Become a Citizen Scientist for Cornwall’s Dolphins

Dan Murphy

Following the past success of the South West Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium in collating the evidence to prove that we have a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins around Cornwall, scientists from the University of Plymouth are now helping to take the research forward in 2020 and are calling on the public to help by sending in their records of these incredible animals.

There is an abundance of wildlife in waters around the south west coast including the resident pod of 28 bottlenose dolphins which can be seen from the cliffs and beaches feeding, playing and breeding in our waters. Sadly, however, this pod is in serious threat of decline due to their low numbers, lack of statutory protection, and increased vulnerability to disturbance owing to their proximity to human populations.

To aid their protection the South West Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium, a partnership of stakeholders lead by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, was set up in 2016 to gather the information needed. The consortium collated records and photos of bottlenose dolphin encounters, with reports coming from ferries, marine tour operators, charitable organisations, land-based observers and other interested parties. An amazing amount of information was gathered during that research, but it was highlighted that this amazing population was at severe risk of local extinction and as much more work was needed to work towards their effective conservation.

Bottlenose dolphin surfing by George Karbus

Bottlenose dolphin surfing by George Karbus

The South West Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium is now working with the University of Plymouth researcher Shauna Corr to expand reporting and is calling on the public’s help to gather the information they need to track the dolphin movements throughout Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset. This information will help to understand more about this vulnerable pod, with the hope of aiding their conservation in the future.

Whether you are a boat owner, kayaker, swimmer, or even an interested member of the public who has a decent camera and can watch from land, your photos of bottlenose dolphins are needed! Photographic encounters from around the southwest region can help identify individual animals from marks on their dorsal fins. This helps in understanding not only their distribution, but the social structure, seasonal preferences, and population estimates.

Shauna Corr of University of Plymouth says,

“Photographs of bottlenose dolphin encounters are what we need as their dorsal fins often have unique markings which can be used to identify individuals, much like our own fingerprints. This means we can track distinctive individuals and find out their movements, range, preferred habitat, and social dynamics. Using historical photos, we can also track their survival year upon year which is vital when campaigning for their protection. However, to ensure we’re able to identify the dolphins we need high-quality photos that are well lit and centered on the dorsal fin. Photographing the whole pod is also very helpful as it can help us track which dolphins associate with each other which is important for us to understand their social structure.”

Ruth Williams, Marine Conservation Manager for Cornwall Wildlife Trust and chair of the SW Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium says,

“Everyone loves our local dolphins and we are so lucky to have these amazing animals in our waters, but we need to learn as much about them as we can in order to better protect them. It is really exciting to see the SW Consortium reinvigorated in this joint work and I encourage anyone with bottlenose dolphin photos to get in touch as your data is invaluable to this work.”

Ruth Williams continues,

“Whilst we want to encourage people to look out for and send in their photos, we must remind people that it is an offence to deliberately disturbed or harass a dolphin in its natural environment, so photographers should keep their distance, allowing any encounter to be on an animal’s terms, and follow guidelines set out in the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code. Happy, and safe snapping!”

If you would like to become a citizen scientist and submit your bottlenose dolphin encounters new or old please head over to https://erccis.org.uk/swbottlenoseproject-submit, or for more information please contact shauna.corr@postgrad.plymouth.ac.uk.

More information on disturbance and guidance on how to behave can be found on the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group website www.cornwallmarinelifecode.org.uk

Members of the public were instrumental in discovering this resident pod and are greatly needed to continue this work to conserve them!