“Dolphin!” I yell.
“Dolphin!!!” I yell again, pointing as if my life depends upon it. The Puffin Whisperer looks at me from far ahead and looks confused. Should I have shouted “Cetacean!”? What’s Italian for Dolphin?
“Dolphin” I yell in a slightly exasperated voice.
Then I get my camera trained on the sea. There are two jumping dolphins out there. I’ve just seen one magically appear high out of the water, propelling itself out with wild abandon. It wiggled as if it hadn’t quite realised it was out of the water and then flopped back with a spout of a splash.
There’s a grey body and a whitish belly. And a very surprised Fulmar caught in the action as an innocent bystander. It’s very distant:
Then we wait.
Every random movement, wave, shadow and glittering light on the sea is alive with the possibility of Dolphin. They are Risso’s Dolphins. We wait, alive to the possibility. There’s a point on the island of Papa Westray where the currents meet. It can’t happen at the same time every day. The effect of the tides is to drive fish into a place where the sea appears to boil and waves crash towards one another. The Dolphins know this is a great feeding spot.
It jumps again:
Looking at the photograph I can see its nose. People refer to a whale’s nose as a blowhole. It’s a very literal and functional description, but it doesn’t really correspond to what it is in other mammals. Dolphins have a nose on the top of their heads. It’s not just any old nose though. It’s a Marks and Spencer nose.
The dolphin’s blowhole is so big and powerful that it can fill its lungs in a fifth of a second. Just imagine if a Dolphin sneezed! Perhaps that’s what their breathing out corresponds to?
Over evolutionary time the nasal passages of dolphins and whales have gradually moved from the tip of what still looks like their nose up to the top of their head. And there it is in my photograph. A massive nose on the top of this dolphin’s head.
You can see the same process of movement of the nose in fossils, over millions of years, as you can in the development of dolphin embryos in a few weeks. The nose starts at the tip of the rostrum and gradually moves to the top of the head as the embryo dolphin develops in the womb. It’s called nasal drift. How cool a name is that?
If your nose went for a walk over your features I wonder where it would end up?
Risso’s Dolphins are highly social animals with complex communication, social structures and behaviours. They live for 30 years and only reach breeding age when they are three metres long. They mainly eat squid, which probably means they also eat plastic bags. They can dive for up to 30 minutes without breathing, to a depth of 400 to 500 metres.
In the above shot they are co-ordinating a hunt by working co-operatively to maximise each other’s chances of success. We still understand so little about their lives.
I’m thrilled to have had this opportunity to glimpse this tiny, precious insight.