A personal account of a Sea Watch Foundation intern
By Leah Freshwater
Last year, I spent an amazing 7 weeks interning with Sea Watch Foundation studying bottlenose dolphins in New Quay, West Wales. The Sea Watch Foundation is a national charity dedicated to the conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises. The Cardigan Bay Monitoring Project is their flagship study, which uses a combination of land-based surveys, line transects and photo identification to collect data on the cetaceans within both the Southern Cardigan Bay Special Area of Conservation (SAC), and the Pen Llyn A’r Sarnau SAC. They also engage in public awareness and education, and encourage the general public to submit their own cetacean sightings to the Sightings Network, a database of thousands of cetacean sightings from all over the UK. Interns help keep these projects running from April to October each year.
Cardigan Bay is home to a semi-resident population of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates), and those in UK waters are the largest in the world. The sheltered bay provides a great habitat and is popular for mothers and calves, making it an ideal place to observe this species. Bottlenose dolphins are intelligent, social marine mammals and in UK waters they can usually be found in fluid groups of up to 15 individuals. They can be differentiated from other species, such as short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) by their fairly solid dark grey colouring, large sickle-shaped dorsal fin and robust, stocky build. Bottlenose dolphins are large; typically between 2-4 metres in length, and they are usually a little darker on top with a lighter belly. They can live to be 50 years old.
During my time with the Sea Watch Foundation, I learnt so much about cetacean research and conservation, and I had some unforgettable experiences. Day-to-day tasks varied between office work, boat surveys, pier-based land watches, manning the education centre, and engaging with the public. Office work consisted of inputting sightings data, both from interns and also from the general public for the Sightings Network. Other office tasks including downloading GPS tracks from boat surveys and sorting through photo ID pictures for the catalogue. The dorsal fin of each dolphin is unique (like a fingerprint), and are characterized by nicks and scars that can be used to tell individuals apart. So far, over 200 individuals have been identified within Cardigan Bay using dorsal fin identification!
Each office day (weather permitting) included a two hour land watch from the pier where we would collect environmental data, boat activity, and cetacean sightings including behaviours and number of individuals. We also recorded interactions between cetaceans and boats to ensure that boat-users were complying with the compulsory marine code of conduct which was put in place to protect marine mammals from disturbance.
The days I looked forward to the most were boat days; days sat on the roof of the boats, watching dolphins, collecting data, and giving talks to tourists, or day-long line transect surveys on dedicated boat trips. During boat trips, I would continually collect environmental data, GPS tracks and record any cetacean and seal sightings. But what was the hardest part? Taking pictures for photo ID! As soon as the dolphins were spotted it was a race to gather all the data needed on paper and then try and get some good dorsal fin shots to use for the catalogue. And with such fast, active animals this can be tricky. It took practice but I eventually got the hang of it and managed to capture both useful and beautiful pictures that will always remind me of my time with the dolphins in gorgeous West Wales.