Revealing our mystery residents in the North Sea

Researcher and medical doctor Ben Burville hopes to use 2016 to prove that one of Britain's forgotten marine mammals has a resident population off the coast of Northumbria.

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White-beaked dolphins
If you can't identify this dolphin, don't worry – you're probably not the only one.

 

If you were asked to name three species of dolphin found in UK waters, what would you say?

Bottlenose? Common dolphin, probably? What about the third (assuming you’re not allowed harbour porpoise)?

Risso’s dolphin, possibly? Killer whale or orca? Ben Burville, a marine wildlife expert from Northumbria, would like to bet that you wouldn’t say white-beaked dolphin.

But Burville, a medical doctor who has recently taken up a position as a visiting researcher at the School of Marine Science in the University of Newcastle, aims to spend 2016 trying to prove his sneaking suspicion that we have a resident population of this species just of the Northumberland coast.

White-beaked dolphins are usually found in sub-Arctic waters, such as off Iceland and Norway (though there is also a small population in Lyme Bay off Dorset), but Burville has identified 103 individuals in one small patch of the North Sea in the past three years.

“About 90 per cent of our sightings have been in an area just 13km by 13km square some 30km off the coast,” Burville told BBC Wildlife.

© Ben Burville

“If they are a resident population, that makes protecting them even more important. They are the most numerous dolphin in the North Sea, and yet we know very little about them.”

At present, however, sightings are confined to a short period between June and the end of October.

Burville doesn’t know if they move elsewhere during the winter and spring, or if he simply hasn’t spent enough time out looking for them during these months, when bad weather and strong winds can make getting out to sea that much harder.

White-beaked dolphins live in relatively small pods averaging five individuals. They appear to enjoy human company, and are often seen bow-riding the front wake of boats.

“The species is as interested in us as we are in it,” Burville said. “When we find them, they will roll on their side and look at the people watching them from the boat.”

Burville hopes that his research during 2016 could create pressure for the dolphins’ ‘home patch’ to be given Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) or Special Area of Conservation (SAC) status. But there’s a lot of dolphin-watching to be done in the meantime.

Find out more about white-beaked dolphins

Trips to see white-beaked dolphins run during the summer from Seahouses, Northumbria

 

Read more wildlife news in BBC Wildlife Magazine.

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