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Risso's dolphin at surface

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Remarkable Risso’s dolphins – how we’re studying them to protect them

And just like that, another season of field research studying remarkable Risso’s dolphins came to a close. We’ve been visiting the Isle of Lewis for the past 12 years, trying to learn whatever we can about these individuals and their species so that we can better protect them.

Through our research we’ve been able to show that the waters around the north-east coast of Lewis are critical habitat for them with some dolphins returning year after year. We’ve welcomed back old friends, enjoyed mothers returning with newborn calves, and photographed individuals we haven’t seen before. These photos are added to our ever-expanding photo-id catalogue - because we distinguish individuals by their unique fins, this catalogue allows us and other researchers to know who it is we are encountering. Being able to recognise individual dolphins is crucial to our understanding of where they go, what they do and how they interact with one another.

A beautiful Risso's dolphin breaches

Your donation will help us protect UK dolphins

Because of the pandemic, this summer was the first time in two years that my colleague Sarah and I managed to conduct boat surveys together so it was especially good to get back out on the water.

I'm the one in the middle of the photo, my colleague Sarah is in the foreground and our skipper's on the right.
I'm the one in the middle of the photo, my colleague Sarah is in the foreground and our skipper's on the right.

Each season brings unexpected and wonderful encounters and this summer did not disappoint. We were treated to some truly special sightings. We encountered our first ever leatherback turtle, a species perhaps better known for residing in warmer waters, and came across two sunfish! We also had a bumper year for minke whales, seeing at least ten individuals, happily munching down on all the treats the Minch had to offer. Another unexpected encounter was the stranding of a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins in Stornoway Harbour. We’d never encountered this offshore species before and so as magical as it was to finally see them, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when they disappeared back into deeper water.

A majestic minke whale surfaces near our boat
A majestic minke whale surfaces near our boat

On our surveys, we often come across large pods of active common dolphins and more often than not they will join us for a while to ride the bow or the wake at the back of the boat. This summer was no exception and we were treated to a number of whistling dolphins – really young ones as well – jumping for joy all around us. Our next most commonly seen species was Risso’s dolphins, the focus of our work, and the species for which the Northeast Lewis marine protected area (MPA) is now in place!

Another ‘first’ for us this season was being able to work with a licensed drone operator to capture footage of Risso’s dolphins and other species which has enabled us to witness some incredible behaviour.

We were delighted to see marine conservation in the Scottish government’s Programme for Government, where they promised to: ’Deliver a step change in marine protection, with new measures to make Scotland an international leader.’ And we at WDC would obviously like to see the Risso’s dolphin MPA include robust and precautionary management, as there are currently no management measures in place at all. So essentially, the Northeast Lewis Risso’s dolphin MPA is what is known as a ‘paper park’.

To ensure a robust management plan is put in place, we need to continue to build up a picture of their lives, including a new focus on their health and welfare, because understanding them and their needs is integral to any plans being effective in the long term.

We may have left our sea legs on the island but the desk work continues and the thousands of photographs of Risso’s dolphins we encountered need to be analysed, and our photo-id catalogue updated. It’s a privilege to spend time with these remarkable dolphins and I’m proud that with your support, our work will ultimately keep them safer.


Thanks to NatureScot and RS Macdonald Charitable Trust for their support of our Lewis fieldwork

Please help us today with a donation

Your gift will help us continue our research and campaigning to better protect the dolphins and whales who live around the UK.


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About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC

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