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First week at the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI) O Grove, Galicia

Gemma Rae

Faculty: Science and Engineering
School: Life Sciences
Course: MSc Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation
Category: Animal sciences

17 May 2023

I’m currently out in Galicia at the BDRI doing my thesis on the impact of marine traffic on bottlenose dolphin diving behaviour and I can’t believe how much I have learnt in my first week here!

I was out collecting data doing land-based surveys at the beginning of the week and was so happy to spot my first dolphins – there were also calves present, which made the whole experience even more exciting!

It has been fascinating to learn how to study different behaviours in the field, and how to look for what is known as the "first clue" (something that first alerts you to the dolphins’ location).

It really does feel like looking for a needle in a haystack at first, but one giveaway is the presence of various seabirds which are attracted when dolphins are feeding, as you can see from the picture below.

A pair of bottleneck dolphins poking their heads out of the sea, with a seabird flying above them

Image credit: © BDRI

Sometimes there are no obvious clues, especially when searching from a distance on land, and this week has given me insight into how you can spend hours searching for wildlife only to catch a brief glimpse (which makes the moment you do eventually find them even more rewarding).

After several hours scanning the water and several false alarms, I finally saw a dorsal fin glistening in the sunlight, which was closely followed by several more, and that moment has been the highlight of my week so far.

The land-based teams are in constant communication with the boat-based team, and we let them know the location of dolphins spotted from land and help direct them there so they can take photos and gather more detailed information on dolphin behaviour.

Here are some stunning pictures taken by the boat-based teams.

A bottlenose dolphin with its fin and back visible above the water

Image credit: © BDRI

A pair of bottlenose dolphins, one with its head above the surface of the water, the other with its fin visible

Image credit: © BDRI

A group of bottlenose dolphins with their fins and backs visible above the surface of the water

Image credit: © BDRI

The remainder of the week has been spent in the lab analysing data, and photo ID has been my favourite task so far. As you might be able to see from the picture above, there is incredible variation in each dolphin’s dorsal fin and skin colouration, and I really hadn’t appreciated this until closely observing the photos in the lab this week.

Also, the photo ID catalogues need to be updated regularly as the dorsal fins can change in a short time frame so can’t be used to ID the same individual within a space of weeks to months at times, so photo collection is an important part of the research done here at the BDRI.

Another highlight of staying here in the small fishing town of O Grove is that on my morning walk before heading to the lab, I am sometimes lucky enough to see a very cute family of Eurasian otters who spend a lot of time in the harbour here.

Three otters swimming, with their heads and part of their backs visible above the water

Overall, it has been a very hectic but amazing first week. I have already learnt so much about dolphins and met some interesting people from all over the world. It has been so much fun, and I am excited to (hopefully!) get out on the boat next week and see the dolphins up close.

Time to switch off for the weekend and go out with my new friends for horse-riding by the sea, kayaking, and a bonfire at the beach.

Gemma is studying Animal Behaviour: Applications for Conservation at ARU in Cambridge. Find out more about this and other degree courses at one of our Open Days.


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