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Unravelling the mysteries of Risso’s dolphins – WDC in action

Nicola Hodgins

Nicola Hodgins

Nicola is WDC's cetacean science coordinator. She leads our long-term Risso’s dolphin research and is working hard to end the hunting of small whales and dolphins.

To save whales, dolphins and porpoises, we must protect their homes. The waters surrounding the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides are a crucial habitat for Risso’s dolphins, and our efforts led to them being declared a marine protected area, or MPA. But our work there is far from over. We've been returning every year to study these remarkable dolphins, because the more we understand, the better we can protect them.

 

In the late 1990s, Risso’s dolphins were being spotted in the coastal waters around the Isle of Lewis far more often than they had before. Back then, not much was known about them and they’d tended to favour offshore areas, so in response to these increasingly frequent sightings, we co-funded some ground-breaking research. Returning in 2010, we instigated the Lewis Risso’s Project to learn more about these dolphins’ movements, habitat use, and social behaviour, as well as working towards ensuring their long-term protection. We discovered that this area is critically important for these unique dolphins. Many individuals return year after year, with some seen almost every year. Plus, we observed a significant number of mothers with young calves using the sheltered waters.

Two Risso's dolphins
I’ve come to recognise individuals and it's always a joy to spot their familiar fins each time I return.

Collaborating with other NGOs, various marine stakeholders, WDC volunteer Shorewatchers, supporters, and coastal communities, we presented our evidence to the Scottish Government and called for the creation of a marine protected area (MPA) around the Isle of Lewis to keep the Risso’s dolphins safe. In 2020, our dream was realised and the North-East Lewis MPA for Risso’s dolphins (and sand-eels) was officially designated. But this is only part of the story. To ensure meaningful protection, measures must be effective, and the dolphin population must be monitored over the long-term.

Risso's dolphin

Can you help provide a safe future for Risso's dolphins?

Who did we see in 2023?

Last summer saw us back out on the water looking for fins, and we weren’t disappointed. Not only did we come across some known and some new Risso’s ‘faces’, but we also had some amazing encounters with plenty of other species. One memorable experience involved a pod of around 25 to 50 common dolphins who played in our wake and enjoyed the free ride from our bow wave. Seeing dolphins leap clear out of the water with such excitement and enthusiasm never fails to put a smile on my face.

From one of the smaller marine mammal species to one of the biggest, we were in for a treat when we came across the behemoth that is the mighty fin whale! With conditions almost perfect, we’d ventured into deeper waters near the eastern boundary of the MPA, when we spotted a huge blow. Approaching cautiously, we turned off the engines and drifted. Within minutes, the leviathan surfaced only metres from our survey vessel, the tell-tale white lower jaw visible just beneath the water’s surface. I’ve encountered fin whales before, but not whilst in a boat that was smaller than the whale. As this majestic being swam around and under our boat, we all felt humbled and very small.

Fin whale at surface of water
Fin whales can grow up to a whopping 80 feet in length!

Every day on the water brings new delights, from various whale and dolphin species to the underrated little harbour porpoises who reside here year-round. Grey and harbour seals also call these waters home, as do a plethora of different seabirds. One distinct change from the previous year was the abundance of birds. Last year, avian flu had a devastating impact on our feathered friends and we found more dead gannets than we saw alive. This year they were flying high and peppering the sky with their magnificent acrobatics.

Gannets flying
Nature was in harmony - birds were flying high, whilst the dolphins played beneath the waves.

Scars tell tales

But back to the Risso’s dolphins. Collecting all this data means one thing: lots of analysis! When we spot Risso’s, we try to take as many photographs as we can of both sides of their dorsal fins, as this helps us to recognise individuals over the years. Their scarring is unique and changes over time, and by compiling a photo-identification catalogue of known individuals, we can start to tell the story of their lives.

Risso's dolphin at surface
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As they get older they get whiter and whiter due to scars and scratches from other Risso’s dolphins and their favourite food, squid!

Back in 2010 when we first started, we observed a group of around 10 dolphins, all heavily scarred and spending days and weeks on end together. Since then, almost every year, I’ve encountered them again. Some bear new scars, some have whitened with age, but all still hang out together and most definitely call these waters home.

Pod of Risso's dolphins
We've found that there may be some long-term friendships between some of the Risso’s.

There is still so much to learn about these amazing individuals, and over the coming months I intend to review the last 14 years’ worth of data which I hope will help to answer some of the most pressing questions we have, and none more so than who is here and why?

A catalogue for protection

Excitingly, we’ve been undertaking a similar Risso’s photo-id project along the northeast coast of Scotland, the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, as well as at the opposite end of the UK in the South West of England. Working with citizen scientists who kindly share their images, we’re creating comprehensive photo-id catalogues of known individuals. With similar surveys conducted over the last 20 years in the waters of North Wales, we now hold an extensive catalogue of Risso’s dolphins from this area too. We intend to compare our catalogues with those held by other groups, such as Seawatch Foundation and Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, to learn more about this remarkable species, not only at a Scottish level but a wider UK level too. All of this will enable us to help protect them and their habitats into the future.

We’re fascinated to see what else we discover about these incredible dolphins.
We’re fascinated to see what else we discover about these incredible dolphins.

The sea, and those who live within it, are the heart and soul of our very existence and I’m beyond excited to be able to play a small part in increasing our understanding of Risso’s dolphins, promoting their importance and ultimately ensuring they flourish in years to come. Watch this space.

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