The Lost Dolphins of Lyme Bay

Bottlenose dolphin
Bottlenose dolphin

Out in the turquoise calm of Lyme Bay lurks the distinctively shaped fin of a sleek and deadly predator. But don’t worry — it’s still safe to go into the water. The fin in question belongs to a rare and rather lost dolphin, not an extra from Jaws.

The waters that so define our region have unexpectedly become home to a colony of very unusual white-beaked dolphins. These three-metre-long cetaceans are creating waves because they are normally found more than 500 miles further north in the sub-arctic waters separating Scotland from Iceland.

But, eight years ago, a birdwatching trip into Lyme Bay rewarded Bridport-based wildlife expert Dr Tom Brereton with an unexpected encounter that changed everything we know about these fascinating marine mammals.

White-beaked dolphin
White-beaked dolphin
Tom Brereton
Tom Brereton

Tom, a research director at wildlife charity MARINElife, explains: “I was out on the Tamesis skippered by Nigel Dyke, looking for Europe’s rarest seabird, the Balearic shearwater, which is found in the bay. It had been a fairly unproductive trip, but on the way back we spotted a group of dolphins. I was expecting them to be bottlenose dolphins as they are the species usually seen from land along the Devon and Dorset coast, but to my amazement they were white-beaked dolphins!

“This was totally unexpected, as the sightings were well out of the normal range of this cold water species, which you would normally expect to encounter in continental shelf waters of the North Sea, around the Outer Hebrides and off the coast of Iceland. We had some great views, as Nigel swerved the boat to churn up the water and create surf at the stern, which encouraged the dolphins to come in and ride the waves.”

White-beaked dolphin
White-beaked dolphin

With their tall, sickle-shaped dorsal fins, gleaming white beaks and striking black, grey, and white bodies, white-beaked dolphins are unmistakable.

Rather than it being a one-off sighting, Tom, with the help of friendly West Bay fishermen, anglers and charter crews who let him hitch a ride, saw the dolphins again and again. It soon became clear that the dolphins were not a small, lost fragment of a bigger group but part of a larger colony happily living and breeding just a couple of miles off our shores.

Tom adds: “Since 2007 we’ve logged around 80 white-beaked dolphin sightings, with encounters in all months and every year. The majority have been in central-western Lyme Bay, with around 140 animals estimated to have lived in these waters since 2007. This is about 1% of the North Sea and English Channel populations and just goes to show the UK-wide importance of Lyme Bay for these charismatic animals. This area can now be regarded as the most southerly location in Europe where the species is regularly seen.”

Woman reaching to touch a dolphin alongside a boat
Photograph by James Phillips

The dolphins are thriving, but the question remains, why have they ended up settling in Lyme Bay when their natural habitat is so far away? Well, like the many thousands of gourmands who descend on our region, it all comes down to food. Lyme Bay seems to be an important feeding ground for the dolphins, with more than 50% of sightings being of feeding groups.

Tom adds: “The habitat in the middle of Lyme Bay is similar to that found in the core of this dolphin’s range in the North Sea, with relatively deep shelf waters, a sandy seabed habitat and sea temperatures that are just about cold enough. Also Lyme Bay has plentiful stocks of cod and whiting which have recently recovered and are especially abundant around wrecks that provide refuge and hiding places away from commercial fishing activity.”

An encounter with these playful dolphins is a memorable experience, but it does require a boat trip as they tend to be seen several miles out to sea rather than from the shore. The dolphins are present all year round but summer is the best time to spot them as the weather and therefore the waves are at their calmest.

Summer also offers the chance of enjoying some of the other spectacular marine wildlife that thrives in Lyme Bay. Specialist wildlife-watching boat trips can bring you face to fin with common dolphins, minke whales, exotic sunfish, harbour porpoises and even basking sharks.

Balearic shearwater
Balearic shearwater

But you don’t have to get into a boat to enjoy this marine spectacle. From land it’s possible to spot seabirds such as gannets and occasional shearwaters. Pods of bottlenose dolphins roam up and down the coast between Land’s End and Christchurch, with Portland Bill and Durlston Country Park the most reliable viewing spots. Diminutive harbour porpoises are regularly seen off Berry Head and Start Point on the western shores of the bay.

Gannet
Gannet

Lyme Bay is an area were real rarities can turn up. Evocative pictures on the wall at Seatown’s Anchor Inn attest to the visit of a very friendly humpback whale that took a week-long holiday between Seatown and West Bay in 1992. The whale even allowed children to pose for pictures on its hump! Other rare cetaceans include sightings of long-finned pilot whale and Risso’s dolphin. Humpback and sperm whales have been recently seen and, further afield, killer whales were spotted off Plymouth last year.

Common dolphin
Common dolphin

Lyme Bay boasts an extraordinary wealth of marine wildlife from spectacular seabirds to rare dolphins and giant whales. With the weather warming up, there’s never been a better time to venture out amidst the waves.

Ocean sunfish
Ocean sunfish
MARINElife run whale, dolphin and seabird surveys in Lyme Bay. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer surveyor or want to support the charity in other ways, contact » info@marine-life.org.uk. Further details » marine-life.org.uk

MARINElife has been working with the Wildlife Trusts to propose the centre of Lyme Bay as Marine Conservation zone, not only for white-beaked dolphins but a number of other species which thrive in these food-rich waters, including common dolphin, minke whale, harbour porpoise, Balearic shearwater, Manx shearwater, guillemot and razorbill. To support this proposal: wildlifetrusts.org/MCZ/lyme-bay

Liam Creedon is a nature writer and Head of Media at Butterfly Conservation. Read his work on Twitter » @liamcreedon

Photographs by Tom Brereton

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