Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most wide-ranging species in the ocean, living in habitats from the tropics to the chillier waters off of North America and Europe. And while the creatures aren’t uncommon off the coast of England, researchers weren’t sure if the marine mammals actually lived in the waters year-round or were just passing visitors. Now, as the BBC reports, close monitoring suggests that England does indeed have its own pod of resident dolphins.
Researchers from Plymouth University and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust looked at records of 3,843 dolphin sightings in the area collected between 2007 and 2016. Using the animal’s distinctive dorsal fins, which act as a fingerprint of sorts, they were able to ID 98 individuals. Of these, the researchers found a group of 28 that seem to be permanent residents, living mainly in the shallow coastal waters of Cornwall in St. Ives Bay and Mount's Bay. According to Olivier Vergnault at Cornwall Live, most researchers previously believed the dolphins in the area were migrants who traveled back and forth from the southern Irish Sea to the Bay of Biscay in western France.
“This research is proof that we have a resident population and is incredibly exciting,” Ruth Williams, Marine Conservation Manager at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust says in a University of Plymouth press release. “Further work is needed but this is a huge step forward and I am proud of what our partnership between Cornwall Wildlife Trust, scientists and boat operators has achieved. The future of these iconic animals is in our hands and we need to make sure the few we currently have in the South West are given the protection not just to survive, but to thrive.”
This pod of bottlenose dolphins is not the only one in Great Britain. A larger group of dolphins lives in Cardigan Bay in Wales and is considered a tourist attraction as are the dolphins living in Moray Firth in Scotland. As Vergnault reports, both of those pods have received special protection, with their home ranges declared Marine Protection Areas (MPA). That’s something Rebecca Dudley, lead researcher of the project at the University of Plymouth, hopes will also happen for the English pod.
The resident dolphins face many threats including plastic and chemical pollution, entangling fishing nets (which can cause injury when creatures attempt escape or death from suffocation), and run-ins with boats and other personal watercraft. As Vergnault reports, about 1,000 dolphins wash up on British and French beaches tangled in fishing gear each year.
But knowing that the pod exists is the first step to protecting it and, perhaps, benefiting from it as a tourism asset. “A resident pod of dolphins should allow us to create bespoke protection for a defined range for the animals,” Jean-Luc Solandt, an MPA specialist with the Marine Conservation Society tells Verngault. "Many areas of the sea are hotspots for dolphins and whales because of the presence of large amounts of prey either coming from or residing in deep waters… If the science shows strong residency in the area, then there is a good reason to have a specific MPA for cetaceans.”
Dolphins have become a mainstay in our culture, from books and TV to the enduring interest in military dolphins. But there’s still a lot we don’t know, including strong population estimates and an understanding of all the species. And many of them are in trouble. In just the last couple months, three dolphin species have been listed as endangered and one to critically endangered. That doesn't even account for the tragic tale of the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, which will likely go extinct as the world watches over the course of the next year.
While the resident dolphin news is fun, it should also be taken seriously—and everyone's actions matter. Last year, tourists killed a rare La Plata dolphin while trying to take photos with the tiny creature. So while protections are still in the works for England's marine residents, please no selfies.