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Experts baffled as dolphins forsake Moray for the Firth of Forth

Anna Levin

The Scotsman

3rd October 2001

RECORD numbers of bottlenose dolphins have been sighted in the Firth of Forth.

Groups have been spotted along the coast between Granton and Eyemouth, and at the Scottish Seabird Centre, North Berwick.

Lynda Dalgleish, marketing manager at the centre, said: "I looked out of the office window on Friday and there were seven dolphins feeding just 20 feet off the rocks here.

"You could clearly see two calves among the group. They were swimming towards Edinburgh, and the same group returned in the afternoon, and swam right along the bay here, heading east," she added.

The centre is liaising with Eric Hoyt, a senior research associate at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to record sightings of the dolphins in the area.

More than 20 have been counted at the centre since the end of July.

Mr Hoyt said: "There have been occasional sightings of whales and dolphins in these waters in past years, including Moby, the sperm whale that died in the Forth, and once I heard of an orca at Longniddry.

"But what's happening this year is something new."

It is hoped the dolphin’s presence will help boost tourism in the area.

Mr Hoyt added: "Dolphins would be an excellent tourism draw but water quality is going to be a critical factor , and concerns about marine pollution are going to have to be addressed if we want to see things like dolphins along these coasts."

The dolphins are thought to have come from the Moray Firth, home of the only resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the North Sea.

Scientists from Aberdeen and St Andrews’ universities have been studying the Moray Firth colony using a technique known as photo identification.

The Scottish Seabird Centre is hoping to photograph the dolphins and trace their path from the Moray Firth.

Phil Hammond, of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews’ University, said: "We knew they were spending a lot more time in St Andrews Bay, but we hadn't heard of the dolphins travelling this far south before."

"We have been studying the dolphins using survey techniques which look at survival rates and calving rates of the whole population.

"Our studies indicate that the population, which was last estimated at 130 animals, might be declining and could continue to decline at a decrease of five per cent per year.

"These sightings offer some hope that one of the reasons we are seeing less animals is that they are spending more and more time outside the Moray Firth as their range is expanding."

However, Mr Hammond warned the population is still vulnerable because it is small.

While scientists admit that we don't yet know why the dolphins are heading South, availability of a food source is thought to be the most likely explanation.

"Bottlenose dolphins are opportunistic predators. That means that they feed on different things in different areas, depending on what's available, and so you're going to see them travelling more than other species," says Mr Hoyt.

"We know that bottlenose dolphins in other parts of the world do slowly change their range from decade to decade, depending on food availability."