Strange things are afoot with the adopt a dolphin gang. Mischief and pals are off the coast of Holland and Spirtle and co are in Ireland - what's going on? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me begin…
My 2019 working year started in a fairly unusual manner, with not one but two of the Scottish west coast orca population (#W01/ John Coe and #W08/Aquarius) turning up for a day visit in horrendous weather in early January near my ‘office’ at Chanonry Point.
After that, nothing much out of the ordinary happened until late March when a large group of bottlenose dolphins was photographed off the north coast, in the Pentland Firth, by WDC supporter and Rainbow adopter, Karen Munro. Karen got some great quality pictures of the dorsal fins of these dolphins and after sharing them with Dr Barbara Cheney from the Lighthouse Field Station at Cromarty and me, we quickly realised that they were dolphins from the Inner Firth, local dolphins that were very well-known, including WDC adoption dolphins Moonlight and Mischief.
Spirtle was also in this group of twenty or so. You may remember that she’s the young female dolphin who stranded in the Cromarty Firth in 2016 and sustained severe sunburn damage to her right side. She now has a huge patch of white and is unmistakable even from a great distance. Nothing more was heard of this big group of dolphins and it was surmised that they had returned south into the Moray Firth.
How wrong we were...
News started to come through in late May from the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) that a dolphin with a large patch of white had been seen off the coast of Dublin, on Ireland's east coast. One of the IWDG scientists had been over here at the Lighthouse Field Station and remembered the story of Spirtle and realised that the dolphin photographed in Ireland might actually be her. It was, and a few weeks later Spirtle and the small group she was with were seen and re-photographed over on the west coast of Ireland and getting nearer the Shannon Estuary, which interestingly has its own population of bottlenose dolphins. The news from Ireland has gone a bit quiet recently, with no more photo or video coming through in the last week or so but Barbara has identified another Moray Firth dolphin with Spirtle so we know that she is not alone.
Meanwhile, even further afield…
I had a late night message on 19 July from one of our WDC Shorewatchers, Steve Truluck, saying that a friend of his in Holland, Wouter Jan Strietman, had noticed people were talking on social media about a group of bottlenose dolphins that had turned off the coast of Texel, an island just off the Dutch coast. He asked me to look at a YouTube clip of video to see if I recognised any dolphins. One dolphin looked VERY familiar and when some photos from Holland turned up on social media I was getting more convinced that it was Mischief. I contacted Barbara again and sent her the links, some of the which were from research institutions so she contacted them directly and asked if she could see better quality video and photos.
Jeroen Hoekendijk from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Mardik Leopold from Wageningen Marine Research and Euro Observation.org were very kind and supplied great evidence that showed that yes, it was definitely Mischief! Barbara, with her expert eye, could identify between four and eight other Moray Firth dolphins in that particular group. These sightings are, to our knowledge, the first confirmed evidence of known individuals from the Scottish east coast bottlenose dolphin population being seen outside the UK and it raises a few questions as to why these dolphins are making these long-distance movements. As Barbara said in a phone call, ‘Is it really the first time that these big movements have happened or is it because Spirtle and Mischief are so recognisable and that the information was shared so rapidly through social media etc that we found out?’ and then added that ‘now our challenge is to try to understand these previously unknown movements’.
Is this the search for new food sources by the dolphins? I had a message recently about the sightings off Holland from James Wood, a fisheries scientist. There is an oceanic current that goes from the south Yorkshire coast called the Flamborough Front that stretches all the way across the North Sea to where Mischief and friends have been seen. We have regular reports of known dolphins being seen from Flamborough Head in south Yorkshire so it would seem the dolphins might be following this rich upwelling of nutrients that contains fish. Whether Spirtle and friends are getting plenty of food off the coast of Ireland is open to speculation and we know that the stocks of wild salmon are at a very low level around the UK. Or could it be something completely different, such as seeking out new DNA to avoid inbreeding? Or even a combination of the two factors? Only time and careful science will tell but it has certainly put these amazing wild, free dolphins in the spotlight again for, what I think is a great sit up and pay attention reason. They have the CHOICE to move these long distances, unlike their incarcerated cousins in captivity, these dolphins can choose to travel hundreds of miles if they want to or feel the need.
People have asked me if I am worried about the dolphins being so far away? No. As long as they have food, company and freedom then I’m happy for them. In the case of Mischief, it makes my regular adoption updates a little tricky but hey, I have a feeling he will be back, if not then at least he might send me a postcard.
You could adopt Mischief..
...and get to know the big fella through your regular updates