Sea-Changers blog – Introducing the Moray Firth dolphins

Sea-Changers
This is my blog about my wildlife photography partnership with marine-conservation charity Sea-Changers. For 
my main blog please click HERE .   


Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)


The Moray Firth in NE Scotland is rich in marine wildlife, but it is for its resident bottenose dolphins that is known world-wide. I am fortunate to live on the shores of the Inner Moray Firth and spend a great deal of time photographing and watching these dolphins, and over the coming months I will be blogging for Sea-Changers about my experiences. This blog post is a brief introduction to these remarkable animals.

Big dolphins in cold seas
The population of bottlenose dolphins found in the Moray Firth numbers approximately 200, and they are amongst the largest specimens of their species found anywhere in the world. Their average length is approximately 4m, compared to the 2.5m global average length of the species. This great size is due to their Northerly location and the cold waters they live in – the population is possibly the most Northerly in the world, and as such they have more blubber and bulk than dolphins found in warmer waters further South. Some individuals regularly travel great distances from the Moray Firth and are usually sighted moving Eastwards and Southwards along the UK coastline. The Moray Firth and Cardigan Bay populations are the two largest and most significant resident populations of bottlenose dolphins found in UK waters – other populations found along the West coast are far smaller in number.


The huge bulk of 'Mischief'A very large male dolphin approaching Chanonry Point. This individual is around 4 metres long – much larger than the global average size of bottlenose dolphins.


Local celebrities
It is only quite recently that the Moray Firth dolphins have become well-known, and even 10 years ago the best dolphin-watching spots were far quieter than they are now. However they are referred to in records going back well over 100 years, and they are an integral part of the coastal culture of the Firth. Many of the coastal towns and villages feature visitor interpretation regarding the dolphins, and numerous dolphin-watching boat trips can be taken from various places along the coast. They are now a major factor in the local economy, bringing in an estimated £4 million a year to Scotland. Many of the individual dolphins are well-known to locals and are a regular sight for dog-walkers, fishermen, and those lucky enough to live in homes on the water’s edge.  Each dolphin has an ID number but many of them are known by name, and thanks to the dolphin-adoption scheme run by Whale and Dolphin Conservation, many thousands of people closely follow the lives of several individuals.

Efficient hunters
Bottlenose dolphins are finely-tuned predators at the top of the food chain. They have developed numerous effective hunting methods and are seen working both together and individually to catch food. Their preference is for protein-rich, high-energy food sources – particularly Atlantic salmon and sea-trout, but their diet consists of a wide range of species. Mackeral, flatfish, squid, eels, herring, sprats and many other species are known to be eaten by bottlenoses. During the winter months in particular the dolphins will sometimes have to travel great distances in the pursuit of food, often covering many tens of miles in a day.


Violent endBottlenose dolphins are finely-tuned top predators. Their hunting behaviour can be a highly impressive spectacle to watch.


Chanonry Point

Chanonry Point near Fortrose is probaby the most reliable place to watch the dolphins during the summer, and it is regularly referred to as one of the best places in the world to see bottlenose dolphins from land. During the summer months dolphins are seen from Chanonry on almost every tide, often at a distance of only a few metres. The area of water just off the beach is particularly good for hunting salmon, and some individual dolphins will return day after day during the summer to find food here. Although the numbers seen at Chanonry are usually in the range of between 1 and about 20, up to 50 individuals are sometimes seen here. The Kessock Channel is also a very reliable spot from which to see dolphins, as are Cromarty, Spey Bay, Burghead and a number of other locations along the Moray Coast.


Dolphin-watching at Chanonry PointDolphin-watching at Chanonry Point, where it is possible to see dolphins most days during the summer months.


Threats

Despite the Moray Firth being a designated Marine Special Area of Conservation, and bottlenose dolphins being a European protected species, the dolphins in the Firth unfortunately face numerous threats. The population is considered vulnerable due to its small size and its isolation from other significant populations – the only other resident populations of significant size is found in Cardigan Bay and along the West coast of the UK. Oil and gas exploration in the Firth can cause significant habitat degredation and noise pollution, both of which can be highly damaging to dolphins. Chemical pollutants that make their way into the Firth can accumulate in the dolphin’s blubber, and over time adversely affect their immune system and reproductive ability. Industrialisation along the coastline is causing an increase in boat activity in the firth and disturbance of the dolphins, in addition to the disturbance already caused by boat users behaving irresponsibly. Over-fishing and declining food sources are perhaps the greatest threats – with Scottish salmon for example seeing massive declines in recent years.


 

Wet weather at ChanonryThe Moray Firth is a busy area for shipping, oil extraction, tourism and other human uses. Balancing human needs and marine conservation is a hugely complex issue.


My next blog post will be a photo-essay portraying a particularly memorable morning of dolphin-watching last August at Chanonry Point. In the meantime, more images of the dolphins can be seen here .

James

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