A day at Dolphin School

I have been fortunate enough to see dolphins, not only when travelling overseas, but in New Quay in Wales, and right here in North Devon – in Combe Martin and, on one fantastic day a few years ago, putting on an incredible display off Woolacombe Beach. However, my knowledge stopped right there – I could tell you they were dolphins but nothing more than that.

A day at Dolphin School Photo: Rick Morris/Twitter

A day at Dolphin School
Photo: Rick Morris/Twitter

Last weekend I went to Dolphin School. Ok, so it wasn’t really called Dolphin School – officially, it was ‘a Marine Mammal and Seabird Surveyor Training Course but that’s too much of a mouthful, even for a basking shark.

Run by Marine Life (the marine conservation charity), the course aimed to train us in how to identify whales, dolphins, seals, and sea birds. And it was fascinating!

It is an eye-opener just to learn how commonly dolphins, and even whales, are spotted in our own waters. From the ferry to Lundy, for example, you may see harbour porpoises, short-beaked common dolphins (sadly one was washed up on Woolacombe beach last year), bottle-nosed dolphins, Risso’s dolphins (always horribly scarred as they are constantly fighting with each other), minke whales, grey seals and sunfish (looks like a dustbin lid with fins), to name but a few.

The latest sightings can be seen here: http://www.marine-life.org.uk/ilfracombe-or-bideford-lundy

Here’s a few of the identification gems I picked up: harbour porpoises have a small dorsal fin shaped like a Dairylea Triangle whereas dolphin dorsal fins curve over like a surfing wave. Short-beaked common dolphins have a yellow streak down their sides whereas bottle-nosed dolphins are all grey; grey seals have dog-like faces while common seals have cat-like faces.

Learning to use a Heinemann Stick to gauge how far away a sighting is Photo: Annette Dutton/Twitter

Learning to use a Heinemann Stick to gauge how far away a sighting is
Photo: Annette Dutton/Twitter

It’s an exciting time for cetaceans, as our seas are getting warmer which means that we are seeing different species, while others remain under threat from hunting. A blue whale, the world’s largest mammal (about the length of two double-decker buses and weighing in at around 200 tonnes) was spotted this autumn off the coast of Cornwall!

I found out quite how hard it is to tell one species of seabird from another and that many sea birds have a nasty habit of having different plumage in the summer from in the winter so you have twice as much homework to do if you are going to tell your black-headed gull from your little tern.

I also learned that, despite being surrounded at time by hundreds of the things last time I went to Eastbourne, there’s no such thing as a seagull. There are many gulls, but none of them are called ‘seagull’. I also now understand that it is very difficult to tell one from another. Here’s a few of my notes:

Greater Black-Backed Gull = black wings, pink legs = looks like a Lesser Black-Backed Gull but smaller (unless it’s far away and then it looks exactly the same)

Lesser Black-Backed gull = black or dark grey wings, yellow legs = looks either like a Greater Black-backed Gull or a Yellow-legged Gull or a Herring Gull if you can’t see its legs

Yellow-legged Gull = grey wings, yellow legs = looks like a Lesser Black-Backed Gull or a Herring Gull (unless you can see its legs) or a Greater Black-Backed Gull if the lighting is poor

Herring Gull = could easily be mistaken for a Greater Black-backed Gull or a Lesser Black-backed Gull or a Yellow-Legged Gull unless you can get close enough to judge the greyness of its wings and the colour of its legs

Common gull = looks like the other gulls but smaller = see Herring Gull, Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-Backed Gull and Greater Black-Backed Gull depending on how far away from you it is. It also looks a lot like a Kittiwake

Of course, it’s when they young and the colours of their wings hasn’t developed that it’s really difficult to tell them apart.

Dolphin School taught me the difference between shags and cormorants: I can now declare this to be a shag.

Dolphin School taught me the difference between shags and cormorants: I can now declare this to be a shag.

All in all, it was a great day and we all learned an enormous amount. The aim of the course is to train us up so that we can report any sightings with confidence and, ultimately can take our turn volunteering on ferry routes as fully fledged Marine Life surveyors. It is through this invaluable voluntary work that Marine Life can gather information about the species that are around us and evidence changes that are occurring. This information is used to encourage policy makers to make the right policies to protect our seas.

Personally I can’t wait for the next time I visit Lundy. I will be standing on the bridge of the Oldenburg with a pair of binoculars. I may have to lasso a few gulls so I can get a look at their legs.

To learn more about the work of Marine Life: http://www.marine-life.org.uk/

To learn more about visiting Lundy: http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/lundyisland/

Gudrun Limbrick

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