The phenomenon of lone bottlenose dolphins is a much studied and curious one. Occasionally these individuals show up and will habitually frequent an area or areas, and they capture the public’s imagination with their sociable nature and apparent willingness to interact with humans.
Just in the thirteen years we have been running Marine Discovery we have encountered the dolphins known as Cookie, Georges, Clet and now Pierre (also known as Splashy on the north coast). All these dolphins have had certain things in common – they have all been thought to almost certainly be males, and they have been very recognisable due to clear marks and scars on their dorsal fins. It seems that these dolphins are mostly male where they appear – another famous example is Fungi the Dingle dolphin – but occasionally females have been recorded too e.g. Dusty who swam frequently round Doolin harbour in County Clare, and Dave who lived and sadly died around Folkestone Harbour (she was originally thought to be a male but it became clear she was a female).
We first encountered our latest visitor back in July 2017 when we had a call from BDMLR saying there was concern about a dolphin in Lamorna Cove who was acting oddly round a buoy. It was getting dark so we couldn’t do anything to check at the time. The following day we had a brief glimpse of a fin bowriding Bill Bowen’s boat, Son of Caliu, and later that day found the dolphin playing around Penzance Harbour. Duncan floated the idea – entirely baseless! – that this dolphin had come over from the population found over in the Gulf of St Malo, so we started calling him Pierre, for want of any of other French name! However, from photos of its back and fin it was matched to a dolphin which had been seen by Atlantic Diving, running out of Newquay, where he had been nicknamed “Splashy”, and he has been known as both names ever since.
Pierre’s appearance is that of a medium sized bottlenose dolphin, I would estimate less than 3m long. His back behind his dorsal fin is very scratched and scarred, and his fin is not particularly marked apart from a few small white marks on its leading edge. What really distinguishes him, at least as far as we are concerned, is his behaviour. This is not usually a dolphin you can look for and find – almost always it is a case of him finding us and then being noticed by someone on board. This is usually unobtrusive to start with e.g. we will see a splash or hear him breathe, and then he quite often stays with us for some time. He doesn’t seem to like water deeper than about 25m and therefore sticks close to the coast. He has also been spotted near dinghy sailors and gig rowers, and at one point last autumn, seemed just desperate for company.
Perhaps Pierre was born and brought up among the south west’s resident population of bottlenose dolphins and as he grew older, tried leaving the pod to strike out on his own to find a new group, so as to keep gene pools fresh? However, the size of the bottlenose dolphin population in South West England might mean that this new group he’s looking for simply doesn’t exist? All just theories of course, but a possible reason why he is on his own. Or maybe he did come from the French or the Welsh groups. No fin matches have so far been made.
The problem with the lone dolphin phenomenon is that with a few exceptions, it rarely seems to end well. I have already mentioned the female dolphin “Dave” in Kent who died after she caught the attention of local people and boat owners. There was the young male orca “Luna” who frequented the Puget Sound in Vancouver Island and used to follow the ferries – again he was run over and killed. And more locally, the bottlenose dolphin known as Clet whose travels had ranged from Brittany, throughout Cornwall, west Wales, western Ireland and north west Scotland, has not been known to have been seen for about 18 months. Given that he was an incredibly sociable dolphin who was very over-friendly with boats, kayakers, and even swimmers, it’s likely that Clet has died somehow. Of course this could have been of natural causes, but it could also have been through boat collision or other accident.
Pierre so far has exhibited very different behaviour to Clet and Georges particularly, in that he usually remains far more covert and seems to just disappear when he has had enough. The onus is on water users to drive their craft sensitively and responsibly and let ALL encounters be 100% on Pierre/Splashy’s terms. Driving erratically or quickly or otherwise thoughtlessly around dolphins will harm them.