Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most iconic of all cetacean species. Whenever someone mentions “dolphin” these are the ones that most people would immediately bring to mind. Unfortunately for them, this fascination with their “natural smile”, their apparent playful nature and the misconception that they’re happy to jump through hoops and show off, means that they continue to be captured in the wild, torn from their family groups and transported half way around the world only to live out their now greatly shortened lives in a concrete pool, and then having to perform several times a day to an audience who are mostly ignorant to the stress and trauma that these animals are suffering. Imagine being ripped away from your family and friends, never to see them again (but certainly not forgetting about them), taken to someplace strange and unknown to live out the rest of your life in somewhere akin to a prison cell. You probably won’t like your cellmate, and you probably won’t enjoy being paraded in front of a noisy crowd of onlookers, having to perform unnatural tricks sometimes twice or three times a day. Doesn’t sound like much fun now does it?
Bottlenose dolphins are highly intelligent and social animals. Some populations are found in offshore, deeper waters, whilst some prefer the more sheltered coastal areas. The home ranges of these different populations can vary from one extreme to another with some being resident to a relatively small area with others roaming the high seas. They are found the world over, except for the Polar Regions, with the most northerly of the worlds populations of bottlenose dolphins found here in the UK.
A very small population (current estimates suggest approximately 12 individuals) are known to frequent the Cornish coastline, whilst further north in Cardigan Bay, Wales, a resident, yet relatively wide-ranging population of 200+ dolphins are to be found. Moving further north, across the border into Scotland, studies indicate the presence of two distinct groups of bottlenose dolphins off the west coast. One group can be found in and around the Sound of Barra and comprises around 15 individuals, while another group of around 35 animals range from Skye down to the Kintyre peninsula.
Possibly the most well studied and most well known resident population is to be found in the Moray Firth, in northeast Scotland. Research has shown that approximately 130 bottlenose dolphins use this area and since 2004, what is thought to be the most critical habitat for them, the inner Moray Firth, has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), in theory protecting both them and their home.
(To learn more about this population of dolphins and WDCS work in the area, visit www.protectourdolphins.org)
Let us return for a moment to the dolphins off of Gairloch, as that is after all where we are! In these parts, they are a rare yet very welcome sight, locals claim only to see them possibly once or twice a year, and even then there can be years between sightings. This all adds up to making our three sightings of bottlenose dolphins in as many days all the more special and of huge scientific interest and importance.
Our first sighting was confirmed when we spotted a commotion, and excessive splashing (too much for it to be gannets) in a sheltered bay at the southern extreme of our survey area. These guys were feeding and making the most of the early arrival of the herring to these waters. On closer inspection, and as they very kindly, languidly made their way north a mere 100m from the shore, we determined there to be at least 12 individuals, including 2 calves (both with foetal folds thus showing that they were very young indeed, possibly only months old).
Two days later we were treated to yet another “swim-by” by yet another 12 bottlenose dolphins. Much of this sighting was reminiscent of the previous one, same number of animals, same number of calves, same distance from the shore; only two things were different, this time they were heading south and they were a little bit more exuberant in their passage – perhaps they were off out for dinner and getting excited about what was on the menu today?
We seriously thought that it just couldn’t get any better but we didn’t have long to wait to be proved wrong! Five hours later and we had another sighting of 12 bottlenose dolphins, retracing the steps of the previous pod and heading north. Their behaviour this time was markedly different with more aerial displays and at lest two dolphins breaching repeatedly (this is when the animals come clean out of the water only to slap back down creating an almighty splash) and seemingly somersaulting their way along the coast. This time their proximity to the shore only served to magnify this already awe-inspiring spectacle. Even in our professional capacity as researchers it is difficult not to be overcome with joy when witnessing such an event.
The burning questions of course are; (1) Were all three sightings the same animals?, and (2) Have any of these animals been sighted and documented before? Whether or not these populations “mix” is something that is being hotly debated in scientific circles. Some believe they do and there is evidence, if somewhat scant, that at least one animal, first recorded off the west coast of Scotland has been spotted in the Moray Firth.
The answers to these questions will involve the use of photo-identification – where distinctive markings, notches and features of the dorsal fin are compared and a unique profile determined for each individual; kind of like fingerprinting for dolphins. The photographs that we took of the various dorsal fins will be compared with existing photo-id catalogues throughout the UK and by doing so hopefully we can learn more about these particular dolphins.
With still a few more weeks to go, we’re ever hopeful that we’ll be lucky enough to spot them again – and we will of course keep you updated of any developments and sightings!