Scientists in Wales are leaping ahead in their quest to unravel the mysterious private lives of dolphins, thanks to a piece of advanced photo equipment.
Researchers at New Quay-based Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre (CBMWC) are now able to photograph the animals nearly a kilometre away, in enough detail to be able to spot the differences in their fins that allow them to be identified.
Researcher Milly Metcalfe, in charge of the project, says the amount of data they now have on which dolphins use the area, how they use it, and how they relate to each other, has grown dramatically.
“In the past we could get similar information from boat surveys, but it was much more limited.
“Now I can stay in the office, working on identifying animals we’ve photographed earlier, and when our volunteers watching from the sea wall spot dolphins they can radio me and I can race out with the camera.”
The lens Milly uses (for the experts it’s a 50-500mm zoom) was paid for last year by a grant from Environment Wales and it’s made a huge difference to researchers’ knowledge about the health of the dolphins, the largest resident population in the UK, and of the area they inhabit.
“Dolphins are very social animals, and I’ve also learned a lot about the structure of their groups and about their behaviour” Milly said.
“One example is a dolphin we call 007, who’s a bit of a loner. When he’s by himself he’s quiet, with no concerns apart from catching fish. But when he’s in a group his behaviour changes – he leaps around, jumps clean out of the water, bashing the water with his tail.
“There’s also a mother and calf we see often and it’s been nice to witness the calf’s progression. At the beginning of the year it kept close to its mother, but now it’s foraging for itself, throwing fish into the air.
“Sometimes it goes to play with the other dolphins, but then its mother calls it back”.
CBMWC is running a competition to name the mother, currently known only by her number, 376. For a donation of £2 members of the public can suggest a name either in person at CBMWC’s headquarters on Glanmor Terrace, New Quay or online at www.cbmwc.org or their Facebook page. The competition closes on August 10.