FROM years of study MARINElife knows that white beaked dolphins are normally residents of Lyme Bay, but sightings in the area this year have been rather sparse. However, a recent encounter with a pod of the animals, by AK Wildlife Cruises off Falmouth, spotted some of the Lyme regulars.

Photo identification of the dorsal fins within the pod showed that a couple of Lyme Bay regulars (animals ‘WBD 23’ and ‘WBD 52’) were amongst them.

MARINElife research director, Professor Tom Brereton, from Bridport has been looking at whether a shift in prey, or warming seas, could be the cause of these animals being spotted 55 nautical miles west of where they’re supposed to be.

The charity is the leading organisation studying White-beaked Dolphins in UK waters and it has estimated a population of around 100-200 animals frequents the western English Channel.

He said: "From 62 individually recognisable and re-sighted photographed animals. MARINElife surveys indicate that the core area of distribution for these dolphins is in the deeper of waters of western Lyme Bay.

"The population is well mixed, with individuals moving freely between different pods of different sizes, suggesting one large single population of adults, juveniles, and calves.

"The White-beaked Dolphin is a cold-associated species, mainly occurring in cold temperate and subarctic waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, and there are long-term concerns that south-west waters may become too warm for them as sea temperatures rise due to climate change.

"Sightings in Lyme Bay have been very thin on the ground in 2017, where water temperatures have been relatively high and, according to fishermen, there has been a shortage of cod and other white fish, which the dolphins feed on.

"There have been no White-beaked Dolphins sightings in Lyme Bay since March.

"The lack of sightings has prompted fears that the dolphins may have left the Channel and headed north in search of more suitable conditions."

But there have been sightings near Falmouth with confirmation there have been nine White-beaked Dolphin sightings made on seven dates between July 7 and September 3. Dr Brereton said: "This is not just one single pod of the same animals, there have been seven different pod sizes recorded, ranging from one to fifteen animals, though a pod of two has been seen three times.

"The number of sightings on AK Wildlife trips in 2017 is unprecedented, suggesting a recent influx.

"We are able to confirm that at least some, and most likely all, of the dolphins recorded offshore from Falmouth AK trips in 2017 are part of the same population residing in Lyme Bay in previous years. "

The range of sightings demonstrate how wide-ranging individual animals can be, he said.

He added: "There are reports that white fish are once again returning in numbers to Lyme Bay, and with the coming of the autumn, sea temperatures will slowly cool down.

"It will be interesting to see if White-beaked Dolphins once more return to Lyme Bay in view of these changing conditions."