Welsh Sea Watchers Project celebrates fintastic dolphin survey off North Wales!
After a wet and windy start to the year with few opportunities for the Welsh Sea Watcher volunteers to get out and about, May finally brought with it some warm weather- and dolphins!
For a couple of months, our Welsh Sea Watchers in North Wales have had their eyes peeled for bottlenose dolphins on their land based watches in preparation for the first Sea Changers funded photo-identification survey off North Wales but there was not a fin to be seen- apart from the occasional triangular dorsal of a lone harbour porpoise.
Then suddenly, 2 weeks ago, the reports came flooding in. 8 dolphins off Rhos-on-Sea, 4 animals off West Shore Llandudno, 7 dolphins at the Great Orme and 4 again on Rhos-on-Sea, all within the space of a couple of days! Fortunately, the weather was cooperative as well and with the grant from Sea Changers, our Wales Development Officer set about planning the first Sea Watch Foundation survey off the North coast of Wales.
Even an early start did not dampen the volunteers’ keen enthusiasm. Welsh Sea Watcher volunteer Ali Davison, an avid observer for the Welsh Sea Watchers Project for several months, says:
“I am a complete novice when it comes to marine wildlife, but I love the sea and the secrets held beneath its surface. So when the Welsh Sea Watchers Project request for volunteers allowed an excuse to sit on a cliff edge for a couple of hours at a time I was more than happy to get involved. And then came an invitation to help out with a boat survey in my area. It was to be an early morning start, and I had a mountain to get through at work, but I am so pleased that I took the day off and made the effort to get out of bed. It was a glorious day. No wind and plenty of sun – absolutely perfect conditions for going out to track down bottlenose dolphins. “
Laurence Clark, a local wildlife photographer from Prestatyn was equally excited at the chance at getting out on the water:
“When I first approached Sea Watch Foundation I saw it as a great opportunity to learn about these creatures, their habitat and the threats they face, and to pass on that knowledge and awareness to others. I don’t think I even knew what the word cetacean meant six months ago! At the same time of course I saw it as an opportunity to build on my portfolio of wildlife images from North Wales. But I honestly didn’t actually expect to achieve that in such a short space of time. Perhaps I would get a few long distant images as a record to help the charity identify individual animals for example but to get the opportunity to see them close up from a boat was an absolute dream. As a professional photographer my main aim is to capture those special moments wherever I may be. With wildlife photography in particular, there is no substitute for feeling an emotional attachment to the subject and in the case of dolphins this is not a difficult thing to do! “
Setting off at 6AM from Rhyl harbour, the early risers were rewarded with glorious sunshine and glassy waters as they headed towards the Great Orme, the prime spot for bottlenose dolphin sightings in the past week but apart from guillemots and razorbills and a lone seal, there were no sightings. Luckily, the skipper Simon from Jensen Sea Angling Charters had a few contacts who were happy to help out!
“The boat took us along my home stretch of coastline and I could see where I had spent several hours sitting on the cliff edges over the previous few months, eagerly awaiting the sight of a fin in the water. We then headed out to deeper water, taking turns to stand on watch and record data. There were a couple of porpoise sightings and a seal, but it was the bottlenoses we really wanted to see, and attempt to identify. Then over the radio came news that a pod of dolphins had been spotted off the far end of the wind farm. The engine was fired up and off we sped. It would take 20 minutes to get there, but would the dolphins have gone before we arrived? I really hoped they would hang around for a while, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. On the horizon we could see splashes as they rose and fell out of the water. As we got closer they seemed to enjoy our presence and swam with us giving a spectacular display. Such magnificent animals.”
The team encountered over 20 dolphins offshore Prestatyn, including a large number of boisterous males but also a number of mums with young calves. They reacted positively to the boat, actively bowriding, breaching, and porpoising all around the vessel while the team tried to keep up; recording data, counting the animals and photographing their fins!
“I have never been so close to dolphins swimming wild and free and so close to home too, it was quite astonishing to realise these creature are actually out there in a beautiful world we know very little about and it was an experience I will never forget.
It was hard not to forget the importance of the actual survey as a first time volunteer, being out on a boat in the sunshine along the beautiful North Wales coast! Of course the whole point of the exercise is to keep a complete record of where we were looking. The tracking of the sea condition and the boat’s location, direction and speed for example wasn’t too difficult but I was quite glad it wasn’t on my watch when we arrived at the dolphins, I’m not sure I would have kept up with all the activity! I was frantically attaching the right lens attached to the camera and getting myself in what I thought was the best location for some good shots. It turned out that just about anywhere on the boat was a good spot, they were everywhere!”
Apart from giving volunteers the opportunity to get up close and personal with wild dolphins, the survey of course fulfilled a more important purpose as well: allowing the Sea Watch Foundation to collect vital data on cetacean distribution and training volunteers in data collection and field skills.
Regional Coordinator Stacey McCarthy who assisted Wales Development Officer Katrin during the survey said: “This survey in particular gave me a real insight into cetacean behaviour, as well as photo identification, and I really feel like I learnt new and valuable skills in that area which will hopefully prove to be very useful in the future!”
Ali agrees: “I have never been so close to a dolphin before so it was good to be able to familiarise myself with their size and see their natural movements and their colouring. The next time I am sitting on a cliff edge this whole experience will help enormously. I still have an awful lot to learn about cetaceans, but my confidence has been boosted and I am now more eager than ever to get back out to my next land watch.”
”There is only so much you can see from a land watch and only so much you can learn in a lecture or a book. Getting out there and being so close to so many dolphins was an amazing experience, I hope I get chance to do it again!” Adds volunteer Anna Egerton.
The Sea Watch team are currently processing the data and conducting photo-identification which will allow them to identify individuals and further their understanding of individual home ranges and habitat use. A previous Sea-Changers funded survey has indicated that Cardigan Bay dolphins range into North Wales waters and Liverpool Bay and they are anticipating finding at least a few familiar fins. Check back here regularly for updates on the matching progress!
Can’t get enough of the Prestatyn dolphins? Check out these recent news stories covering the story!
Daily Post: Watch: Dolphins Spotted off the North Wales Coast
Have a look at our volunteer Hannah’s excellent video here
Or contact our Wales Development Officer Katrin on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how to get involved with the Welsh Sea Watchers Project!
Thank you for reading and have a nice day!