Researchers are calling for sailors, nature watchers, fishers and other boat operators in and around Plymouth to help them monitor the UK’s smallest population of coastal bottlenose dolphins. The South Coast pod currently numbers only 40 individuals and they are known to range from the north coasts of Devon and Cornwall right along the entire south coast of England to East Sussex.
The length of their coastal range and the small size of the pod makes it incredibly difficult for marine conservation experts to track them in detail. As a result of their uniqueness and rarity, the South Coast Bottlenose Consortium was formed in 2022 to gather information on the bottlenose dolphins in the region.
They are calling for the public’s help to try and build a comprehensive pattern of where they travel at different times of the year and whether there are particular factors – include human activities or environmental conditions – that influence their movements. They are especially keen to try and establish if the dolphins have preferred breeding grounds, or any other reproductive patterns, given the pod hasn’t significantly grown in size since it was first identified in back in the 1990s.
As such, any sightings gathered during the summer of 2023 will help to establish if calf production is taking place at a sustainable rate for the population to survive. The project, supported by the South Coast Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium, is being coordinated by the University of Plymouth and Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who have been collaborating to study marine mammal populations off the South West coastline for several years.
Freya Diamond, an MSc Marine Conservation student at the University of Plymouth, will be analysing the sightings that comes in from the public. She said: “Despite them having been identified a number of years ago, we still know very little about this population. That means we are not in the best position to fully understand the challenges they are facing and how we can support these dolphins in the future. This project will hopefully provide us with the critical information we need to plug some of those knowledge gaps.”
To help those who want to assist with the research, the project team has developed some brief guidance to ensure they can make full use of any sighting reports:
- · Know what you’re looking for – bottlenose dolphins are grey all over, rather than being patterned, and measure between 2m and 4m in length;
- · Be sure to take clear straight on pictures of dorsal fins as individuals can be identified by markings on their dorsal fin;
- · As far as possible, note the precise date, time, and location where the sighting took place;
- · It is a criminal offence to deliberately harass dolphins, therefore don’t get too close to the dolphins as it may disturb them and cause unnecessary stress;
- · Report your sighting by emailing SCbottlenosedolphins@outlook.com, or through The South Coast Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium Facebook page.
Abby Crosby, Marine Conservation Officer at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, added: “This research is essential to provide evidence to support the conservation action needed to protect these special animals. Without this information and better protection there is a very real chance they will die out and never return to our shores, and to lose them would be a tragedy.
“The future of these iconic animals is in our hands and we need to make sure the few we currently have in South West waters are given the protection to not just survive, but to thrive.”
Dr Simon Ingram, Associate Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of Plymouth, has spent many years studying dolphin populations around the UK coastline. He added: “The small size of this group of dolphins is very concerning in terms of their conservation status and long term survival. Coastal pods in neighbouring countries such as Ireland, Scotland and France have larger populations with hundreds of animals.
“When you add in the fact that the South Coast pod is inhabiting one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and also an area prone to marine pollution and intense fishing, there is no question they are extremely vulnerable. If we are to adequately protect them, we need to know more about their behaviour and with such a large area to cover citizen science is a great way to achieve that.”