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Amazing, beautiful Commerson’s dolphins and what we’re doing to protect them

Have you heard of Commerson’s dolphins?  These little-known dolphins are beautiful, full of character and in trouble. We’ve been studying and working to protect them for 25 years now and to celebrate I thought I’d share the lives of these remarkable dolphins with you, including the story of a wonderful dolphin mother named Frank.

WDC has supported Commerson’s dolphin conservation efforts in Patagonia, South America for 25 years. Gathering knowledge about such a remote and little-understood species on a shoestring budget is a painfully slow process. Year-on-year our project has built a picture of the lives these dolphins lead based on brief insights and seasonal observations. Everything we have learnt about these strikingly beautiful little dolphins, we have used to support our calls for better protection for them in their Patagonian stronghold.

A beautiful Commerson's dolphin
A beautiful Commerson's dolphin

If you can make a donation, it will help us protect these vulnerable dolphins

Dr Commerson, a French naturalist was the first to discover these dolphins in southern Chile during the mid 1700s. Their clear-cut black and white markings are exquisite, and their small bodies are charmingly chubby thanks to a thick blubber layer under the skin to protect them from the chill of their cold water homes.

Curious and playful

They are full of energy and spirit and speedy swimmers who love to leap, spin, surf and play.  Naturally curious, they will approach boats to surf on the waves at the front (bow ride) and in the wake at the back. Some dolphins flip upside down and swim on their backs next to the boat in amongst others surfing at the surface. They seem to love showing off and definitely enjoy people-watching. On a calm day they even spy hop, lifting their entire head out of the water to have a good look around and at people on boats.

A group of Commerson's dolphins
Having a look around

Sometimes our team spot them napping together at the surface – they move slowly and breathe regularly and this is called ‘logging’.

Females give birth to a single calf every two or three years and so their birth rate is low, as it is for all dolphins. Baby Commerson’s are about the size of a pug and are brownish-grey. Their piebald markings don’t develop until they grow up. They’re not fussy eaters and will happily chomp seasonally available fish, crab, octopus, krill and shrimps. Pods sometimes work together to herd schools of fish close to shore making them easier to catch one-by-one. In the winter as the coastal waters cool, the dolphins have to travel further offshore to hunt and find enough food.

Local conservation needed

Not many people have seen these dolphins in the wild because they only live in cold, shallow seas along the Patagonian coast of Argentina and Chile; and around the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and the Kerguelan Islands. Unfortunately, in common with all dolphin species with restricted geographical ranges, they are vulnerable as they are simply not found anywhere else and their survival is linked to local commitment to conservation efforts to address the threats they face and ensure their long term survival.

WDC’s Miguel Iñíguez and Vanesa Tossenberger know more than most about these characterful dolphins as they have spent so much time trying to understand and protect them in southern Argentina. They have identified at least 100 individual dolphins and followed the ups and downs of their lives, noting their relationships to one another and their use of habitats as well as sadly their losses. During this time they have pushed hard for more efforts to conserve them and reduce the risks posed especially by fishing nets in the region.

Two adults and a juvenile travelling
Two adults and a juvenile travelling

Supported by a small project team from Fundacion Cethus, an Argentine organisation, they have amassed a photo-identification catalogue of individual dolphins. Some have become like old friends returning to the bay every summer.

An awesome mum called 'Frank'

‘Frank’ deserves a special mention as she has been seen and photographed every single year for an incredible 24 years in a row. Vanesa says that Frank is an excellent mother, and when she has a baby she is always super attentive ensuring her little one is well-fed and protected. In years when Frank doesn’t have a baby of her own to look after, this experienced matriarch babysits for other mothers; she keeps their calves safe at the surface while Mum hunts.

Nursing mothers must eat well to ensure the health of their calves.  Frank is a good teacher and shares her wisdom with younger dolphins, helping them develop their social and hunting skills. A friend of Frank’s is an older mother called Cande. She is a big bow riding fan and always takes care to teach her calf how to join in and enjoy this activity safely.

Frank
This is Frank - she's a great mum and we've seen her every year for 24 years!

Another favourite is Adidas, he has some scars on his body and tail caused by an encounter with a boat propeller. Thankfully he survived and still takes a lot of pleasure in bow riding and surfing the waves.

This dolphin shows the scars of having been hit by a boat
This dolphin shows the scars of having been hit by a boat

Hanging out with Peale's dolphins

Most of the babies are born in the bay during the Argentine summer - between September and March, and there is usually a bit of a baby boom in early January.  These seasonally warmer waters give the skinny calves a chance to nurse and build up their blubber layer before winter sets in.

Commerson’s are sociable dolphins and hang out not only with their own kind but also with Peale’s dolphins in the area. Both species are very social and they seem relaxed and comfortable in one another’s company. Our team always enjoy seeing these mixed groups of dolphins interacting together.

Peale's and Commerson's dolphins hanging out together
Peale's and Commerson's dolphins hanging out together

Commerson’s are not fussy eaters and  enjoy local fish favourites such as Patagonian blenny, silversides, parona leatherjack fish and king crab. In shallow water, dolphins can be seen swimming upside down using their echolocation to scan for fish and other food hiding in the mud on the ocean floor.

Fishing nets a problem

The single biggest threat for Commerson’s is entanglement in fishing nets and ropes – in particular gill nets and mid-water trawls.  Entangled dolphins can’t reach the surface to breathe and so tragically, they suffocate to death. Miguel and Vanesa work hard with fishers and local authorities to prevent dolphin deaths in coastal gillnets. Thanks to our efforts, the dolphins have now been awarded natural heritage status in the region which means that they should be better protected. There is also now a designated a marine protected area which is a fishing free zone to help conserve dolphins and other marine life.

Last year Miguel and Vanesa borrowed an underwater camera and this added dimension helped them improve on and add to their Commerson’s information. They were able to determine some dolphins as male or female, identify new individuals and add further defining features to dolphins they already knew. They also watched the body language communication between dolphins underwater and learned more about their relationships with each other. Most of all though it gave them a glimpse of the dolphins incredible lives underneath the waves and I’ve enjoyed sharing their story with you. With your support, we’ll continue doing everything we can to keep Frank and her fascinating dolphin society safe and thriving.

Please help us today with a donation

Your gift will help Vanesa and Miguel keep these unique and special dolphins safe.

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