Tuesday, August 18, 2015

White-beaked Dolphins

Planning  a cetacean-watching trip can be a fraught experience. Will the weather be ok? You really need a calm sea to spot cetaceans, poor visibility due to mist or rain would really hamper things as well. And even if you feel bold enough to venture out to sea in rough weather the skipper of the boat might deem a trip too dangerous in such conditions.. Then there are the animals themselves; the sea is vast. I know that sounds obvious, but when you are looking for distant fins breaking the surface of the water or trying to distinguish the splash caused by a diving Gannet from that of a dolphin you begin to realise that the sighting of any cetacean is not going to be easy when you are bobbing around in a small boat some considerable miles from the shore.
But with the dolphin-finding skills of expert Ben Burville and the boat handling skills of Alan Leatham the odds of finding something exciting increase dramatically. This was my second trip to the Farne Deeps on board the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) Ocean Explorer in search of White-beaked Dolphins. Last September I had ventured north to the beautiful Northumberland coast to join a group of like-minded cetacean watchers in the hope of finding this enigmatic species. Ben is licensed to swim with these dolphins as part of ongoing research with Newcastle University. My trip last year (click here) failed to find any White-beaked Dolphins, apart from the decaying corpse of one unfortunate individual that was providing rich pickings for a few Fulmars. But we did see two Minke Whales and, amazingly, a pod of White-sided Dolphins which are reputedly rarer than the White-beaked Dolphins in this area.
I took my place at the front of the RIB as I believe this is the best spot from which to view any wildlife as it has unhindered views in the direction of travel. But there is a downside to sitting at the front, in all but the calmest conditions, the boat travelling at some considerable speed smacks into the troughs between the waves and your backside and spine truly understand why the boat is called "rigid"! Despite the considerable skill of the skipper who managed to slow down enough to lessen the shock of some of the bigger impacts I did return to harbour with a few bruises, but this is a small price to pay for the chance of viewing some of the world's most beautiful dolphins.
We cruised out of picturesque Beadnell Bay and then put the hammer down to reach the best areas for the dolphin search. After about half an hour Alan put the boat into idle and we eagerly scanned the sea for any signs of activity. Gannets were plunge diving in significant numbers a twelve o'clock from the front of the boat. The feeding activity of these  magnificent Daz-white seabirds are always a good indication of the presence of shoals of fish, which in turn also attract cetaceans.

And, right on cue, a fellow passenger spotted splashing in the distance; dolphins! And they were heading our way. I have seen plenty of dolphins before but never any species that create quite as much splashing as these. Ben confirmed that they were indeed White-beaked Dolphins; success! And wow did they come close! An estimated fifteen or so individuals swam straight towards us and began an amazing display all around the boat; bow-riding, diving, surfacing, blowing and zipping straight under the bow like black and white torpedoes. The markings of this species are stunning with a jet black fin contrasting markedly with blue-grey flanks, black back, a dark slate-grey saddle and a white patch behind the dorsal fin. This along with grey/white flank stripes and white beak make this a very distinctive and beautiful dolphin. Although, interestingly, not all members of the species have white beaks.


Some species of dolphin such as Bottlenose can be individually recognised by having distinctive dorsal fin shapes, the various notches and nicks acting like the wavy lines of a fingerprint. Researchers photograph the fins and assign names to recognisable animals; this proves invaluable when it comes to conducting research. But White-beaked Dolphins create such a splash when they surface that photographing their dorsal fins is not an easy practice. Instead, Ben enters the sea with the dolphins and takes photos of them underwater.

The splash of a White-beaked Dolphin may obscure the pattern of the dorsal fin
and may not be conducive to research, but it does create a very photogenic image.
 Some of the dolphins were clearly eyeballing us as they swept past underwater on their sides trying to get a better view as we hung over the sides of RIB snapping away with our cameras. But after about fifteen minutes they grew tired of us and headed away from the boat. This is apparently normal for White-beaked Dolphins. But there were big grins form all the occupants of the boat as we finally had time to take stock and appreciate our amazing encounter.
We spent the rest of the afternoon searching for more cetaceans but to no avail despite seeing numerous flocks of diving Gannets. But we were not too disappointed; our early encounter with these beautiful dolphins could surely not have been bettered. Thanks goes to Ben, Alan and the rest of the dolphin enthusiasts; what a great wildlife experience we all had!


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