Saturday, January 14, 2006

Sad ending for dolphin!

SATURDAY saw the end of the dolphin week. Actually it had been more than a week, more like 10 days in all, counting its first appearance at the salmon shore base beside the Trondra causeway to the Burra bridge.A telephone call from Davy Young, describing the very unusual behaviour of a dolphin, came early one morning after Boxing Day. Within 10 minutes I was at the banks, looking down at a black fin, circling a small buoy near the pontoon beside the salmon boat.

I had seen dolphins before, at a great distance, just making out the fin tips as they rolled up and over, vanishing beneath the water in less than a second. There was then a tense delay, wondering if and where the signal fin would appear again and when.This time the cetacean hadn't been identified and I made a poor job of attempting it. But the main thing was to alert those most involved with sea mammals, to both its presence and its problems.

Divers Mark Davies (left) and Bernie Edwardson (centre) get a helping hand from Michael Johnson to lift a dead white-sided dolphin into a van at the East Voe on Saturday. The juvenile dolphin had been in the area since Boxing Day but did not survive, despite the efforts of some wildlife organisations. The carcase was taken to the fisheries college. Photo: Robert JohnsonThe Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary has great experience with cetacean events, but I could only leave an answerphone message. They must have been out feeding the injured seal brought from Scalloway during the holiday.Neil Anderson, veteran whale watcher next, to establish its identity.

My description was hesitant. I was puzzled by the flattish head. Risso's dolphin was a possibility. I wondered if Neil should come and see the creature for himself, just to be sure.Scottish Natural Heritage next, but the marine wildlife staff were still on holiday, so again, a message was taken, to be passed on to Karen Hall later.There was nothing for it. Neil had to get to the site. A couple of hours later we stood watching the fin again. It was crystal clear; less than a dozen yards from us, appearing at roughly 12 second intervals as the animal circled the buoy, steadfastly clockwise and without deviating from its route.

Neil knew it instantly as a white-sided dolphin. He knew too that it was a young one and that it must be in trouble. Dolphins are family animals. They swim in groups, or "pods", and typically take great care of young ones. This little fellow should not have been alone. I was learning fast.After filming the rising, vanishing and reappearing fin for a few minutes, we left. There wasn't anything we could do anyway. Monitoring the situation was the only option.

And so began a daily routine, which soon had me scrutinising that little dorsal fin each day, for tiny signs of change; was it stiff and straight? Was it floppy and bending a little a at the tip (a sure sign of illness)?The second day saw no change, other than the fact that sometimes the seconds between appearances were shorter than before; eight or nine seconds. Everything else about it was the same. Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary folk were now alerted and came down to see for themselves.Day three of my vigil brought surprises.

The dolphin was varying the circular route, sometimes clockwise, sometimes anti clockwise. On a few circuits it broke away and popped up nearer the shore, or occasionally closer to the boat. Day four saw more deviations from its former regular pattern of swimming. Was the creature feeding? Were there changes in its condition? Was it a good sign or a bad one? Was it feeling better, or getting desperate? There was no way of knowing.Jan Bevington from the sanctuary was getting concerned about the profile of the dolphin's back. My learning curve steepened.

A convex profile apparently indicates a good, tight body shape, with plenty of lifesaving layers of insulating blubber under the skin. Once the creature gets weak, the body fat begins to be used up and the profile sags. Blubber layers are thinner. Cold reaches the inner organs and this can be dangerous.It was decided to try feeding the dolphin. The wildlife sanctuary has emergency stocks of frozen fish, ready for injured seals, otters, etc. A bucketful was thawed out and day four saw me filming the hurling of one fish after another ahead of the dolphin each time it surfaced.

We waited.After a while, we noticed a marked change in the swimming pattern. There were swirls in the water, directly above places where fish had dropped. The intervals between the breaches lengthened. Eighteen, 20, even 23 seconds. We were elated by the apparent response.Until now, the rise and fall of the dorsal fin had been leisurely; maybe even sluggish. Suddenly the appearances were more purposeful and energetic.

Twenty fish flew through the air and splashed into the water. Seagulls were being attracted and were screaming overhead.We emptied the bucket and stood waiting for one last breach, then one more last breach, when the fin tip appeared quite close to the pontoon, but for once it didn't roll out of sight. We watched in puzzlement as it remained in one place, then we gasped aloud. The fin set off, cutting the water sharply and it accelerated like a rocket, flying through, with sea water streaming back from its tip.

Suddenly the fin vanished and a dark swirl of glassy smooth water rose among the waves. It must have been scanning the seabed and suddenly had sighted the silver glint of a fish and gone straight for it. There couldn't have been any other explanation. .Last Friday the media had become interested and a filming session had been planned with a small bairns' wildlife group in Burra. Fish, cameras and people were scheduled for 1.30pm.

At 11am I took a friend to the site to check on the dolphin's condition. It had gone. What timing. Panic phone call, alerting all parties, then a real surprise. A message to say that the dolphin was in East Voe, near the marina.A smaller group assembled and sure enough, after a search, there it was, rising, dipping and rising again, just as before. But that concave profile was even more marked. The dolphin must have benefited from the feed, felt strong enough to be on its way, then relapsed. More fish flew through the air, landing in just the right place.

People gathered to watch; willing the animal to recover.The film crew arrived, but decided that there was just not enough dolphin above water for long enough to warrant a film. Mixed feelings about that, to say the least. After all, this was a wild dolphin, not a Florida cetacean prisoner, feeding on demand.Saturday brought the long expected, but much dreaded news; a dead dolphin, washed up on the shore only yards from where we last saw it. An inevitable sadness descends after something you have been willing to live, just can't manage it.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"