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The Dolphins of Cardigan Bay, West Wales

Many  who come to stay in our cottages are interested in seeing wild Dolphins, for in all of Britain, the New Quay area is probably the best place to see them. In the New Quay / Llangrannog area they can be seen from the shore and from boats which take groups out from New Quay on a regular basis. One cannot guarantee to see the Dolphins on a given day, but the chances are good for the dedicated Dolphin watcher. 

Over the last few years Dolphins have undergone a massive change in the public's perception. From mere sideshow attractions in the seventies when, as inmates of various Seaquaria they were taught to do tricks, they have today attained an almost mystical significance. Sick children are now taken to swim with Dolphins, and amazing healing powers have been claimed in the media. This however, is not possible in Britain, where the law prohibits approaching wild Dolphin.

Whatever the truth of this, Dolphins are now regarded with far more respect than in the past, and as a consequence there is far more interest in this animal group.

Initially a large part in this change of perception must have been brought about the TV series 'Flipper', in which a Dolphin becomes the friend and helper of a young boy in his various fictional adventures. Subsequent films such as 'Free Willy' - featuring the related Orca or Killer Whale, have also worked to change the public's perception and awaken the interest in Dolphins and their kin.

Tourists crowd the pier at 
New Quay watching a group of 7 or more 
Dolphins as well as a Grey Seal

Naturally, there has been an awakened interest in the Dolphins of Cardigan Bay, and these animals are now regarded as a tourist attraction with special Dolphin watching boat trips going out of New Quay on a regular basis. There is an ongoing debate about the effect of such trips. While they undoubtedly help to raise the public's awareness of Dolphins and their conservation, there are those who believe the boat trips disturb the animals and are not beneficial.

Cardigan Bay is one of two important locations off the British coast for Bottlenose Dolphins. The other area is Scotland's Moray Firth. Both of these areas support a population of around 130 Dolphins.

A survey by the University of Aberdeen has suggested that there may be as many as 127 Dolphins off the Cardigan coast, although other researchers have suggested that this number may well have been inflated by migratory Dolphins in the Irish sea joining up temporarily with local groups. One wonders how many Dolphins may have been resident in the past when fish stocks were much higher. An Admiralty survey undertaken in 1748 notes that the herring industry in Cardigan bay employed 97 small sloops, 38 of which were employed between Aberaeron and New Quay. The record catch of herring was made on the night of October 5th 1745 when 47 boats of about 12 tons netted just under one and a half million fish, a total of 1,100 barrels!

There are certainly two major local groups of Dolphins, one off New Quay and the other off Llangrannog. Although these Dolphins may be seen locally throughout the year, they have also been observed off the Irish coast. Timings of these observations suggest they can swim across to Ireland in just a few hours. Our Dolphins are Bottle-nosed Dolphins - scientific name Tursiops truncatus, just one of thirty-two species of Dolphin world-wide belonging to a family of marine mammals called the Delphinidae that also includes the Pilot Whale and the Killer Whale or Orca. 

As well as Bottlenose Dolphins, there is also a  population of some 200 - 300 Harbour Porpoises in Cardigan Bay. The Porpoises are smaller than the Dolphins, do not have the distinctive 'beak' and have a smaller triangular dorsal fin. Unlike the Dolphins, they rarely leap clear of the water. The porpoises are most often seen from Mwnt, New Quay and Ynys Lochtyn.

Dolphins have demonstrated a wide range of sounds and are believed to have a unique 'language' of their own. They emit clicking sounds or whistles almost constantly. The clicks are short pulses of about 300 sounds per second, emitted from a mechanism located just below the blowhole. They are used for the echolocation of objects and are resonated forwards and amplified by an organ called the melon. This makes up much of the bulge in the Dolphin's forehead just behind its 'beak'. Echoes from these clicks are received at the rear of the lower jaw and transmitted to the middle ear. The Dolphin's echolocation system is similar to that of a bat, enabling the dolphin to navigate in complete darkness and to detect its main prey, fish and squid. The whistles come from deeper in the larynx and are used to communicate alarm and emotion.

 

Bottle-nosed dolphins live in temperate and tropical waters, many of them staying within 100 miles of land. Many live in bays and protected inlets, where the water is relatively shallow. Bottle-nosed dolphins range as far south as Argentina and South Africa and as far north as Norway in the eastern Atlantic.

Dolphins mate in spring and early summer with the gestation lasting from 10 to 12 months. The females almost always give birth to one calf at a time. After the calf is born, it immediately swims to the surface for its first breath of air. The females nurse and protect their young for more than a year with the males taking no part in caring for the young.

Dolphins, in common with many other marine creatures living close to the coast are threatened with pollution and degradation of their environment. Concerns include sewage, dumping at sea, oil exploration using sonar methods and harassment from pleasure boats whose owners try to get too close to the Dolphins.

Dolphins are 'top predators'. At the top end of the food chain they can easily accumulate high concentrations of any environmental non-biodegradable pollutants ingested or absorbed by species lower down the food chain.

In the light of these concerns, local residents presented a petition to the Ceredigion Council, and in 1992, the 'Heritage Coast' area was created from New Quay to Tresaith. Since 1996, the sea area adjacent to the Heritage Coast has been designated a Special Area of Conservation under the European Habitats Directive. A number of features, were taken into consideration in creating this area. These include:

  • Bottlenose Dolphins, Tursiops truncatus

  • The Grey Seal, Halichoerus grypus

  • The River Lamprey, Lampetra fluviatilis

  • The Sea Lamprey, Petromyzon marinus

  • Sandbanks slightly covered by sea water all the time

  • Reefs - both rocky and living (Biogenic) reefs.

  • Submerged or partially submerged sea caves

There are now nine organisations with statutory responsibilities for the site, which are working together, as  ‘relevant authorities’ (RAs). Their aim is to establish a scheme of site management for the area.

Dolphins are very intelligent and supremely adapted for their environment, but however intelligent they may be, they have absolutely no way of influencing their future. For years they have suffered directly from the misguided acts of Mankind seeking profit. Now they are threatened indirectly from a whole range of human activities.  Their future as a species lies with us. We can only hope that common sense and a genuine feeling for the other species with which we share this planet will prevail, and that the Dolphins will survive.

 

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