Monday 26 September 2022

Risso's Dolphins off Point Lynas, Anglesey - September 2022

Whilst volunteering at the RSPB's South Stack Reserve in Anglesey I got to talk to a lot of people and one such conversation brought to my attention the fact that dolphins and porpoises could be regularly seen from Point Lynas which was but forty minutes drive further northeast along the coast of Anglesey.

Thursday and Friday were my days off from volunteering and I made a plan to visit Point Lynas. I had been told that the best time to encounter the cetaceans was around an hour before high tide which on Thursday was just after noon.

I set off for Point Lynas, on a grey and cloudy but rain free Thursday morning, driving across a remote and pastoral part of North Wales, to eventually find myself heading up a small single track road as far as possible until I could go no further and had to park the car. Point Lynas has a very impressive lighthouse standing on the highest part of the headland above the sea and I would be required to walk the rest of the way to get to it as the rest of the road was closed to motor vehicles

It was far from unpleasant as I walked uphill on the tarmac road which terminated at the lighthouse. Stonechats and Robins perched, sentinel like, on clumps of gorse and bramble while migrant Meadow Pipits peeped in alarm and flew from my presence.

On getting to the lighthouse I passed through a gate that opened onto a narrow path skirting the lighthouse wall and then followed a somewhat precarious track that eventually took me down to sit on the point's extremity and look out on nothing but sea.

This was more like it. Surrounded on three sides by sea and with the steep grass and heather covered slope, topped by the lighthouse behind me, I set up my telescope and scanned the sea before me.

Others were here too, also looking for cetaceans and one regular watcher told me that the most frequent dolphin to be seen here was Risso's Dolphin. This was good news as far as I was concerned as I had only ever seen them once before and that was briefly from the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry as it crossed the Bay of Biscay, quite a few years ago.

Risso's are the largest true dolphin although Orcas are technically a dolphin so could claim that title.They are the sole species in the genus Grampus, this latter name sometimes applied to them rather than Risso and they are found in virtually all temperate and tropical waters such as the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, ranging as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and Greenland and as far south as Tierra del Fuego. They grow to between 3-4 metres in length, weigh from 300-500 kilos and can dive to 600 metres. They are deep water lovers which makes them hard to study but can come close to shore where there is a steep drop off of the land into the sea, such as at Point Lynas, and they occur in pods of varying numbers which reflects their sociable nature.

For an hour I sat and looked out at the sea with nothing more than numerous Gannets and Kittiwakes passing as well as a good number of Razorbills and Guillemots swimming off the rocks below me as the sea broke in endless rhythmic patterns against the land and gulls cried on the wind.

The first cetaceans I saw were not Risso's Dolphins but Harbour Porpoises, three of them, close in, carried in the tops of the running waves that were being swept in on the wind, their small, shiny, wet, black bodies visible for only a second or two as they surfaced to breathe and then submerged. Never was the phrase 'blink and you will miss it' more apposite.

Not long afterwards a shout came from a couple standing to my right and following their pointing arms  I saw a pod of Risso's Dolphins arriving from the northeast. They are unmistakeable, large, bulky and grey with blunt bulbous heads and scarred pale bodies. I followed their bull nosed progress, breaking and cleaving the waves like a ship's bows as they arrived close to the point, their dorsal fins curved like blunt sickles cutting through the waves. There were five of them, one of which was considerably smaller, and presumably a juvenile as it kept very close to presumably its parent. They swam around for fifteen minutes, their presence betrayed by the dorsal fins cleaving through the heaving water and then they were gone further out to sea, slowly heading west.

The show was over but the thrill of seeing the dolphins lingered as I drove back to South Stack and with another day's leave tomorrow I vowed to return to Point Lynas.

The next day was in complete contrast to yesterday with bright sunshine, although the brisk and chilly northerly wind persisted. I hunkered down as best I could out of the wind but there really was no hiding place sat out on the short springy turf that carpeted the exposed point. Other watchers had returned here too, all of us waiting and hoping for a sight of the Risso's Dolphins

For two hours I sat on the damp grass even dozing periodically, lulled by the sea's rhythm and constantly changing colours and in the process became increasingly cold but my resolve never wavered. High tide was due in an hour and that hour passed slowly with nothing remotely exciting apart from a regeneration of my spiritual core in this beautiful place 

Then, as the tide turned it happened. 

Signalled by a huge splash and the sound of a large body slapping down on the water. 

I turned in the direction of the noise and to my amazement saw a Risso's Dolphin breach from the sea, almost totally airborne, three hundred kilos or more rising out of the sea like a missile, only then to fall away sideways, back into a turmoil of sea, re-entry signalled by a huge splash and smacking thump as the length of its body, by now almost horizontal, hit the water.

It became increasingly but thrillingly chaotic as dolphin after dolphin repeatedly breached, propelling their sizeable bulk into the air, one after the other, individuals making a series of multiple breaches, tantalising as you tried to anticipate where they would next breach. Sometimes I got it right at other times not.

It was a truly awesome spectacle and carried on for ten to fifteen minutes.Not only were they breaching but also tail slapping, bringing their flukes down hard on the water to create a mayhem of sound and spray. 

At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic it was almost as if they were enjoying themselves, an expression of unalloyed exuberance, just as children will often madly splash about in a swimming pool.

There was little time to think or consider, just point the camera, fire at ten frames a second and hope some images would be passable. There was no time to check the images, that would have to come later with breath held in the hope that something, anything recorded of this spectacle, would be up to scratch.

Seen in the sunlight the dolphins were magnificent. The adults, dorsally are the palest grey looking almost white at times, each dolphin bears its own unique patterning of white and grey on its underside whilst the younger ones are darker above and not so scarred. The prominent scarring comes from adult males being aggressive to each other and using their seven pairs of teeth to good effect. 

I have never seen a multiple breaching of dolphins like this and never thought I would. Although I had heard rumours of photos taken of breaching being seen earlier in the week at Point Lynas I thought it unlikely to be repeated.How wrong I was and how pleased I was!

This pod of four moved on and we thought it was all over for another day, not that anyone was complaining but forty five minutes later another three Risso's approached and repeated the show just off the point, as if trying to out compete the others that had preceded them.

As to why they do this, no one can be absolutely certain. Is it an aggressive display of some sort, or a mating ritual? Could it be to get rid of parasites? Do they mimic each other in their breaching and tail slapping as a way of sorting out dominance between themselves in their respective pods? Risso's Dolphins mainly feed at night on squid and octopus so it is unlikely to have anything to do with feeding activity.

So many questions and so little information to provide any answers.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific! Had good views of Rissos in the Azores, but not breaching!!!!