Around two weeks ago an email came into the National Marine Aquarium’s enquiry inbox that made us all very excited. A local Plymouth family headed out to Plymouth Sound in their kayaks to enjoy the sunny weather in the evening of Sunday 3rd June and were shocked on what they found. On many occasions previously, Neil Wright and family had seen large adult male Grey Seals which can be seen around the local area but were stunned when a much larger animal was sighted.
The footage of a marine animal submitted for identification by Eileen, Neil’s mother, had all characteristics suggesting it was in fact an Orca (Orcinus orca) – one of the Toothed Whales called Odontocetes, and the largest species of dolphin.
As a charity here at the National Marine Aquarium we are dedicated to connecting people with our Oceans and having just held a national meeting on the future of marine parks around the UK, it was almost perfect timing for this unusual sighting to be secured in Plymouth Sound, the area of water just in front of the Aquarium.
When James Wright, our Curator here at the NMA contacted Neil Wright to find out more, Neil said “It was much larger than anything I had seen on previous trips out around the Sound, probably at least twice the length of the 2-metre-long Grey Seals I have seen. The height of the dorsal fin is what really stood out but sadly the encounter was over almost before we have chance to really think about what we might have just witnessed.”
James and his team took some time to view the footage and researched all of the possibilities of what the animal could be.James commented: “Upon first viewing the footage my mind did jump to it possibly being an Orca and what an amazing encounter it would have been to have had. These are amazing marine predators which specialise in many hunting techniques. In theory, they can be found in our waters but one venturing into Plymouth Sound would be quite a surprise.
“Orcas can be found around the British Isles but not in any great numbers, they are normally confined to more northerly areas off the shores of Scotland and the islands of Orkney and Shetland. There has been one record off Plymouth some four years ago, but that was an isolated appearance.”
James and his team did some research and looked at other possible specimens the footage could be. Bottlenosed Dolphins do come into the Sound and one particular one hung around for quite a while in 2015, but these have very different shaped dorsal fins. Common Dolphins can be sighted further offshore, especially by dive boats heading out to Eddystone Reef but these are much smaller animals and usually in groups. Another animal that could fit is a Risso’s Dolphin but at the description of the size it would be a large older individual. As Risso’s Dolphins grow and age, they lighten in colour and develop scarring, which this animal did not seem to have.
James also circulated the footage with some knowledgeable experienced Cetacean experts from around the globe. Pretty much of all who were asked leaned towards the animal in this footage being an Orca.
Of course we cannot be 100% certain without more definitive footage, especially of the characteristic white markings on the black body, but even if this a sighting of a Risso’s Dolphin in Plymouth Sound is very special indeed.
If you’d like to head out and explore Plymouth Sound with our marine experts why not book on to our next NMA Boat Trip, with all the recent sightings recently who knows what we might see! Find out more here: http://www.national-aquarium.co.uk/events/nma-boat-trips/