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New season looking out for Risso's dolphins

I was on an early morning beach dog walk on Monday, our first day back on the Isle of Lewis this year when I saw a fin slice out of the water in the quiet, still bay in front of our accommodation. I held my breath. Not just any fin, but a Risso’s dolphin! We had been told by some of our local contacts that the Risso’s were around and here were the very individuals that we are here to study.

We want to understand why this typically offshore species is so often found in this relatively small area just off the Isle of Lewis on the west coast of Scotland. Now after eight years of surveying we understand that they are here to feed, often with very young calves and the local fishermen tell us that octopus, one of their favourites meals are plentiful just now. The goal of our work here is to get measures in place to ensure their protection in the future.

Later, we jumped on our survey boat, Hebrides Fish ‘n’ Trips, and headed out into the Minch. In a flat calm and reflective sea, we could not miss the dolphins! There they were, in the same area as we had seen them from the shore just a couple of hours earlier. Watching one or two of them surface and seeing the white bodies of their fellow travellers gliding just under the surface of the mirror flat and clear water, quickly my colleague Nicola recognised one of the large and distinctive dorsal fins from as far back as our very first survey in 2010. These individuals are familiar to us. We see the same distinctive Risso’s dolphins returning to this habitat year after year.

WDC started conducting surveys looking for Risso’s dolphins off the North East coast of Lewis, in 2010. We use three methods – photo-identification of individual dolphins, sound recordings of the dolphins  obtained through underwater microphones called ‘hydrophones’, and year-round land-based observations by a dedicated and trained team of community volunteers. Back in the 1990s WDC funded some early exploratory surveys and, with the introduction of new marine legislation in Scotland, allowing for special areas to be protected, we wanted to follow these surveys up. We had a hunch that this area was very important for Risso’s dolphins, and we were right.

With incredible public support and a petition of 36,000 signatures, in 2012 we presented the Scottish government with scientific evidence to show how important this site is to Risso’s dolphins and we made the case for it to be declared a protected area. We made this formal submission with our friends at the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) and Cetacean Research & Rescue Unit (CRRU) along with two other sites for minke whales, in the Southern Trench and Sea of the Hebrides. Scottish Natural Heritage, the public body that advises government on marine and environmental issues, supported our proposals and added a fourth area on the Shiant East Bank – not far from where we are now, in the Minch.

After all this hard work, I was delighted when earlier this year, the Scottish government promised to undertake a public consultation on all four of these sites! This means that they will ask the public what we think about protecting these special areas – including Lewis where I am in now watching the beautiful Risso’s. They have committed to doing this before the end of this year. This is exciting news, for the dolphins – and for WDC, as we made the original proposal five years ago after several years of work gathering evidence and data about the dolphins.

We’ll need your help once the public consultation starts and will let you know how to get involved.

We would very much like to thank SNH and The Mackintosh Foundation for funding for field surveys this season.