Bottlenose Dolphin

True identities of Weymouth’s ‘bonnie’ dolphins discovered on a Naturetrek Day Trip – hello ‘Honey’ & ‘Whipper-Snapper’!

Tom BreretonBy Tom Brereton
16th September 2021

Tom is a Naturetrek tour leader and a monitoring and species ecologist for Butterfly Conservation. He pursues his interest in seabirds and cetaceans as a Research Director of the charity Marinelife.

The origins of two Bottlenose Dolphins, which have spent the last two summers feeding and playing around the cruise ships in Weymouth Bay, Dorset, have finally been revealed.

During this period the dolphins, dubbed ‘Harry’ and ‘Wills’ by local inhabitants, have been enjoyed by thousands of visitors from boat trips out of Weymouth Harbour. However, following a chance picture-posting of one of the animal’s fins on Twitter on 29th August by our client Les Mears, their original identities have now been discovered. ‘Harry’ and ‘Wills’ are in fact a mother and calf pair from the Moray Firth in ‘bonnie’ Scotland, last seen there in 2018. The mother ‘Honey’ was first observed in the Moray Firth in 2009 and each subsequent year up to 2018, whilst her calf was born in 2016 and remained until 2018.

In between Dorset and Scotland, the mother and calf pair have been reported as stopping off in and commuting to Cornwall. The gender of the offspring is not known and it was not given a name in Scotland, where it was born. One of the earliest confirmed sightings of the pair was from the same ‘Snapper’ charter boat back in August 2019, so perhaps a more appropriate name for this youngster is ‘Whipper-Snapper’ rather than ‘Harry’ or ‘Wills’!

'Honey’ has a smooth dorsal fin, but ‘Whipper-Snapper’ has a highly distinctive bumpy trailing edge to the dorsal fin, as the picture shows.

The east coast Scotland Bottlenose Dolphin population has been expanding its range in recent years, with some of the dolphins photographed in coastal waters from NE England to Ireland to the Netherlands and Denmark. This, though, is the first time any have been identified in the English Channel, a distance in excess of 1,400 km south through the North Sea or over 1,700 km via the Irish Sea. An incredible journey either way!

'Honey’ (left) and ‘Whipper-Snapper’ (right) (Tom Brereton)

Charlie Phillips, Field Officer with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who initially identified them using the University of Aberdeen’s Photo ID catalogue of this population said: ‘More very familiar dorsal fins seen many miles from home, thanks to Dr. Barbara Cheney from Aberdeen University’s Lighthouse Field Station who runs the dolphin ID project and catalogue for the confirmation, another two dolphins “found”.’

Naturetrek tour leader, and Research Director of the charity Marinelife, Dr Tom Brereton was leading the Day Trip in question and said, ‘I’ve been lucky to see these animals many times this year whilst taking groups out and collecting research data, but have only posted more dramatic shots on social media that haven’t shown the fins close up. Once I saw the interest the single fin shot generated on Twitter, I fired many images over to Charlie and the identities were confirmed by Dr Cheney. Having conducted photo-identification of English Channel dolphins for many years, I can say this is easily the most incredible resighting yet I have been involved with.’

Though the dolphins are famed for being seen around the cruise ships, the animals have been in Weymouth Bay since at least the summer of 2019, the year after their Scottish disappearance, with the offspring noticeably smaller back then. They were more elusive as they ranged over a wider area, then the cruise ships arrived due to the pandemic and they became a huge tourist attraction.

Our General Manager, Andy Tucker, comments: ‘One small blessing brought about by the severely limited opportunities for overseas travel caused by the pandemic has been our need as a wildlife tour operator to focus more on some of the wonderful wildlife spectacles we have here in the UK. This heart-warming story follows a long line of exciting sightings enjoyed by our clients off the Dorset and Devon coasts including Thresher, Basking and Mako Sharks, Bluefin Tuna, Sunfish, rare White-beaked Dolphins and a wide range of exciting seabirds. We are delighted that these day cruises continue to support Dr Brereton in providing Marinelife with vital survey data from an under-watched area, and bring valued tourist revenue into the local area too!’
Bottlenose Dolphin (Tom Brereton)
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