Words and pictures: Keith Scovell
Most birdwatchers have what are known as bogey birds; not as unpleasant as they sound but very fustrating, they are a species that, no matter how much you try and find them, remain elusive and unseen. It sometimes seems that the harder you try and find a certain bird the more difficult it becomes to see and over time the species can take on a mythical status for the individual that fails to find it. But as a lover of cetaceans, as well as a birder, I have had for a number of years a bogey dolphin! I visited all the right locations and put in many hours aboard various boats but still failed to see my target species namely the White-beaked Dolphin.
I pored over photographs and other people’s descriptions of these dolphins so if I was lucky enough to see one I would recognise it instantly; well, that was the plan anyway. The books showed them to be quite chunky-looking animals with distinctive colouration; a mainly black body with a white underbelly, a prominent white stripe along the flanks and grey patches behind the dorsal fin. But contrary to their name their beaks are not always white.
They have a wide distribution form the coasts of Europe west to Cape Cod. The south coast of Britain is pretty much at the southern end of their range but they have been recorded as far south as Portugal and they may range as far North as the pack ice around Svalbard.
In 2008 I visited Husavik on the north coast of Iceland where White-beaked are purportedly the “most common” dolphins in the surrounding seas. And the area was indeed excellent for cetaceans; I saw many Minke and Humpback Whales and even some rare Northern Bottlenose Whales, but my target species failed to put in a single appearance.
I spent many hours on ferries in the Bay of Biscay, not the best area for White-beaks, but a cetacean hot-spot nevetheless. On one memorable occasion I even managed to photograph a Blue Whale from the ferry! After such an amazing encounter I thought my luck was in and I already had another dolphin trip organised on my return to England. I was booked on a boat trip into Lyme Bay, a well-known haunt of my bogey dolphin. But despite excellent weather on my ferry crossing the weather worsened and on my arrival in Dorset I found that my trip had been cancelled due to rough seas.
Undeterred I planned a boat trip from Newcastle into the North Sea on a converted trawler. Although I have reasonable sea-legs this trip did prove a bit nauseous, but I took some sea-sickness tablets and braved the storm so to speak. I saw some fabulous Gannets diving for mackerel within feet of the boat and photographed a couple of rare Sooty Shearwaters but there were no dolphins to be seen.
A few miles up the coast from Newcastle is the well-known seabird mecca of the Farne Islands and the area of sea about 20 miles offshore known as the Farne Deeps is also fast becoming the place to see White-beaked Dolphins. So naturally I booked myself on a trip in a fast rib boat to try and see these elusive and near mythical ceatceans.
Flat calm conditions were ideal for dolphin watching and our group of intrepid pelagic naturalists had soon encountered not one but two Minke Whales. It was not long before we found a White-beaked Dolphin; but the unfortunate individual was a long-dead corpse floating on the surface of the sea and was providing bountiful pickings for a flock of Fulmars. Nevertheless, on the return trip to the harbour an unexpected encounter with a small pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins was ample compensation.So, again, last July I boarded the fast rib boat in Beadnell Bay and headed out into the Farne Deeps. But a choppy sea was not ideal for viewing cetaceans and as the rib bounced over the waves and slammed into the troughs my buttocks took a battering as I struggled to keep my backside on my seat at the front of the boat. It was a relief as we slowed at our first search location and even more of a relief when we spotted splashing in the distance; dolphins! And they were heading our way.
Scientists who study other species of dolphins – for example Bottlenosed – take photographs of their dorsal fins, which with their shape, nicks and scars act as fingerprints allowing individuals to be recognised and studied. But White-beaked Dolphins make such a splash when porpoising through the water that this identification technique is all but useless. So as the splashes in the sea got closer to our location my anticipation rose exponentially.
Suddenly there they were, a group of about a dozen White-beaked Dolphins surrounded the boat, riding the bow-wave and shooting through the clear water like pied torpedoes. I was euphoric to say the least, and struggled to keep my camera steady as I attempted to photograph these beautiful animals. But I need not have worried because the pod stayed with the boat for over ten minutes allowing me to fully appreciate the dolphins’ grace and agility. I even managed a few photos and a snippet of video. It is wonderful that these elusive pelagic animals chose to spend time with us. They really seemed to enjoy playing around the boat, and that is what attracted them in the first place; apparently this species has the best hearing of any dolphin so they knew we were there long before we could see them.
But all too soon they swam back off into the vastness of the North Sea but the bogey had been exorcised and how! (or to use birding parlance, “unblocked”. A blocker is a species that you try but fail to see!) But all dolphins are an addiction, and now I’ve seen this beautiful cetacean I will have to return again soon for another fix.