Become a citizen scientist for the SW’s bottlenose dolphins

by David Proudfoot

Following the past success of the South West Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium in collating the evidence to prove that there is a resident pod of bottlenose dolphins around SW England, scientists from the University of Plymouth are now helping to take the research forward in 2020 and are calling on the public to help by sending in their records of these incredible animals once the Corona Virus lockdown is fully removed.

We are lucky to have a plethora of wildlife in our waters around the SW coast including a resident pod of 28 bottlenose dolphins. Sadly, however, this pod is in serious threat of decline due to their low numbers, lack of statutory protection and increased vulnerability to disturbance owing to their proximity to human populations. Currently, the pod does not have any specific protection and is only conserved through the general statuary protection of wildlife and cetaceans in UK waters. In contrast, the two other resident pods in the UK (Cardigan Bay, Wales and the Moray Firth, Scotland) are both individually protected with the establishment of tailored conservation measures. To not only ensure the SW pod’s survival but for the pod to thrive the best scientific evidence is needed to both support and encourage conservation action.

dolphin surfing © George Karbus 2013

dolphin surfing © George Karbus 2013

The South West Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium, a partnership of stakeholders lead by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, was set up in 2016 to gather the information needed for their protection. The consortium collated records and photos of bottlenose dolphin encounters, with reports coming from ferries, marine tour operators, charitable organisations, land-based observers and other interested parties. An amazing amount of information was gathered during this research, unfortunately highlighting that this small population is at severe risk of local extinction and that much more work was needed for their effective conservation.

University of Plymouth

The South West Bottlenose Dolphin Consortium is now working with the University of Plymouth researcher Shauna Corr to expand reporting and is calling on the public’s help to gather the information they need to track the pod’s movements throughout Cornwall, Devon, and Dorset. Encounter information will help them to understand more about this vulnerable pod, with the hope of aiding their conservation in the future.

© Duncan Jones, Marine Discovery Penzance

© Duncan Jones, Marine Discovery Penzance

They are looking for any photographs or sighting reports you may have, new or old, of bottlenose dolphins in the SW of England. Bottlenose dolphins can easily be recognised through their large sickle-shaped dorsal fins as the trailing edge is particularly susceptible to scratches and tears. This tissue rarely regenerates leaving permanent notches and markings which can be used to identify individuals much like our own fingerprints. Photographic encounters can help identify individual animals from these marks which can help the researchers understand not only their distribution, but social structure, seasonal preferences and population estimates. Looking back at historical photos can also help them to understand the survival of individual dolphins between years, helping to monitor population trends.

High Quality Photos

However, although all sighting reports are welcome, to ensure researchers can identify individual bottlenose dolphins they need high-quality photos that are well lit and centred on the dorsal fin. Photographing the whole pod is also very helpful as it can help track which dolphins associate with each other which is important for understanding their social structure.

The South West Bottlenose Dolphin ID Catalogue 2007-2016

The South West Bottlenose Dolphin ID Catalogue 2007-2016

Whilst it is encouraged to look out for and send in photos of the bottlenose dolphins it is an offence to deliberately disturb or harass a dolphin in its natural environment, keeping this in mind, photographers should keep their distance, allowing any encounter to be on an animal’s terms.

If you would like to become a citizen scientist and submit your encounters new or old please head over to, or for more information please contact Members of the public were instrumental in discovering this resident pod and are greatly needed to continue this work to conserve them!

For more information on disturbance and guidance on how to behave head over to the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group website


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