Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have had the great good fortune to come across another couple of pods of Common Dolphins recently. The first was a very unobtrusive group of four juveniles in the middle of Torbay. I just happened to have a pair of binoculars in the car and gave the sea a quick scan when I arrived in the car park, and could just make out a few fins breaking the surface well over a mile away. The chances of me being able to locate these were very slim as it would take me twenty minutes to get out there, and there was a three foot swell running which makes seeing stuff on the surface difficult because half the time it is hidden by a wave.

However, one leaped clear of the water so I was in luck. I was actually looking UP at the dolphin as it rose out of the top of a swell. That’s one of the benefits of sitting at water level in a kayak….you can never get that kind of unique perspective from a (normal) boat.

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Jumping juvenile Common Dolphin

They weren’t in a particularly sociable mood, but no less than I might have expected from a quartet of aloof adolescents. Even so, they half-heartedly swam along side in my pathetic pressure-wave for a few moments.

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The wall-to-wall cloud was briefly interrupted by a burst of sunshine that instantly transformed the steel-grey scene to one of pleasant colour;

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Common Dolphin and early morning fogged English Riviera

Yesterday I ventured out into Plymouth Sound to inspect the Breakwater. Another grey and drizzly day but I knew the wind was not due to pick up till midday, allowing me a few hours of safe offshore paddling.

It was a big tide and the breakwater was being used as a roost for many hundreds of Dunlin, that feed on the mud of the Tamar estuary when the water drops.

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Dunlin plus micro-snack

Half a dozen Purple Sandpipers were dodging the swells as they surged over the top of the breakwater.

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Purple Sandpiper

I really like Purple Sandpipers. They are ridiculously tame and are difficult to spot because they are only ever found on exposed bits of rocky coast that have plenty of wave action.

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(super-plump) Purple Sandpiper

As I was watching the birds I glanced round and did a huge double-take (which cricked my neck) when I saw, through the mist, a dozen fins cruising past a hundred yards away.

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Dolphins in the murk (plus calf, at the back)

Astonishing, not just because I had never seen dolphins within the Sound before (although I only paddle here a few times a year), but because of the poor visibility. As I sat and watched they did a satisfactorily close ‘flypast’:

And as if trying to make the point that it really WAS worth my effort coming all this way to paddle at this location on such a dreary January day, the back marker surfaced just a few feet away.

As usual watching these dolphins was an absolute thrill, and it was good to see a couple of calves in amongst the group of twenty or so, which included some really big individuals.

I have been very lucky to see three pods of Common Dolphins in three separate locations in the last two weeks. So….. are there more dolphins around?

Are There More Dolphins Around?

I have been ploughing through all my old diaries in an effort to establish some detail about the numbers of dolphins I have seen. This is thunderously tedious and I have fallen asleep more than once. So I will be as succinct as possible with my findings.

I have been sea-kayaking for thirteen years. For the first seven or eight years I did a lot of fishing so had my head down and didn’t do the miles. Since then I have ditched the fishing and look out for, and hopefully photograph, wildlife.

In the first ten years I saw about a dozen pods of Common Dolphins. In 2016 I set my sights on seeing a whale so clocked up about 500 miles of offshore (more than a mile from the coast) paddling. I have done the same in 2017 and 2018.

This greatly increased my ‘hit’ rate for Common Dolphins because they favour deeper, offshore water. My records for the last three years are:

Common Dolphins:                               2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             7                           11                      17

Total number of Dolphins:                    81                         148                    432

So quite a dramatic increase in numbers, approx 100% up year on year.

My porpoise observations have increased as well:

Harbour Porpoise:                                2016                    2017                  2018

Number of days seen:                             16                        33                      44

Total number of Porpoises                     88                       177                    327

Again, a  roughly 100% increase year on year.

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Porpoises

Other Cetaceans

In 2016 I saw an incredible seven different species of cetacean from my kayak around Devon and Cornwall: Common, Bottlenose, Risso’s and Whitebeaked Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise, Minke and (probable) Sei Whale. In 2017 it was four and in 2018, despite the large numbers, only three species.

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White-beaked Dolphins

Why the increase in numbers?

So it would appear that it is only Common Dolphins and Porpoises that have increased dramatically, and the reason for this has got to be food. Both these species feed mainly on shoaling fish, and abundance of prey such as herring has increased following historic overfishing. Also in both Common Dolphins and Porpoises there doesn’t need to be an actual increase in numbers of individuals because there is plenty of them around in the local seas, they are just changing their distribution and following the food source, which luckily for dolphin watchers is close to the coast of SW England.

It’s like throwing more bird seed out onto the lawn….it brings in more birds from the local area.

This is not the case for whales which also feed on shoaling fish, because there aren’t a load of whales nearby ready to move in on the fish-fest, because they have a slow rate of reproduction and will take time to recover from their depletion of numbers. Having said that, I saw five Minke Whales this year (and have only ever see two before, in 2016), so hopefully this reflects an increase in that species. Minke Whales breed faster than any other whale so have the potential to ‘come back’ quicker than any other.

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Minke Whale

 

The very recent spike in reported sightings of dolphins (which, I think are all Common Dolphins) is almost certainly because there are more about, and more closer in to shore, since the New Year. It will also be influenced by  the relatively quiet weather in January which means flatter seas and not only encourages more people to be out and about, but makes seeing fins easier. Not many dolphins are going to be seen during a storm. Everyone’s indoors watching Strictly on catchup.

The weather has certainly influenced my recent sightings. I am very wary about paddling far offshore during the winter and at the slightest hint of a wind disappear off up a sheltered creek.

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Sheltered Creek Perfection

Further influences are that when dolphins are reported more people are looking out for them (especially in relatively sheltered places such as Plymouth Sound ), more observers have got cameras, and there are more drone pilots around (which provide some very watchable dolphin images).

Is global warming involved? I personally say no.. I would think that levels of fishing influence the number of shoaling fish far more than any other factor.

Whatever the reasons, the apparent increase in numbers is good news all round, because everyone agrees that dolphins have a feelgood factor that is OFF THE SCALE.

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Plymouth Sound Dolphin…the antidote to a drizzly day.