ protectiveness to lionesses and tigresses, but coastal denizens like us should also consider the dolphin.

Oh, how many times did I sit on a boat rail to watch the bottlenose dolphins with my own mother? In those days, I wouldn’t have made the mom connection, but we both were mesmerized by the dolphins in the Mississippi Sound.

A life to celebrate

Cotton Bergeron, my dolphin protectress, died of colon cancer 18 years ago. She is still sorely missed by her remaining pod of Bergeron girls — three aging sisters who try to follow her lessons of importance of family and unity.

I wasn’t going to write about my mother for this Mother’s Day column, as there are plenty of remembrances and accolades for motherhood today in newspapers and TV and shouted from assorted social media megaphones. But the dolphins made me do it.

Mom was widowed at age 40, left with four children ranging in age from 4 to 16 to raise on an insufficient military-retirement pension linked to my dad, who died from a cancer caused by his work as a Navy special weapons officer. Sadly, our brother also died of cancer, a brain tumor diagnosed when he was in college.

How did she do it?

When I was older and wiser, I asked, “Mom, how did you do it?” Her answer: “Just take one day at a time.” That’s certainly how the porpoises, lionesses and tigresses do it.

When Mom needed money for my brother’s treatments, she took up commercial trammel net fishing, which brought in more money than the underpaid women’s jobs of that era. Hauling up nets was backbreaking and aggravated her arthritis, but she never complained.

Later, after Richard’s death, Mom decided that for a better-paying job she should return to college, which she had abandoned when World War II broke out. A Pennsylvania native, she took the test to join the U.S. Navy Waves and scored so high the recruiters stretched her height so she could become a Wave. She was an inch or two below the minimum height, she used to tell us.

But that was about all we knew. Mom never talked about her war years, not even when we got older and asked. I suspect it was because, to her, that was a short chapter in a life fulfilled by family. This Northern Protestant had married a Southern Catholic within months of meeting him at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where they met at war’s end.

Oh, those treasured stories

I remember a trip Mom and I took to Pensacola several years before her passing, to visit the grave of my father at Barrancas National Cemetery. She decided to drive around the base to look for recognizable buildings.

“I can’t believe it — there’s the barracks where I stayed,” she exclaimed. The lone single-story building still stood then, although it is likely now gone with the rest of the World War II–vintage barracks. She related a story about her arrival, and the unexpected heat and insects unknown in her native Pennsylvania hills.

I can still hear her tale of heading to the communal showers, no doubt to wash off the sweat. So there was my mom, innocently soaping up, rinsing off, when a gigantic bug flew into her shower stall.

Mom flew out. Yes, my petite, shapely, modest mother ran down the hall, buck naked.

She laughed as she relived her introduction to the Deep South. The flying object was a wood roach — you know, those prehistoric giant bugs that prefer to live outside but occasionally grace Southern buildings because they can fly.

By any other name

You might know that large roach as a palmetto bug, the polite name we Southerners dreamed up for aghast visitors. “Oh, that’s just a palmetto bug” sounds much better than, “It’s a roach!”

My Northern-bred mom had a lot more to learn about the South. She was forced to resign from the Navy when she married but that training readied her for being the wife of an enlisted man who later became a career officer who traveled the U.S. and overseas, happily with family in tow.

But I doubt anything can prepare someone for being the mother of four diverse, challenging children. Most important, she taught us independence, knowing one day we’d swim away from her protective pod. She wasn’t perfect, and certainly her offspring are not, but she was amazing. Protector and teacher, like that mother dolphin.

Not surprisingly, mothers became the first object of America’s penchant to commemorate with a special day. We’ve been doing it for 109 years, so Happy Mother’s Day to the world!

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.