This is the first in our series of guest blogs for Anglesey Marine Week 2017.
We are blessed on Anglesey that we can watch cetaceans; the whales, dolphins and porpoises without having to step off our shores. From the smallest cetacean the harbour porpoise which can be seen daily from a range of headlands around the island to the big brutish dolphins and even the occasional minke whale.
Minke whale. Photo by Peter Evans/ Sea Watch Foundation
Let’s start with the harbour porpoise; this common but elusive to the eye animal feeds voraciously on small fish almost constantly to keep its metabolic rate stable. Some suggest it should be called the sea shrew due to its crazy appetite! They like to feed close to strong and complex currents, using features like shearlines, eddies and boils to help them catch prey. At Bangor University we are conducting research to understand in more detail how the porpoises utilise these features so that we can predict their distributions better. We have lots of these types of environments off Anglesey making it key feeding grounds for porpoises. Watching porpoises from the shore is probably the best way to spot them. They can be easily spooked by boats but by watching them from land you can watch their natural behaviour undisturbed such as them chasing fish and leaping out the water at undoubtedly the best place to find them, Point Lynas where you can watch them for hours. Off South Stack you can see them consistently diving off around the shearline in the search for prey near the bottom. They like to move very near to the headlands at Middle Mouse and particularly Bull Bay for those that want to see them up close and personal. So remember when you see a patch of turbulent water, have a good look around it and try to spot that little fin.
Harbour porpoise seen at Point Lynas during Anglesey Marine Week 2016.
Photo by Ben Murcott.
The second most common species to see is the bottlenose dolphin, an impressive animal that can reach four metres in length, roughly three times the size of a porpoise! These guys are a little harder to predict but they have a few favourite spots including Moelfre and Red Wharf Bay, Puffin Island/Penmon, Point Lynas and sometimes off South Stack. They come often in very large groups to feed on herring, whiting and mackerel and when they’ve had their fill they travel off to Cardigan Bay or the Isle of Man in search of another meal. Anglesey is a regular spot for them though, their favourite time seems to be winter but they can show up at any time of year. The dolphins tend to be a bit more acrobatic than porpoises, you might find them leaping clearly out of the water or socialising with their group. There is often a calf or two with them too so always be prepared on your walks to spot a group of dolphins.
Bottlenose dolphins. Photo by Peter Evans/ Sea Watch Foundation
Anglesey is an important place for another species known as the Risso’s dolphin. A similar size if not larger than bottlenose dolphins, these animals can be distinguishable by their large dorsal fin, white pencil-like scratches and blunt nose. These dolphins prefer to eat squid and octopus and only visit our shores at specific times. They are fascinating as we don’t know where they are for much of the rest of the year but there’s something special about Anglesey that brings them back every year. September and October is the best time to find them off Anglesey and they tend to feed on the north and west coasts such as Cemaes Bay, Carmel Head, South Stack and the Range. We can identify these individuals by taking photos and recognising their markings and it is the same families that come back to Anglesey most years. If you can’t wait till September, pop down to the Llyn Peninsula and have a look in Bardsey Sound where they like to spend their time right about now.
Risso’s dolphins off Anglesey. Photo by Peter Evans/ Sea Watch Foundation
So you’ve been introduced to the regulars but there are other species that have graced our shores that might surprise us. With a telescope minke whales can be spotted, Point Lynas is again a good place to look. This year short-beaked common dolphins were filmed feeding in the Menai Strait and in Holyhead! Last year a pygmy sperm whale, an extremely rare species with just a handful being historically reported in British waters was found off Newborough. This animal sadly died and washed up at Dinas Dinlle. Just two weeks ago a new born pilot whale was found swimming at Rhosneigr. This animal also died unfortunately but in past years there have been happier reports of pilot whales passing through our waters. You never know what you might see and I’ve not even mentioned seals and the host of seabirds.
Some tips for spotting; the less windy days are better as calm seas making for easier fin spotting! A little height above sea level helps too. If you have binoculars and a camera take them with you but you won’t always need them.
There are a number of Welsh organisations that help monitor cetacean activity around the island. You can submit any sightings to the Sea Watch Foundation an NGO who have a long-term database of cetacean records around the UK (www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk/sightingsform). If you find a live animal on the beach or in dangerously shallow water contact British Divers Marine Life Rescue Wales on 01825 765546/07787433412. For animals that have died and are found on the beach it is still important to have a record of these and where possible conduct post mortems to learn about the cause of death. If you find an animal please call the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme that have been collecting this data for 100 years! firstname.lastname@example.org.
Late summer is the time when our seas are warmest and most productive, which means more food for cetaceans! So now is as good a time as any to get out on those beautiful coastal paths and get watching. When on your walks keep your eyes peeled or even better stop for an hour or two and do a watch to maximise your chances. Happy spotting!
Gemma Veneruso, Bangor University
Gemma is a Research Officer and PhD student at Bangor University. Her current research investigates the potential disturbance of small cetaceans from marine renewable energy developments by studying the behavioural ecology of harbour porpoises, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins in order to predict how they may respond to changes in their environment