Bewitching bottlenoses

It was in the early 70’s when I saw my first live bottlenose dolphin. The period was one of rapid expansion of dolphinariums in the UK. I went to the Brighton aquarium, one of the oldest aquariums in the world. The dolphins had proved so popular that within a year of their arrival in 1968 a new tank and complex had been created for them. When I saw them, I was amazed at their athleticism as they did their leaps and tricks. They were also larger than I expected. Their squeaky voices and intelligent eyes left a lasting impression on me. It was no wonder that all of us found them so entertaining.


Bottlenose dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin. Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

As time drifted on, people began to re-evaluate the morals of keeping such an intelligent creature in such a confined environment. The Brighton dolphins had been wild-caught, and whilst, from what I’ve read from the statements of their trainers at the time, the creatures were well cared for, there is little doubt that in no way could dolphins in captivity experience a natural way of living. Consequently, by 1990, the public’s appetite for such spectacles had diminished and, for many, been replaced by concerns over animal welfare. The government introduced new legislation for higher standards which the dolphinariums economically couldn’t meet and they began to close. Three dolphins including Missy and Silver from Brighton became the subjects of the “Into the Blue” project. This involved transporting them to the Caribbean in September 1991. There they were kept in holding pens in the sea whilst they learnt how to be wild again. Eventually, the three were released. Within weeks the third dolphin was found underweight and ill. Despite receiving treatment it died. No trace of Missy or Silver have ever been found so their fate is unknown.


Fast forward to 2015. My wife and I were visiting Portugal on a week’s holiday. Good food, wine and a spot of culture were on the agenda. Much better though, a couple of days were to be spent on the Sado Estuary, largely a nature reserve and the home of one of only three river-based bottlenose dolphin pods in Europe! A group had been recorded living in the area since 1863 and were now popular with locals and tourists alike.


Two bottlenose dolphins leaping out of the water
Two Bottlenose dolphins leaping out of the sea. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

On the first morning in Setubal, we made our way to the quayside where the offices of Vertigem Azul were based. We had pre-booked our trip and enjoyed looking at the photos and family tree of the dolphin pod which were on view in the office. Each member of the pod could be identified by the shape and markings of its dorsal fin. We made our way to the boat that was tied up at the dock. Having met the crew and the other tourists, we were soon on our way out into the estuary.


As with trying to photograph most wild animals one is always playing the percentage game. The weather was misty as we made our way out towards the sandbanks at the mouth of the estuary where the dolphins often hunted for octopus, squid, and a variety of fish. We had no luck finding any of the pod, currently numbering twenty-five. It was quite possible that they had moved out into deeper water, even into the actual Atlantic Ocean. We moved on to other areas of the estuary, again without success. On the way back to the dock we saw a small fishing boat returning to port. Riding behind it, and surfing on the waves created, were three dolphins. Although the sighting was distant it made the trip partially successful.

Two Bottlenose dolphins leaping infront of a tanker
Two Bottlenose dolphins leaping infront of a tanker. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

The following afternoon it was back onto a beautiful new catamaran for the final attempt. This was great as the platform provided on a cat is much more stable for a photographer than a normal boat. The weather was warm and bright. We took a different route along the estuary, close to the shipping lanes. Sure enough, we quickly spotted two dolphins bow riding in front of a huge tanker which was making for port. The height they attained as they surged through the wave into the air was impressive and they were obviously enjoying themselves. We then picked up a group of seven, including a calf. They played, hunted and performed complex gymnastic and ballet moves, often co-ordinating their movements as a pair or in a larger group. Photographing them was extremely difficult as I never knew when they would come to the surface and we were not allowed to approach close to them. We stayed with the pod for about fifteen minutes before losing them and returning to port.


Now, in 2021, the pod, although far smaller than the other two pods in Scottish and Irish waters still exists, numbering, initially, about thirty. Noise pollution from boats, water pollution, the destruction of some of the habitat, and poor breeding success have all contributed to the group being in danger of extinction. In January 2020, dredging of parts of the estuary resulted in the deaths of five of the dolphins. MP’s demanded that the dredging cease and the locals were furious, both from the point of view of conservation, but also because the dolphins pulled in so many tourists to the area. Hopefully, the issue will be resolved and the bottlenose dolphins of the Sado Estuary will be seen for many decades to come.


Dolphins swimming alongside a fishing boat
Dolphins following a fishing boat. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

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